A New Police Chief for Denver – An Absurd Notion To Look “Outside” the Department

(Denver Police Chief George L. Seaton with Joe Louis, circa 1970, at a Police Athletic League function.)

The Denver Post, in an April 8th editorial titled, “Look externally for new top cop,” opined that, “We hope the new mayor will strongly consider the value of bringing in an outsider to lead the Denver Police Department.

“A new leader with neither baggage nor allegiances within the department might be best positioned to make a break from the status quo. The erosion of trust between the department and the public is palpable, and must be repaired.”

I have heard that our mayor-elect, Michael Hancock, has not ruled out the possibility he will follow the Post’s editorial board’s advice and look “outside” the DPD for his chief.

We’ve all heard Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Okay. In this case the “…over and over again…” becomes “…twice…” In recent memory–“recent” being the last fifty years–a mayor of Denver has gone “outside” the Denver Police Department  to seek a new chief only once. If hizzoner Hancock does it, then, of course, the word “twice” becomes operative.

Some history. (What follows are personal reflections from George Seaton who was chief of the DPD from January, 1968 to June of 1972.)

***

Harold Dill had been a Denver policeman since 1936 and chief since 1963. (Our time frame here is circa 1968.) He was a hard-boiled, straight-laced cop whose loyalties were with the uniformed officer, the cop on the street.

The new mayor, Tom Currigan, appointed Dill as his first chief in 1963. Currigan’s motives in making the appointment were crystal clear to everybody. In 1963, the department was recovering from the burglary scandal–Goddamned sonsabitches, Cops! pulling burlaries all over the city–that had covered the front pages of the newspapers well into 1962. It had all surfaced around 1959, and before it was over and done with fifty police officers were indicted and forty were convicted.

The aftermath of the scandal spelled the downfall of another chief, James Slavin, who had been brought in from Kalamazoo, Michigan by Mayor Dick Batterton in 1962. Batterton was fighting for his political hide with the obvious liability that he had presided over the city during the time cops were pulling burglaries. Slavin had excellent credentials. But he was an outsider. Most of us (cops) wondered how in hell this egghead from Kalamazoo was going to sort out the goddamned mess that had been festering for over twenty years or more within the department. You didn’t need a goddamned brain surgeon to figure out Batterton’s feeble effort to clean up the scandal by bringing Slavin in would not defuse the issue during the mayoral campaign of ’63. The City Auditor, Tom Currigan, would be Batterton’s opposition in the spring of that year and you just knew that that red-headed Irishman, Currigan, would make political hay out of the scandal. Currigan was a decent guy. And he was a hard-driving politician.

Once Currigan was elected in ’63, he understood the department was demoralized from the scandal. Hell, you’d have to be blind not to realize it. Consequently, one of his first appointments was to get a chief to head the department who was respected by the rank and file and, more importantly, was from within the department. The new chief could be none other than Harold Dill.

I think Dill’s legacy to the department from July, 1963 to January 1, 1968 was his persistent, unflagging support of the cop on the street; the front line cop who needed the pat on the back that Dill gave them. Dill had a pretty straight forward, simple philosophy about police work: “The uniformed man on the street,” he said, “makes 90 percent of the arrests–not detectives, technicians, clerks or computers.” And the department, under Dill, reflected that philosophy and eventually regained its self-respect.

The decade of the ’60s would expose the American policeman to the world. Never before had the American cop been scrutinized as closely by so many people as he would be in the sixties. And that scrutiny would cause more than a few people to conclude the American cop was an unprofessional, reactionary storm trooper; a violent, sadistic sonofabitch whose inbreeding over the past two-hundred years had demanded only one thing from any person who wanted to qualify for the job: that they be a bigot. The reality, of course, was that like every other occupation on the face of the earth, there were some good cops, there were some bad cops, there were some cops who gave a damn, and others that didn’t.

