Chief Whitman transfers two officers after secret recording

(DENVER POST)   Two officers involved in secretly videotaping a supervisor were reassigned last week to new jobs by Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman, further dividing a department already in turmoil over discipline controversies.

Sgt. Bryan O’Neill surreptitiously filmed Cmdr. John Burbach, the head of internal affairs, in an effort to expose what O’Neill believed to be a pattern of bias against his officers. Lt. Daren Ciempa, O’Neill’s supervisor, reportedly approved of the use of a video recorder disguised as a pocket pen in the effort.

Whitman said through spokesmen that he can’t discuss personnel issues and can’t publicly detail his reasons for transferring O’Neill and Ciempa out of District 6, which oversees downtown patrols.

The chief also said that in following Police Department policy, he could not talk about an ongoing internal affairs investigation into their actions.

The chief sent Ciempa, who started with the force in 1996, to Denver International Airport, where officers primarily work traffic detail.

Whitman sent O’Neill, an 11-year veteran, to the department’s identification bureau, where officers verify by fingerprint the identity of those arrested.

“It’s clearly a personnel matter, and he made the decision in this matter and felt it was something he had to do,” Lt. Matt Murray said on the chief’s behalf.

Ciempa declined to comment, saying his superiors had instructed him not to make public statements about his transfer. O’Neill also declined to comment. Burbach did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Police insiders who support Ciempa and O’Neill said the transfers are roiling a department already in an uproar following the August resignation of Safety Manager Ron Perea. Perea resigned under pressure less than three months after taking the job of running the city’s police, fire and sheriff departments after civic leaders complained that he was issuing light discipline to police officers accused of using excessive force.

Many officers privately say they have grown so disenchanted following Perea’s resignation that they now are doing fewer officer-initiated actions. Statistics the department released last month show that performance measure is, indeed, on the decline. Department insiders say officer-initiated actions are sure to plunge even further.

Whitman could not be reached Tuesday afternoon to address morale among his officers.

Seen as insubordination

Supporters and detractors of Ciempa and O’Neill who are familiar with the case said the transfers followed a dispute with Burbach. While the recording of the supervisor was legal, that act also is being viewed by top police brass as a major case of insubordination.

Multiple individuals familiar with the case, who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak, gave the following account:

Burbach had forwarded a complaint of failure to protect a prisoner to District 6 for handling as an informal matter. Such a referral is done when internal affairs deems an issue as not needing a full-blown investigation by internal affairs investigators or by the police district.

Under department protocol, O’Neill, as the commanding sergeant, was expected to take care of the issue by advising and counseling his officers on proper department protocol.

Instead, about 2 a.m., O’Neill sent an e-mail to Independent Monitor Richard Rosenthal, who oversees investigations into police misconduct and who has earned the ire of many rank-and-file officers by pushing for stiffer discipline if they misbehave. In the e-mail, O’Neill demanded as part of an investigation a statement from Rosenthal. At the same time, O’Neill called Burbach seeking a statement from him.

Rosenthal has declined to comment on the incident.

The next day, O’Neill, with Ciempa’s blessing, borrowed a video pen from another officer and went to internal affairs to conduct a formal interview of Burbach as the complainant. Supporters of the chief’s transfers said O’Neill asked a series of leading questions designed to embarrass the command staff.

O’Neill also told Burbach he was placing him under a Garrity warning, which is used by internal affairs investigators to compel testimony from an officer for discipline decisions while ensuring the testimony can’t be used as self-incriminating evidence in a later criminal prosecution.

When Burbach learned he was being recorded, he ordered O’Neill to turn over the video pen.

O’Neill and Ciempa were sent home for the day. The chief informed them when they returned to work the next day that he had lost confidence in their leadership abilities and was transferring them out of patrol.

This week, Cmdr. Tony Lopez, who became head of District 6 this summer, ordered his officers to refrain from ever recording their superiors.

Christopher N. Osher: 303-954-1747 or

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