Turmoil, tragedy test police chief’s leadership

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Arvada, Colo., Police Chief Link Strate calls police work “an incredibly honorable profession,” and one that can be immensely satisfying.

But even in the best of times, it can be taxing, dangerous work. The last year or so has hardly been the best of times. Not for police in general, and not for Arvada Police specifically.

In June, Arvada Police Officer Gordon Beesley — a school resource officer widely remembered as kind, caring and humble — was ambushed and murdered by a man who investigators believe set out to kill police. Compounding the tragedy: A bystander who shot Beesley’s killer was then shot to death during the chaos when officers arrived and fired, thinking he was the original shooter.

Strate earned a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership at Regis. But it’s hard to imagine a classroom curriculum that prepares anyone to lead a department through the aftermath of such a tragedy. The police department wanted to honor Beesley and his family, but beyond that, Strate recognized the need to acknowledge the community’s grief and its support of the police department.

To move the police department forward through such a wrenching period, “We had to pause and try to get perspective on what the organization has gone through ... and recognize that this affects people differently.”

Strate joined the suburban Denver city’s police department as a patrol officer in 1987 after graduating from Northern Arizona University. In 2018, city leaders conducted a nationwide search to replace departing Chief Don Wick, before realizing the right man for the job was already in their department.

Police work has never been easy, but it perhaps has never been harder than in the months since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on the neck of George Floyd and held it there until Floyd died. That killing of a Black man by a white officer sparked unprecedented outrage, and prompted a re-thinking of the fundamental structure of police departments, from how resources are allocated to how officers are recruited and trained.

That’s fine with Strate. “I don’t think anybody is against police reform. That is something every department should be interested in from the get-go.”

Still, he doubts those chanting “de-fund the police” truly would be happy if police departments dissolved. And he would remind vocal critics that “police” is not a single entity, but thousands of departments large and small, each with its own culture, policies and leadership.

Arvada PD’s culture, Strate said, emphasizes non-violent confrontations and doesn’t condone racial profiling. The department exceeds state standards in its de- escalation training, and it forbids use of choke holds, hog-tying and other controversial restraints.

Police departments increasingly are asked to serve as mental health counselors and social workers and Arvada PD is no exception. In the past 20 years, Strate estimates his department has seen a 10-fold increase in mental health-related calls.

There, too, Strate said, Arvada PD is ahead of the game — as much as any police department can be, given the lack of community resources. For five years, Arvada PD has had a team of four co-responders who accompany officers when a call involves someone struggling with mental health. The responders help diffuse the situation and connect those in need with whatever resources are available.

The department’s CORE unit is dedicated to working with people experiencing homelessness. “They try to engage with them ... get them plugged into resources,” Strate said. “Contrary to the national narrative that paints police officers and homeless as adversaries, a lot of these people look at officers as their only friends. Often times, officers are the only ones who will engage with them.”

Arvada is one of the few police departments in Colorado that requires officers to have a college degree. That’s one aspect of a tough eight-month screening and training process that rejects all but about 10 percent of applicants in the first round, Strate said.

Still, he acknowledges that weeding out all the Derek Chauvins of the world isn’t an exact science. “You can’t catch everything,” he said. “So there has to be culture that supports the idea that [unacceptable] behavior will not be tolerated by fellow officers.” He credits his predecessor with knocking down the so-called Blue Wall of Silence, which prevents officers from speaking up about bad behavior and said his goal is to make sure that wall never gets re-built.

When Strate set his sights on leading the department, he figured if every patrol officer had a college diploma, then he ought to earn an advanced degree. At Regis, he chose a field outside of law enforcement because it offered a chance to explore different ideas and practices. And, sitting in classrooms with accountants, financial officers and non-profit administrators provided those varied perspectives.                  

“I feel fortunate in having chosen Regis. I got exactly what. I was looking for — a really good foundation in leadership that challenged some of my other notions and made me rethink what I thought I knew about leadership.”

Despite the difficulties, Strate said he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend police work to anyone considering it. “Our communities truly rely on us and need us,” he said. “I have met the most incredibly selfless people because I’ve been in this profession.”

Of course, it’s not a job everyone should take on, especially now. “I just don’t know how to prepare [new recruits] to grow the calluses needed to withstand the criticism,” Strate said.