You didn’t need a goddamned weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing in Denver and throughout the county by the time Tom Currigan won a second term as mayor in 1967. Hell, the evidence was clear. There was no special providence protecting Denver from the consequences of minority rage that had, since the summer of ’65, ravaged American cities. The word “ominous” was on a lot of people’s minds beginning in ’63. And by the end of the decade, people would look back and use phrases like “social catharsis” to describe that ten-year period from 1963 to 1973. And right in the middle of that “catharsis” was the American policeman who dealt with–and was expected to deal with–the violence, hatred, frustration, rage of American citizens too long denied the American dream.

During the summers of ’66 and ’67, Denver had been spared the serious, violent confrontations between minorities and police that had characterized those long, hot summers in other cities around the country. But in Denver more than a few people were talking about “bottled rage” and the “ominous” message that had been communicated to the nation over the past several summers. Mayor Currigan took little comfort in the fact Denver had seen little major violence. He realized Denver was not immune to what had occurred in other cities. And specifically he realized the Denver Police Department under Harold Dill was not ready or, perhaps, willing to prepare itself for the social revolution ahead. There was also some notion that if the department was prepared and adequately trained to deal with the social violence that had been played out all across the country, it could be avoided in Denver. I guess you could say that Currigan was coming at it from a proactive point of view. One thing was clear: the status quo maintained by Chief Dill in his second floor office at 13th and Champa was simply not acceptable any longer. The American policeman’s role in society was mandated to change. And that change had to come about as quick as a bat out of hell if Currigan’s proactive agenda was to be realized.

Harold Dill was “forced” to announce his retirement in November, 1967. Although Currigan vehemently denied he demanded Dill’s resignation, few of us believed it. In fact what came to be known as the “Plaut Report,” signaled for most of us the end of Dill’s career.

The Plaut Report, commissioned by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, detailed instances of discriminatory behavior by several Denver city agencies, including the police department. Dill’s response to the report was simply to pooh-pooh it, saying that “Most of the charges and innuendos are petty,” he said. “These statements I’ve read and heard so far are typical of those who just don’t like policemen.”

Dill’s rhetoric would not, of course, fly very high with Tom Currigan.

My appointment to chief came after a pretty extraordinary move by Currigan who–after demanding the resignation of my predecessor, Harold Dill–announced that a new chief would be appointed only after a comprehensive written and oral examination had been completed by each candidate seeking the job. Currigan set-up a special seven member board to oversee the examinations and to provide professional advice to him and his newly appointed Manager of Safety, Howard K. Phillips. The final decision on who would be Denver’s next chief of police, Currigan insisted, would  be left to him and Phillips.

Fourteen of us–all of us from within the department, with the exception of a retired former captain–were given oral interviews by Currigan’s committee that was headed by Clarence Kelley, Chief of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department. Kelley was a hell of a guy, who would later become Director of the F.B.I. under Richard Nixon. The other members of the committee were Bob Yegge, Dean of the University of Denver College of Law; Joe Dinan, Secretary of the Civil Service Commission; outgoing Manager of Safety, Hugh McClearn; Minoru Yasui, Director of the Denver Commission of Community Relations; and Jim Hickman, President of the Denver Chamber of Commerce.

By December, ’67, the oral interviews were concluded and the committee had given Currigan their findings. It was the first time in the city’s history that a merit-type examination had been administered to select a chief.

I became chief on January 1, 1968.

There is always a case to be made for police officers supporting one another against the consequences of their actions whether perceived to be legal or even proper police conduct. You hear talk about the “brotherhood” or the “thin  blue line.” Sure, cops are isolated from the rest of society by the very nature of the work they do. They’ve got to stick together; they’ve got to support one another. No one can understand the kind of life a cop lives except another cop. Not the psychologists. Not the sociologists. Not the politicians or the priests. It’s a simple as that. But let me tell you one thing: when a cop is wrong, he’s wrong. That was my philosophy when I was appointed a patrolman in 1946, and that was my philosophy when I retired as chief of the department in 1972.

