'You're really in a pressure cooker': Denver sees exodus of longtime police chiefs

"I think there's more pressure on chiefs than before. It's been a tough few years in law enforcement," one chief said


By John Aguilar
The Denver Post

DENVER — Nine chiefs of police, accounting for 63 years of cumulative service leading police departments across metro Denver, have left the job in just the last year.

The reasons run the gamut — from retirement to resignation to termination — and cover communities big and small, from Aurora and Lakewood to Golden and Morrison.

Brighton Police Chief Paul Southard photographed at his office in Brighton, Colorado.
Brighton Police Chief Paul Southard photographed at his office in Brighton, Colorado. (Photo/Hyoung Chang of The Denver Post via TNS)

But those in the profession say there is no doubt that the recent upheaval over and scrutiny of policing, most notably in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd that sparked sustained social justice protests across the globe, is a big part of the picture.

“I think the stakes are higher,” said Louisville Police Chief David Hayes, who also serves as president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. “I think there’s more pressure on chiefs than before. It’s been a tough few years in law enforcement.”

At the same time, he said, some of the recent pushback on police tactics was overdue and served as “a wake-up call” for an institution that in many ways fell out of touch with the public it serves.

“We’ve gotta stay engaged with our communities but we don’t have all the answers,” Hayes said. “We’re trying to adjust to this new norm but we don’t really know what that new norm is.”

The turnover of police chiefs in the metro area — which several people interviewed for this story said is higher than normal — comes amid a backdrop of accelerated departures at the top echelon of law enforcement nationwide, especially in big cities. Last October, CNN reported that 39 big city police chiefs had left their positions in the previous 18 months or so, affecting cities like Boston, Dallas, Miami and Detroit.

“The sheer numbers around the country are amazing, and concerning,” said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger.

Henninger, who is currently serving as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the departures of chiefs since August 2021 across the metro area — including in Broomfield, Westminster, Englewood, Brighton and Commerce City — can be disruptive for communities.

“Communities need chiefs that have trusting and established relationships in the city and it takes time to build those relationships,” Henninger said. “It takes a while to make cultural change.”

[READ: The impact of police leadership on public trust]

'Crime is through the roof'

The year-long string of chief departures across the metro area started last August in Englewood, when Chief John Collins retired after a decade in the post and 43 years in the department. It continued right up to last month when Commerce City Chief Clint Nichols quit under pressure and Paul Southard, chief up in Brighton, announced he would step down in the fall after six years in the role.

Southard, who has served 34 years with the Brighton Police Department in total, said there was no dramatic breaking point for him beyond realizing he’s 61 and not getting any younger.

“It’s time to move on from this,” he said in an interview. “It’s a tough job.”

Former Lakewood Police Chief Dan McCasky, who stepped down at the end of June, also served a half dozen years in the top spot in Colorado’s fifth-largest city. The turmoil of the last couple of years — both the COVID-19 pandemic and animus toward police — helped nudge him to the exit.

“There’s really no denying how stressful these jobs are,” said McCasky, who at 60 served for 36 years as a cop. “You’re really in a pressure cooker and especially in the last two years, it was like something I’d never seen before. A lot of public trust was lost.”

He said before Floyd’s murder in May of 2020, the Lakewood Police Department was losing an average of two officers a month. Since then, that number has jumped to three or four on the 282-officer force. Some of McCasky’s younger officers were frustrated that after police officers thousands of miles away acted badly, they were all “painted with the same broad brush.”

“This profession is not as desirable as it once was,” McCasky said.

Bill Kilpatrick said the social upheaval and police reform efforts of the last two years didn’t drive him from his top perch in the Golden Police Department. At 70, after having served 33 years as a cop in Golden and another 10 before that in Englewood, “it was just time for me to go.”

Of all the chief departures in metro Denver over the last year, Kilpatrick served the longest in the position — 20 years. He retired in March.

“There was a new lens placed on policing nationally and in Colorado after George Floyd’s death,” Kilpatrick said. “There were certainly people looking at you that hadn’t been looking at you before.”

And when state lawmakers passed a bipartisan police reform bill in June 2020 following weeks of protest, the former chief heard concerns from his officers about the provision in the bill ending qualified immunity. That means victims or their families can sue police officers in their individual capacities for constitutional violations and those officers can be held personally liable.

