Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. (Denver Post file)

A surprisingly public war of words has erupted between Denver's top two law enforcement officials, including accusations of being unprofessional, uninformed and reckless with public safety.

In the past week, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and Police Chief Robert White have sounded more like sparring political opponents than partners in crime-fighting.

The rare public disagreement arose over the role of civilians in the city's crime lab. White wants to replace 15 crime scene investigators with civilian technicians by the end of the year to cut costs and put more officers on the streets. Morrissey criticized the chief's plan and told reporters that the short timeframe for the proposed change showed "reckless disregard for the public safety of Denver."

Denver Police Chief Robert White.
Denver Police Chief Robert White. (Denver Post file)

White said Morrissey's comments were "absurd and inappropriate."

"For him to come out and make that inflammatory statement was unprofessional," White said. "He's uninformed."

The public display came as a surprise to some criminal justice experts, who wondered how it would affect the way the departments work together.

"For the public perception, there is always the need for there to be a united front. It would seem to me that they are united in their efforts to fight crime," said Joseph G. Sandoval, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "But administrative disagreements? My goodness gracious, I am not sure what to make of that. There has to be something more, and what that something more is I am not sure."


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Keeping a good relationship is important for police and prosecutors, who cross paths in almost every arena, from officer-involved shootings and homicide investigations to police academy training. So disputes at the top are uncommon, or more likely, unheard.

"What they should do is sit down, lock the door and talk their problems out, out of the press," said Robert Gallagher, who served as district attorney for Arapahoe and other counties from 1969 to 1997. "You have not only the right but the duty to disagree at times. It's healthy to disagree, but you don't do it in public and you don't do it on minor issues."

White said Morrissey's comments were "more than about the crime lab, absolutely. The DA consistently disagrees with the reorganization of the police department. ... There are things that occur in the DA's office that I think impact our ability to do our job effectively, but I brought them to his attention, I didn't go running to the media."

But the chief would not expound.

"I am going to extend him more professional courtesy than he has extended to me," White said. "I am not having a public disagreement. He is the person who decided to make this a public debate."

Still, White's frustration with Morrissey was evident.

"I'd like him to keep his hands out of the workings of the department . If it is something I am doing that impacts his job, he ought to extend me the courtesy of telling me what it is," White said.

Morrissey thought White was already aware of his concerns about the lab and was answering reporters' questions when he made the remarks, said district attorney spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough. She spoke on Morrissey's behalf Wednesday while he was traveling.

"It's unfortunate that it has the appearance of this public disagreement," she said. She was unaware of other problems Morrissey had with White's changes.

"His only concern about changes in the police department would be if it has an impact on us here in the courtroom," Kimbrough said. "There certainly may be some other mutual issues that they disagree on or bring a different perspective on, but those conversations have been private."

White described his relationship with Morrissey as, "professional. Period."

Morrissey "feels he can reach out to the chief as needed," Kimbrough said.

"Past police chiefs who have come up through the ranks have had the luxury of a little more history and had some relationships already established," she said. "Having some institutional knowledge can be a helpful thing, but bringing in a new perspective from other departments can be good as well."

Kimbrough said the case was a sign that the two should communicate more regularly. Gallagher said he met with with police chiefs and sheriffs monthly, which helped smooth out troubles.

But public safety likely won't suffer, Sandoval said. Disputes at the top don't necessarily trickle down.

"They don't have to work together on anything. The main work that goes on is done in the trenches," he said. "The police officer who is doing the work and the deputy who is in the courtroom, their relationships will continue to be cordial."

Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, sgurman@denverpost.com or twitter.com/sgurman