Violence yet to scar cop's career

Silvas an enigma: 5 killings, 3 lawsuits and commendations

By Sarah Huntley, News Staff Writer

February 15, 2002

It is a record that defies the odds: eight shootings, five of them fatal, three lawsuits alleging beatings and about 20 internal affairs investigations.

One of Bob Silvas' ex-wives warned a Denver judge 14 years ago that the officer was a "ragingly violent psycopath (sic)" and accused him in a letter of trying to kill her.

But Silvas, badge number 77022, has been awarded the Denver Police Department's highest honor three times.

On the force for 24 years, the sergeant has earned more than 40 commendations. Some consider him a front-lines hero.

"Bob is one of the most highly decorated officers in the department," said attorney David Bruno, who has represented Silvas for years. "When you want to send a cop, you send Bob. I don't think there is anybody better."

Now Silvas, who has been involved in more deadly shootings than any Denver police officer, is under review again. This time, he's being investigated for his involvement in the shooting of 18-year-old Gregory L. Smith Jr.

Smith was killed Jan. 30 after he pulled a knife during a face-off with police. Investigators say Smith, who had smashed his mother's car window hours earlier, was coming toward them with the knife and had ignored warnings to drop the weapon.

Smith's sister, who was a few feet away, says Smith was standing still and that no warnings were given before the officers fired. Smith was shot five times and died.

The case is being investigated criminally by the Denver district attorney's office and administratively by the police department's Firearms Discharge Review Board, as is standard procedure.

Smith's family has called for Silvas' termination. But in the past 10 years, no officer has been fired as a result of involvement in a shooting. The review board disciplined five of 126 officers from 1990 to 2000. The most serious penalty was a three-day suspension and a one-day fine.

The decision about whether the shooting fell within department policies rests with Police Chief Gerry Whitman, who has a complicated history involving Silvas.

In the early 1980s, Whitman lost his then-girlfriend, fellow police officer Mary Beth Klee, after she met Silvas.

Klee later married Silvas. The two have since divorced, but have a child together.

Whitman said he considers his relationship with Klee, whom he promoted to deputy chief of administration 18 months ago, "ancient history" and argued that several other people are involved in reviewing shootings. The chief is not a member of the review board but must accept or reject its recommendation.

"You are required to put whatever knowledge you have of an officer aside," he said.

Whitman has recused himself from other disciplinary cases because of concerns about perceived conflicts, he said, and plans to consult with the city attorney before deciding whether to step down from this review.

"I don't think I have a conflict of interest," he said, "but I don't want there to be a perception of a conflict of interest."

Bruno said he has no concerns about Whitman's ability to evaluate his client's actions.

"I think Chief Whitman recognizes Bob's abilities as a police officer and the work he has done as a police officer," Bruno said. "If there is an issue, I think Whitman will take action. If there is no issue, I think Whitman will take no action."

Klee is not on the review board. She has never been in her ex-husband's chain of command and said she has not been involved in any investigations related to his record.

"I admire his police work very much," Klee said. "I know how hard he works and how important doing a good job is to him."

Klee said there have been many instances when Silvas peacefully resolved volatile situations. Several of Silvas' commendations were the result of his apprehending armed suspects, some of whom were shooting, without using force. In one case, Silvas helped subdue a suspect who had stabbed another officer with a butcher knife.

"The last thing he ever wants to do is be involved in a shooting," Klee said.

The department argues that police disciplinary records are not public record so the exact number of complaints against Silvas during his career could not be determined.

But court records show the sergeant has faced a series of allegations.

Some of the most disturbing accusations were made by a woman who once loved him. In 1984, Suzanne McDonald, then a Denver police officer, turned Silvas into internal affairs after a violent confrontation at their home.

McDonald alleged that her then-husband, fueled by alcohol and a belief that she was having an affair, grabbed her and pulled a gun. As the two struggled, a witness, Silvas' then-partner Capt. Marco Vasquez, called police.

