Detective James Rock remembers it as one of the worst professional decisions he'd made in 24 years with the Denver Police Department, although there was no way he could have known that at the time. He simply made one of those judgment calls that cops make a dozen times a day, five days a week, that end up affecting their lives in ways they never imagined.

"I heard the call come over the scanner of an assault at the downtown post office," he recalls. "And since I was working the postal detail anyway, I radioed back and said I'd take it. I went down that one fatal damn day because I heard the call. Big mistake. I should've let the uniformed police cover it."

For the past three years, Rock has been assigned by the city to work with local postal inspectors. Most of his cases are mail fraud. But with last May's call, he found himself tackling a whole new category of police work.

The assault case involved a postal employee named Billy Mullins and his supervisor, Reggie Chapman. When Rock arrived at the downtown station on 20th and Stout streets, Mullins was screaming that Chapman had hit him. Mullins's glasses were lying broken on the floor; Chapman was looking perplexed. Rock began his investigation.

Mullins gave Rock his version of the story. "I came back from break, and Reggie was standing there watching me work," he recalls. "I said, `What kind of shit is this?' Reggie said, `You used a curse word.' I said, `I didn't use a curse word. I just said, What kind of shit is this?'

"So he told me to get into the office," Mullins continues. "I said, `Look, I got 23 years, I don't have to really take this.' Reggie said, `You're a sorry nigger.' So I said, `If I'm a sorry nigger, you're a sorry nigger, too.' And that's when he hit me. He knocked the shit outta me. I mean, I been in fights before, but in those you expect to get hit."

After concluding his investigation, however, Rock saw things differently. To the detective, the situation looked odd from the start. Mullins was a lot bigger than Chapman. Plus, there was the statement from a woman who worked with both men and said she'd witnessed the incident. "I saw Billy throw his own glasses on the floor and break them," Carol Ware recalls.

Ten days later Rock filed charges--but not against Chapman for the assault. Instead, he charged Mullins with giving false information: lying to the police about the incident.

That was Rock's first taste of what it is like to work at the U.S. Postal Service's 20th Street station. Since then, the detective has found himself there more times than he likes to think about.

"Now they seem to know my name, and they call me direct," he says. "They're a bunch of fruitcakes." Rock--not to mention a few other police officers, the post office's own inspection service and several prosecutors and judges--has been swamped with complaints that nothing in his law enforcement training could have prepared him for: a load of squabbling postal clerks whose case files read like an elementary-school report card.

There has been the "roly-poly ass" case and the "big-teeth-like-a-horse" case. Those were followed by the "moo-moo-smell-the-stockyards" case. And then, of course, the now-famous "wackadoo" incident, which went all the way to court last month.

"They got a den of iniquity down there, I swear to God," the detective says, his voice rising. "If they were working for anybody in a private office downtown, they'd get canned. It's sixth-grade schoolyard crap."

Rock pauses. "I feel like going back to homicide," he says.

Rick Bollig is the customer-relations coordinator for all Denver post offices and, as such, he has been directed to handle questions about the situation at 20th Street. Now he is trying to put the station into context.

"We have some personality problems there," he admits. "But we have that at every post office." And the half-dozen criminal cases that downtown employees have filed against each other? "We don't have that at every post office," he agrees.

A few hours later, after checking with his supervisors, Bollig decides to tackle the 20th Street problem head-on. "Basically, what we have here is not a post office problem but a personality problem," he explains. His position hardens. "We have some grown adults at the downtown station who prefer to act like children. And that," he concludes, "is unfortunate."

But predictable, given the contortions managers and workers go through when an employee's wayward behavior calls for sanctions.

"Management just passes the buck all the time," grumbles Rock. "If management does step in, then the unions get involved. And they've got a half-dozen unions over there. I've never seen so many unions in all my life."

"Unfortunately," adds Jon Freeman, who supervises the postal service's inspection department for the Denver area, "with the postal service, it does take time to dismiss employees." And even then, there are no guarantees. "In the past there have been people who I've thought were fired," he says, "and a year down the road, their names pop up and we have to go after them again."

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