Q&A: Jon Priest, Retired Denver Police Department Homicide Lieutenant

December 2011

Guns, fast cars, and the badge. That's what initially drew Jon Priest, a retired Denver Police Homicide Lieutenant, to the force. Thirty-two years later, Priest retired last August. Priest was integral in developing critical incident protocols that are used across the country, and starting Denver’s Cold Case Project, which works to identify cases where biological evidence still exists and can be tested for DNA. Now, he's trekking across the country and into college classrooms to share his insight and experience. We sat down to chat with him about his definition of "retirement," close calls, and the truth about crime in Denver.

5280: The dog days are over for you in the police department, what now?

Jon Priest: It seems like when you retire, the next thing you do is go on a cruise somewhere. That’s just what you do when you retire. For me, I am retired, but I’m not retired. I haven’t stopped working. I’m not sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch, I’m still very connected. I do conferences, seminars, and classes for law enforcement agencies all over. I have taught classes in 24 of the 50 states. You spend a lot of time on an airplane. I also teach a criminal investigation course at local colleges. It brings some realism to what people see on television, like CSI.

5280: Why did you decide to go into law enforcement?

JP: My dad was career military. He was in the Army for 25 years with tours in Korea and Vietnam. He did things on an intelligence level. He talked a little about his work, but not a lot. It really interested me. I started looking at ways I could pursue something like that, not in the military, but some other way. I got interested in law enforcement. I went down to take the test, I passed, and the next thing I know I am swearing into the Denver Police Department.

5280: What is one of your first memories about being a cop?

JP: When I interviewed to come on the police department. I gave what I thought were good answers to the questions like, “Why do you want to be a cop?” My answer was that I wanted to help people. It’s true, but I wanted to be a cop who got to carry a gun, drive fast, turn on those lights, and be in charge wherever I go. I think that’s how people look at police work when they first get started. As you go through a career, you realize that that is not police work at all. I learned that I have truly helped people.

5280: What are some of the most memorable cases you were involved in?

JP: I had some really big cases. I had the United Bank case in 1991, which was the biggest thing that had happened in Denver. I had the Darrent Williams case and Columbine.

5280: Have you had many close calls?

JP: We were working a prostitution sting. An undercover female officer was acting as the prostitute when two guys walked up and were going to rob her at knifepoint. I was her cover, hiding in the bushes. They come up and she doesn’t have a gun on her. She depended on me as her cover. Out of the bushes I jump and I draw my gun on this guy yelling, “Drop the knife. Drop the knife.” It was probably the closest I ever came in my career to actually shooting somebody. I really didn’t think this guy was going to comply. He freezes, then drops the knife. I was filled with adrenaline, excitement, and relief when it was over.

5280: How do you deal with situations that most people wouldn’t be able to handle?

JP: When we hear gunshots, we run toward them not away. We run toward the screaming, the carnage. There is a suppression to the fight-or-flight reflex. All of those cases affect you in a different fashion, but the reason we were successful in all of those cases is because we maintained our focus of being effective. The guys that do homicide investigations maintain their focus. They are all living, breathing, warm-blooded individuals. I can’t think of anyone who at some point in their career was involved in an investigation to where they took a moment to compose themselves. They went home and cried. We aren’t robots. If they truly don’t experience that, then they probably aren’t in the right line of work. In order to be effective in law enforcement, you have to be a good person. 

We tend to come across as trigger-happy, mindless killers. Not true. We just look at fear differently. It’s not something that chased me away. If I’m this scared in this situation, imagine what other people are feeling. One of my academy instructors said, “It’s a life of boredom with interspersed moments of sheer terror.”

5280: Many of the suspects of homicides are family members of the victims. How do you deal with them?

JP: If I had let emotions run an investigation, people were going to get away with murder. If we can’t ask the hard questions, things often time don’t get done. We really have an ability to separate ourselves from the emotion of a case. Emotion does come into play, but it can’t interfere with your ability to be effective.

5280: What were the biggest changes in law enforcement over your career?

JP: The biggest change in law enforcement in my career is way we can identify people by the evidence they leave behind, namely their fingerprints. An even bigger change was DNA. This allowed us to do things to a degree that is much more discriminating than fingerprints.

Another change was the way we interact with victims. For years, unfortunately, we treated victims like pieces of evidence. They were a source of information. Through knowledge of personalities and how to treat people, we realized we needed to do a better job working with victims. That’s why law enforcement agencies started employing people to doing nothing but work with victims. We are not the vanguards of society. Our responsibility is to the community.

5280: Did your family ever worry about you?

JP: My dad went through two wars so he was never worried about me. My mom was an operating room nurse and she was used to the chaos, but I would bring her on ride-alongs so she could experience my job. My wife was a police officer. She retired in 2000 as a sex crimes detective, probably one of the best on the department. We met when I was in the Vice and Narcotics Bureau. We would talk about things. We had some interesting dinner conversations. We still do that.

5280: You said you teach classes to add a sense of reality to the police work people see on TV. Do you watch any police shows?

JP: I love Dexter. It’s the only cop show I watch anymore. But here, you have a police department who deals with serial killers all the time. What’s wrong with that place? Would you want to live there? That’s just not the way it is, but it is great TV. I will profile cases that are like the ones that are shown on TV. But, those aren’t daily events. Police work has moments of drama, but by and large it’s pretty boring. People aren’t screwing up all the time. Cops aren’t involved in a shooting everyday. In order the keep the drama, you have to bring those moments. I was in a police show myself awhile back.

5280: What police show were you on?

JP: I did a TV show called I, Detective, a Michael Hoff production. The show’s premise was to show real crime scenes reenacted. My job was to analyze what should be happening from a cop’s perspective. It was fun, a little corny. The public liked it, but cops thought it was a little hokey. I use it for teaching some college classes.

5280: After your time on the police force, what are your views on Denver and how people see the police?

JP: We are not an unsafe society. Denver is one of the safest cities in the country. We have one of the lowest homicide rates for a city our size. People don’t realize that because the media stirs up the bad things to sell papers. Tragedy and chaos sells, but it’s not reality.

We aren’t looked at favorably. We aren’t the fire department. I always say that when the fire department drives by everybody always waves at them using all of their fingers. With cops, they don’t use all of their fingers. No one wants to see the cops show up because they think something bad is going to happen. We are truly there to help. Maybe the person we are dealing with, we help them into jail. 

5280: As new officers join the force, what would you like them to know?

JP: I hope I left them the knowledge that we have an awesome responsibility in law enforcement. Our responsibility is to work for the victim. They don’t have a choice in this. We also have to hold people responsible for the bad things they do, but more importantly holding the right people responsible.  It’s not just about making arrests, we analyze and have done all the work and we can say this is the person responsible.

Think beyond yourself because it’s not about you. You are a public servant. You are there to work in and with the community. Think about yourself to be safe and provide for your family, but as a police officer remember this is about what I do. I can do good and make a difference or do bad and bring bad image on myself, the department, and my city.

—Photo courtesy of Jon Priest (Priest responding to an October, 2008 incident in Denver).