It caused stress among the rank and file and two officers left the force because of the new law, Kilpatrick said. Officers wondered if they would be left holding the bag when pressure is brought to bear on the city following an interaction on the street that goes sideways, even if the officers felt they were acting in good faith or in self-defense.

“Is the chief going to support me in a use of force?” Kilpatrick said. “Is the city manager going to support me in a use of force?”

The former chief said he would tell his officers: “If you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, you’re going to have my support.”

Morale “was not in a good place” among Aurora officers when Dan Oates was called back to lead the police department in Colorado’s third-largest city in April. Oates, who served as Aurora’s police chief for nearly a decade starting in 2005, was named interim chief after Chief Vanessa Wilson was fired by the city manager, who said he had lost faith in her leadership and management of the 700-officer force.

[READ: What really impacts morale in policing?]

Oates’ reappearance in Aurora after serving five years as police chief in Miami Beach comes after a tumultuous period for the department, which last year entered into a consent decree with the Colorado attorney general’s office to make changes to use-of-force, hiring and training policies.

A year-long investigation by the attorney general found that Aurora officers’ pattern of racially biased policing and use of excessive force routinely violated state and federal law. The department’s officers persistently arrested and injured Black individuals and other people of color at higher rates than white residents, according to the investigation.

Two days after the consent decree was put in place, Aurora agreed to pay $15 million to the parents of Elijah McClain to settle the civil rights lawsuit they filed against the city in the wake of the 23-year-old Black man’s 2019 death after a violent arrest. Aurora became a hot spot for protests against police brutality two summers ago, with some of those protests turning violent.

Oates, who also served as chief in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early 2000s after being a New York City police officer for two decades, said crime levels in Aurora are markedly higher today than when he left the city eight years ago. While there were about 20 homicides annually a decade or so ago, Aurora is tracking to hit 55 to 60 homicides in 2022, he said.

“Crime is through the roof,” Oates said.

Meanwhile, violent crime surged in Colorado as well during the pandemic, with the state’s homicide rate surging to a 25-year high in 2020 after 293 people were killed, leaving more than five people dead every week, on average.

Motor vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults, like shootings and stabbings, skyrocketed statewide as well, according to an analysis conducted by The Denver Post earlier this year.

Aside from the increase in crime, Oates said the chief’s job has been made even harder by the rise of social media, which he said is “nearly entirely negative” when it comes to the evaluation of the police.

“You can have a platform with 300 subscribers and they drive the agenda of the elected officials’ discussion of police services,” he said. “It creates tremendous pressure.”

Focus on core causes

Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy for ACLU-Colorado, said the criminal picture in the state is complicated, and not all crimes are on the upswing. The Post’s analysis found that while Colorado’s rates for homicide, aggravated assault and motor vehicle theft rose in 2020, rates for rape, larceny, robbery and burglary stayed relatively level or declined.

And while the state’s 2020 violent crime rate was the highest it’s been since 1995, it is lower than it was between 1985 and 1995.

Pendergrass said it would be ill-advised for a new generation of police chiefs to come in intent on simply filling up the jails, given chronic underlying societal issues — like a lack of affordable housing, low wages and addiction — that are often at the root of criminal behavior.

“The worst case scenario is someone who comes in and says we need to double or triple arrests,” he said. “They really need to be focused on core causes that have been inflamed by the pandemic.”

Pendergrass pointed to alternative policing approaches, like Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response program, or STAR, which sends mental health clinicians and paramedics to respond to emergency calls instead of police, as critical to reducing violent interactions between law enforcement and the community.

The program, which began two years ago, is getting ready to expand after gaining national attention. STAR’s leaders hope its teams will be able to respond to more than 10,000 calls a year.

“Police have been asked to do way too much for far too long,” Pendergrass said. “If (new chiefs) come in with alternatives to policing, that can be a game changer.”

McCasky, the ex-chief in Lakewood, said that is beginning to happen in Jefferson County, with discussions underway about how to expand the Lakewood Police Department’s Community Action Team to encompass a wider geographic area. The team works with the unhoused and those with mental illnesses, while also verifying sex offender compliance.

“A new perspective you get with a new chief is always a good thing,” he said.

Kilpatrick, Golden’s former chief, agrees. He said the world is a different place from when he first hit the streets of Englewood as a rookie cop in 1979.

“I came up at a time when we knew what was best for you,” he said. “Now it comes down to more that we need to listen to what our communities want and how we can be more impactful in our communities.”

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