  ***

George Seaton never apologized for any facet of his administration of the Denver Police Department. He professionalized the department. He reorganized the department. He prepared the department for the civil disruptions that would surely–given the nature of the times–erupt within the city. By luck, or by simply standing firm on the notion that the rule of law in an ordered society was absolutely necessary to preserve and protect that very society, Denver saw no major riots during those dark and dangerous times when the whole world seemed poised, quite ready and willing to leap into the abyss of chaos.

George Seaton did, however, reflect on the notion that an “outsider” would be best suited to take the helm of the Denver Police Department in troubled times. He noted, “To believe that some pin-headed sonofabitch from Kalamazoo (a reference to James Slavin) could have any goddamned idea what a cop in Denver is up against is just pure horseshit. You can’t bring in some guy who has never ridden the streets of Denver, who doesn’t know the worth of his partner, or his sergeant or his captain. You can’t expect an outsider to understand the long-time finagling of the brass, most of whom have nothing much on their minds except to someday become chief. There’s more fucking politics going on in the Denver Police Department than anything the Democrats or Republicans have ever dealt with. You can’t just plop some outside sonofabitch into the chief’s chair and expect they’ll have any goddamned clue about what’s going on in the department. Whoever sits in that chair has got to understand, from day one, the nature of the department’s underbelly, its history. You just simply can’t change the culture, the essence of the department without knowing what the hell you’re dealing with. You can’t wait two, three years before the sonofabitch figures out what the territory is. He’s got to know from day one what the territory is. Anybody that tells you different has got their head up their goddamned ass. Period.”

I suppose an apt conclusion to this post is simply to observe that, in my experience, Denver’s mayors–at least for the past three administrations–have believed that anything or anybody that isn’t part of the current bureaucracy (including the police department) is ipso facto more qualified to bring those “better ideas” to the forefront than the existing workforce. This is a dangerous and potentially debilitating presumption. Indeed, “To believe that some pin-headed sonofabitch from Kalamazoo could have any goddamned idea what a cop in Denver is up against is just pure horseshit.”

Although it’s probably a given that hizzoner, Hancock, owes the Denver Post a few passionate kisses on the backsides of the said publication’s editorial board, I can only caution our mayor-elect to consider this “outsider” idea for a new police chief touted by the Post to be, yes, horseshit…unadulterated and, yes, quite difficult to scrape from one’s shoes once you’ve stepped in it.

Oh, one more thing… Our mayor-elect may want to consider repeating what Tom Currigan did in 1967. Yeah, I suspect Hancock–if he pursues this merit-based selection of a new chief asking only current Denver cops to apply–will load his selection committee with all kinds of liberal reformist types. But, see, in the end he’ll get a chief who knows the territory, who knows what it is to be a Denver cop…underbelly and all.

This entry was posted in Denver Cops, Michael Hancock, Newspapers, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A New Police Chief for Denver – An Absurd Notion To Look “Outside” the Department

  1. Pingback: A New Police Chief for Denver – An Absurd Notion To Look “Outside” the Department | Free Range Longmont

  2. Jen Dill says:

    Hello,

    Are you still there? My name is Jen Dill. Harold Dill was my grandfather. I’m a DA now and he’s long since passed away. I would love to hear what work was like for you back in the day, if you are up to it. I enjoy hearing everything; the good, bad, and ugly.

    Thank you
    Jen Dill

    • georgeindenver says:

      Hello, Jen. My father, George L. Seaton, (Chief Seaton) passed away in 1991, at the age of 80. I put this post together from historical data and, of course, from my father’s own reflections. “Back in the day,” was, even for me, an exciting time to be in Denver. The period of time your grandfather and my father served as Chiefs of the Denver Police Department was, I believe, an era of social catharsis for America not seen since the Civil War.

      Congratulations on becoming a DA!!! Shook hands with your grandfather several times, and Art Dill was one my favorite people. (One of my best friends lives next door to Marie Dill.)

      • Jen Dill says:

        Thanks so much for your reply! It must have been a really fascinating time. I find myself wondering what it was like in my adult life and work. Have a great day!

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