McDonald referenced the incident in a letter to the judge during her divorce case.

"This marriage was physically abusive. My husband tried to kill me on Sept. 22, '84," she wrote.

No criminal charges were filed and there is no longer a police report on the incident, but department officials confirmed that internal affairs found Silvas violated policy in the incident.

Whitman would not say what the violations were or what discipline, if any, Silvas received.

"You have to keep this in perspective. We are considering conduct that occurred up to 18 years ago," Whitman said.

Silvas, 46, said he does not recall what the violation was.

"This was a horrible divorce. She made a lot of allegations," he said of McDonald. "Some things she accused me of were just outrageous. You can ask others. I'm not a bad guy, contrary to what people may think."

He declined to comment further.

Court records show that McDonald left the department in 1989 after suffering from blackouts. She has been diagnosed with several psychiatric conditions, including post traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

McDonald's complaint was not the only warning authorities received about Silvas. Attorney Kenneth Padilla wrote a letter to the mayor in the mid-1980s urging him to fire Silvas.

Padilla represented the family of Joey Rodrigues, the first suspect the officer shot and killed.

Police said Silvas shot Rodrigues, 16, on May 27, 1979, because the boy pulled out a gun while running from him. Padilla believes the gun actually belonged to one of Rodrigues' associates, who said the weapon fell from his clothing when officers tackled him to the ground.

"I believe that Joey Rodrigues was killed in cold blood . . . I thought (Silvas) was a very dangerous officer and I thought he would kill again," Padilla said in a recent interview. "I wanted it to be on the record . . . to tell the city, 'You are on the line here. You are responsible for this man.' "

Since then, Silvas has been involved in four other fatal shootings, all of which have been ruled justified. The officer was wounded in one, shot twice on Jan. 31, 1991, after two suspects opened fire while fleeing. Both suspects died after being shot by Silvas' fellow officers.

The shooting two weeks ago was Silvas' first in more than a decade. A few days later, he asked to be taken off the streets. He is currently assigned to the office of the division chief of patrol.

The Rodrigues family sued Silvas in connection with their son's shooting. The case settled out of court, with the city paying $2,500 to each of Rodrigues' parents.

Three other lawsuits have been filed against Silvas since then. Each accused the officer of beating suspects and witnesses while on the job.

The first stemmed from an incident on May 7, 1978. Plaintiffs Elijio, Erlinda and Josie Bernal accused Silvas of rousting them from their home in the 3700 block of Julian Street at 6:45 a.m. after entering "under false pretenses." The Bernals alleged they were battered and forced, bleeding and bruised, into the snow without shoes or proper clothing.

Silvas was hit over the head with a telephone during the incident, Bruno said. "Whatever struggle occurred was the result of the Bernals' resistance," he said.

The case file indicates the lawsuit was dismissed, although it was unclear why. The Bernals' attorney declined to comment and Bruno said he could not recall the outcome.

The other two cases never made it to trial, either.

Lewis Arkadie Jr. filed a federal lawsuit in 1982 accusing Silvas of putting a gun to his head after Arkadie referred to officers as "pigs" and refused to help with an investigation. The lawsuit alleged that Silvas took him to a vacant lot and beat him in the groin and mouth with his flashlight. Arkadie was charged with resistance and interfering with police officers.

The suspect, who said he lost two dentures and suffered a ruptured scrotum, said in his lawsuit that Silvas laughed and bragged about teaching him a good lesson.

The lawsuit was dismissed after Arkadie failed to appear for a hearing. Arkadie told the court he never received notice of the hearing date, but the judge declined to reopen the case.

Four years later, a Lakewood lawyer filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a man who heckled Silvas during an arrest.

Attorney David Hofer said his client, Arthur Aguirra, was one of several men who began jeering at Silvas after allegedly seeing the officer press a gun to the head of a teenage car thief.

After Silvas had the teen in custody, he chased Aguirra into an alley, Hofer said.

