Exclusive: Assistant police chief in Mesa investigated for assault

By Nick R. Martin | June 19th, 2009 | 11:58 pm | 3 Comments »

Mike Denney

Mesa’s second-most powerful cop, a current contender to take over as the city’s police chief, was investigated criminally last year on suspicion of attacking a fellow officer, Heat City has learned.

Assistant Police Chief Mike Denney, who is also the department’s chief of staff, was accused by a subordinate of hitting him in the groin with a water bottle during a confrontation last May, newly released documents show. The incident took place inside police headquarters the same day the agency announced it had collared a suspected serial strangler.

Denney, 57, was eventually cleared of criminal wrongdoing, as well as of breaking department rules, but not before 16 of the department’s top brass and another police agency were dragged into the investigation. A department spokesman said on Friday neither Denney nor the subordinate, commander Fred Ruhland, were available to comment.

Denney was mentioned this week as one of at least three people inside the Mesa Police Department being considered to head the agency after current Chief George Gascón accepted an offer to lead the San Fransisco Police Department.

Denney is a longtime veteran of Arizona law enforcement, having worked for the state Department of Public Safety and as a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, where he was best known for helping prosecute the failed 2004 murder case against Chandler police officer Dan Lovelace. Under Gascón, Denney quickly became an assistant chief as well as the department’s chief of staff, making him the agency’s No. 2 officer.

But as documents released Friday show, Denney’s tenure in Mesa has not been entirely smooth.

May 14, 2008 was a big day for police in Mesa. Investigators had just arrested Trent Benson, a man they believed was responsible for a series of rapes and stranglings going back to 2004.

Amid the celebration and a major public announcement of the arrest, however, some sort of confrontation took place between Denney and Ruhland in a hallway outside the room where a news conference was just held.

According to Ruhland’s recollection of things, outlined in a transcript of an interview he later had with investigators, the assistant chief called out to him in the hallway. The two had some sort of words about the big bust, and then Ruhland said something to make fun of Denney’s past work with DPS.

The comment set the assistant chief off, Ruhland told investigators.

The assistant chief then grabbed a plastic water bottle and hit Ruhland in the groin with it, the commander said. Ruhland left after being hit. “I just kind of walked off, kind of in shock,” he said, according to the transcripts. “I mean, this is the first time I ever had a supervisor assault me.”

He told the investigators “it hurt for a little while” but “I mean, not laying on the ground screaming pain.”

But if Ruhland felt like he was the victim of a crime or inappropriate conduct at the time, he didn’t say so. Instead, the commander waited nearly five months before reporting the incident to anyone in the department.

Not until Oct. 1, 2008 did Ruhland make his allegation of assault against his boss. Before that, the two continued to work together without any other incident, the documents say.

When Ruhland finally complained to the department, an internal investigator was assigned to the case and interviewed both men.

For his part, Denney told the investigator he didn’t remember the confrontation with Ruhland, though he said it was “possible” that it had happened. As for hitting Ruhland with the water bottle, he said that, too, was “possible,” but he never meant to hurt Ruhland.

“Ive done that to people in just playful ways,” Denney told the investigator. “Never to hurt them, never to insult them or injury (sic) them or cause them to do anything. So, I can’t tell you it didn’t happen. I just don’t have a recollection of it.”

He described it as “horseplay.”

“I mean, this is the kind of horseplay that goes on in police agencies forever and ever,” he said later.

The case soon was handed over to the Tempe Police Department, which was asked to investigate whether Denney broke the law or department policies. After reviewing the interviews, a detective sent the case to Tempe prosecutors, who decided on Oct. 22, 2008, because Ruhland “clearly” wasn’t injured, no charges against Denney were appropriate.

“There is absolutely nothing in the incident report that would indicate that this situation was anything more than ‘horseplay,'” wrote deputy Tempe city attorney Robert Hubbard in a memo that day. The detective also determined no department polices were broken.

In the meantime, the original Mesa investigator also looked into another of Ruhland’s allegations that the assistant chief also may have gotten physical with another officer at some point. However, after interviewing some 14 high-ranking Mesa officers – including the city’s two other assistant police chiefs and the officer who was allegedly involved in the other incident – the investigator could find no evidence such a thing had occurred.

On May 11 of this year, seven months after Ruhland made his original allegations, he was told nothing would come of them.

City Manager Chris Brady is expected to name a temporary replacement for the department’s outgoing chief, George Gascón, within two weeks and then begin a nationwide search for his permanent replacement. It is unclear what affect, if any, the investigation will have on Denney’s chances for the job.

  • Name

    How crazy is that. Haha… thats my uncle. The guy shouldn’t have pissed Mike off. It doesn’t change the fact that Mike Denney is still awesome at what he does.

  • Name

    How crazy is that. Haha… thats my uncle. The guy shouldn’t have pissed Mike off. It doesn’t change the fact that Mike Denney is still awesome at what he does.

  • Name

    How crazy is that. Haha… thats my uncle. The guy shouldn't have pissed Mike off. It doesn't change the fact that Mike Denney is still awesome at what he does.