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Denver police chief: Saving lives starts with community trust

DENVER -- Five years after being named Denver’s top cop, chief Robert White said progress has been made on the front of community policing, but “there’s still a lot of work to do.”

White talked about the struggles of changing police culture and the success that comes from achieving it.

Over the past half-decade, White said he has had a laser focus on community policing and de-escalation techniques that he hopes will limit the amount of officer-involved shootings and save lives.

In January 2015, police were at the center of controversy after an officer shot an unarmed 17-year-old girl in a stolen car.

That is the kind of tragedy White said he is working to prevent in the future. He said reducing crime while saving lives starts with trust in the community. Building that trust hasn't been easy.

“Every life has value,” White said. “Even those lives that are out there committing crime.”

For White, changing police culture is vital to successful community policing. He said the change comes from a new mindset of what good police work actually means.

The efforts are seen through different programs like an officer light bulb giveaway in November. Police went door to door near Capitol Hill giving away light bulbs to brighten dark porches, deter crime and build goodwill with neighbors.

“The very residents who pay our salaries -- they are the ones that will put us in the best position of preventing crime,” White said. “Policing has changed but the police haven't changed.”

White said old-school police culture has to go. In Denver, gone are the days of giving high praise to officers with the most arrests or citations, but instead, awarding officers who de-escalate situations and who are actively engaged in the community.

“You call us, we come,” White said. “We're responsive. We're polite. You give us a description. We lock the person up. They go to court. They get a conviction. A lot of people think that's great police work. Better police work is you don't call us because a crime didn't occur.”

White and those at Denver's Urban League said much of the effort is needed within communities of color where police distrust seems to be nearing an all-time high.

“There's a substantial amount of Denver police officers who don't live in the communities where they are actually serving,” Denver Urban League CEO Sean Bradley said. “I think walking those neighborhoods gives the police officers and the community an opportunity to get to know one another."

Across the country, headlines of unarmed black men being shot by police have created a negative perception of officers within black communities.

“We operate on reality, but we also have to understand that we have to operate on perception because, if it's your perception, then it is your reality,” White said.

And the reality is the Denver Police Department has had its share of controversy, but overall, top brass said they are pleased with the success of community policing.

There are dedicated community resource officers assigned throughout Denver. Citizens routinely give input on how officers address community issues, according to the department.

White said the work adds what he calls “deposits of positivity” that he hopes will outweigh future withdrawals during the next officer-involved shooting.

“One of the things that we talk about in our police department is just because it's legal, doesn't make it necessary,” White said. “That is critical -- absolutely critical.”

White said a lot of community policing reform started at the Denver Police Department before he arrived on the force five years ago, but he has made it his mission to “put the philosophy on steroids.”

He routinely travels the country talking about the benefits of community policing and what has been working and not working in Denver.