"He knocked (Aguirra) flat down and beat the living daylights out of him," he said.

Aguirra was convicted of interfering with a police officer, Hofer said. Silvas testified during Aguirra's trial that Aguirra had thrown a punch, which he deflected by hitting Aguirra in the face. But Hofer argued that his client's medical records showed his injuries were concentrated on the back of his head.

"All he did was criticize the police officer," Hofer said of Aguirra. "(Silvas) didn't just knock the guy down. He beat him and continued to beat him and continued to beat him. I don't know what he's been like the past 12 or 13 years . . . but in the particular case I was involved in, (the officer) was extremely violent."

The 1986 case file no longer exists at Denver's courthouse, but Hofer said he remembers Silvas telling jurors that he had about 10 citizen complaints filed against him, and that a few had been sustained.

That was 1987, 10 years into Silvas' career.

The Rocky Mountain News has learned that the sergeant has had at least 11 complaints since then, most of them alleging excessive force. Ten were filed between 1993 and 1995. The 11th was in 1999. None of them was sustained.

The Public Safety Review Commission looked into three of the complaints and decided there was insufficient evidence to dispute the department's findings.

But chairwoman Denise DeForest said she has concerns about Silvas' record.

"What's unusual about him is the sheer number of complaints," she said.

Outdated and incompatible computer systems make it difficult for the commission to evaluate an officer's past discipline, but DeForest said she knows of no other officer with as many complaints. "If that officer is out there, I don't think we've identified him," she said.

Repeat complaints can be a clear warning sign that further investigation is necessary, DeForest said.

"If you have an employee who is getting serious allegations made against them repeatedly and it comes down to even Steven (in terms of credibility) . . . at some point, you stop giving them the benefit of the doubt," she said.

Whitman said he regularly considers officers' histories when making disciplinary decisions.

"I look at the entire history," he said. "At that juncture, you can determine whether there is a pattern of behavior or whether something was a one-time incident."

Whitman said he has reviewed Silvas' records but declined to discuss his conclusions, saying he is prohibited from releasing personnel information.

The chief repeatedly has argued that the department needs more modern equipment to track officers' behavior and identify potential problems.

The department already has a policy that is designed to trigger a review when an officer receives a series of citizen complaints or is involved in multiple use-of-force incidents.

Commanders are required to review an officer's internal affairs record if, for example, the officer has received two or more complaints in a three-month period.

If this policy was followed, Silvas would have been evaluated at least once in 1993 and again in 1995. Whitman said he could not discuss whether the reviews occurred.

Silvas' supporters argue that his record is about more than numbers. They point out that officers who take on high-risk assignments are more likely to become the target of citizen complaints.

"Bob has always, from day one, been the type of officer who wanted to be active. He wanted to put bad guys in jail," said Vasquez, Silvas' brother-in-law and former partner. "He's always gravitated toward high-profile assignments, working in high crime areas. He's always been a point person."

Even Linda Wade Hurd, an attorney who represented McDonald in part of her divorce battle with Silvas, acknowledged that Silvas "does what a lot of other people don't want to do."

"If there is heavy duty stuff going down, you'd want him there," she said.

But others argue there are plenty of brave officers who never shoot anyone.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 400 people die each year in shootings involving one or more of the country's 678,000 sworn police officers. By that math, an individual officer's odds of becoming involved in a single fatal shooting are one in 1,695.

Steve Nash, a founding member of the Denver police accountability group Copwatch, said Silvas' record illustrates serious shortcomings in the city's willingness to confront officers.

"Despite the promise of reform, this is just another example that the police department remains the same," Nash said. "What we see from Silvas' record is that when he is in a situation like that (the Jan. 30 shooting of Gregory L. Smith Jr.), he's much more likely to end up killing somebody than pretty much any other officer."

"If that doesn't raise a red flag with Chief Whitman and (Manager of Public Safety) Ari Zavaras," he said, "then they've got their heads in the sand."

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