Denver Chief of Police Robert White
Denver Chief of Police Robert White (Craig F. Walker, Denver Post file photo)

Amid a rash of officer arrests, Denver Police Chief Robert White has ordered a review of how his department handles reports of alcohol abuse among its nearly 1,400 officers.

White spoke Thursday about the seven officers accused of crimes this year, saying six of them involved alcohol and calling the incidents "frustrating." By comparison, there were only four officer arrests in 2013, White said.

"I'm concerned for the officers," White said. "I'm concerned for their wellness. I'm concerned for our agency. We've worked extremely hard.

"I get concerned when anything negative happens because I don't want that to impact the progress we've made."

White expects to present his revamped substance-abuse policy by the end of July. Change may not come easy as White battles a culture where officers may be reluctant to jeopardize their careers — or those of their peers — by reporting alcohol abuse.

Incidents involving officers this year have included a veteran detective arrested on a child-pornography charge; another detective arrested on nine charges, including child abuse and domestic violence; and two officers accused, along with their wives, of getting into a drunken brawl involving allegations of swinging. Three others have been accused of driving under the influence, said Sonny Jackson, a department spokesman.

Alcohol problems on the force are nothing new. Alcohol often has been a crutch for officers in dealing with the violence, poverty and other societal issues they encounter on the job. Researchers have tried to determine how widespread the problem was within law enforcement. Results have varied.

A 2012 article in The Journal of Law Enforcement reported that one in 12 Americans abuse alcohol. It cited research that estimated alcohol abuse among police officers was almost double that.

Substance abuse was the major topic at a police chiefs conference in San Diego in February, White said. Chiefs from other major departments spoke about their evolving policies on substance abuse.

That discussion already had led White to take a look at the Denver Police Department's policy, but the recent string of arrests have increased the urgency.

"It's not isolated to Denver," he said. "It's a nationwide problem that police chiefs are seeing."

Police officers, like soldiers suffering from PTSD, are reluctant to seek help because they fear it will ruin their careers.

White hopes to find a way to encourage officers to self-report problems.

"Police, in general, are very reluctant to self-report that kind of behavior especially when it eventually gets to the administration and they think their career is going to be in jeopardy," White said.

White is considering removing the department's internal affairs' role in substance-abuse reports and treatment. He may create another unit to deal with those issues.

Now, an officer who admits a problem is referred to internal affairs, which conducts a fitness-for-duty review and takes away police powers while that is ongoing, said Cmdr. Matt Murray, the department's chief of staff.

"When you think of internal affairs, you're thinking of investigations," White said. "You're thinking, 'OK, if I did something wrong, I'm going to be disciplined. And now my career is going to be tainted.' "

Perhaps the biggest challenge in White's plan will be his desire for fellow officers to report to commanders one another's substance abuse. He said he realizes that no one wants to be a snitch.

But White said fellow officers often are the first to recognize one another's problems. Reporting a problem won't destroy a fellow officer's career, he said.

"In the long run, it's going to help them and it's going to perhaps save their career," White said. "At the same time, it will help them physically as it relates to their wellness."

The goal of a new policy would be reaching officers before their problems rise to the level of criminal charges that destroy their careers.

Still, White said he will make swift, firm decisions if an officer is arrested.

"It will be aggressive action from my perspective," he said.

Representatives from the Denver police union could not be reached for comment on the pending change.

Nick Mitchell, Denver's independent monitor who watches the police department, looks forward to working with the department as it examines best practices.

"I appreciate Chief White's acknowledgment that alcohol abuse and related misconduct may necessitate a possible policy change," Mitchell said.

Police in trouble

Seven Denver police officers have faced legal woes in 2014:

• Detective Daniel Diaz Deleon was arrested Saturday on nine charges, including child abuse, domestic violence and prohibited use of a weapon. Thornton police said he had been drinking before he shot six holes in the ceiling of his home during an angry fit. He is on paid administrative leave.

• Officer Jeremy Ownbey was charged June 5 with two counts of child abuse and second-degree trespass after Aurora police accused him, his wife, another Denver cop and his wife of being involved in a drunken brawl that included allegations of swinging. He is on desk duty.

• Detective Timothy Kelley was charged May 29 with sexual exploitation of a child after Westminster police found evidence of child pornography on his laptop. He retired a few days before his arrest.

• Detective Michael Ryan was issued a summons April 16 by Lakewood police for soliciting a prostitute and patronizing a prostitute. He is on desk duty.

• Three other officers have been accused of driving under the influence. The department declined to release their names.