Same As It Ever Was

Three years after the Denver Police Department promised to change its off-duty policies, tending bars still pays off.

It was March 20, 1996--three years ago this week--when 25-year-old Jeff Truax and his buddies stumbled out of the 1082 Broadway nightclub where police officers Kenny Chavez and Andrew Clarry were moonlighting. Until then, it had most likely been a relaxing evening for the cops. Pulling down $20 an hour for standing around a club's entrance, flirting with ladies and snatching a couple of fake IDs isn't exactly breaking rocks.

It might have even felt like a welcome break from the monotony when a kid ran up to them, screaming about a fight in a parking lot a block away. The fight was already broken up when Chavez and Clarry arrived, and an Acura Legend was backing out of the lot. The officers ordered the driver to stop, but he kept right on backing up as if he were going to run over Clarry.

Chavez pulled his gun. It wasn't the first time he'd done so. Lots of cops brag about never having to take their gun out their holsters. Chavez wasn't one of them. Before that night, Chavez had shot five people in the line of duty. Some cops say he was a cowboy, but at least one former officer praises Chavez.

"The guys on point are always the best policemen," says Jerry Kennedy, a retired chief of detectives who for several years controlled most of Denver's off-duty assignments. "Those are always going to be the guys taking and giving the shots. We have a saying that you'd rather be tried by twelve than buried by six. I think Chavez thought his partner was going to get run down, and he did what he felt was appropriate."

What Chavez deemed appropriate was to start shooting at the Acura. So did Clarry. Twenty-five bullets later, Jeff Truax was dead, one of his buddies was wounded, and the city was embroiled in a controversy about moonlighting cops. That brouhaha got even bigger last November when a federal jury awarded the Truax estate $500,000, saying that Chavez and Clarry deprived Truax of his constitutional rights by killing him.

David Michaud was Denver's police chief throughout the investigation and trial, and politicians were chewing his ear off about the Truax incident. After the jury's decision, city councilman Ed Thomas, who is a former cop, called for off-duty cops to start paying their own liability insurance so the city could avoid having to pony up similar settlements in the future. Michaud said he'd look at the existing policy and make some changes.

He did make some changes before handing over the reins to new chief Tom Sanchez last September. But how those changes were inspired by the Truax case is anyone's guess.

The department reduced the number of off-duty hours an officer can work from 40 to 32. And officers can no longer moonlight at strip clubs. Other than these two changes, the DPD's off-duty policy remains virtually unaltered. And that's because off-duty cops and the bar owners who employ them think the system works. It's gotten to the point where having a moonlighting cop outside has become almost as important to club owners as good drink specials are to their patrons. And the police department depends on its off-duty officers to keep things under control on busy nights when police would rather be responding to more important things than bar scuffles.

One patrol officer who works off-duty at a busy LoDo bar recalls an incident that illustrates this mutual dependence. During the 1997 Summit of the Eight, cops were not allowed to moonlight, because the DPD needed all of its officers to meet increased demands for security. The officer says he got a call from the owner of the bar after the meeting of world leaders.

"The guy said, 'Please don't ever do that to me again. I had to call 911 nine times over the weekend. It was a disaster,'" says the officer. "Basically, when an off-duty cop is working outside your bar, that bar becomes the officer's neighborhood to patrol, and it cuts down on a lot of bullshit that might otherwise go down."

It behooves a bar owner to keep the cops happy, because they can arbitrarily decide to pull out, leaving the bar without added protection. This just happened to Regas Christou, whose family owns three popular nightclubs: The Church, Club Vinyl and the aforementioned 1082 Broadway. On March 1, District 6 chief Gerry Whitman--whose beat covers LoDo--signed an order prohibiting cops from moonlighting at any of those bars. The department says the order was in response to unspecified excise and license problems and will remain in place until the problems are solved.

While the presence of off-duty cops at 1082 Broadway three years ago played a factor in the death of Jeff Truax, their absence this year might hurt Christou's business.

"Not having off-duty cops puts me at a tremendous disadvantage," says Christou. "Without them, I have no protection at the front door. I have nobody to stop problems before they start--all they can do is respond. Those three or four minutes it takes them to show up can be critical."

And when cops can earn up to $25 an hour moonlighting, the off-duty work becomes critical to their survival as well.

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