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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.

So if moonlighting is such a symbiotic relationship, why all the controversy? Other metro-area police departments provide one explanation. Cities such as Aurora and Boulder don't let officers moonlight at bars because they want to avoid situations where officers are "working for two masters." Technically, off-duty officers work for the city even though they're being paid by the bar owners. The job of an off-duty cop isn't to help out the bar's bouncers; it's to enforce city laws.

"So if you've got an officer working at a bar and he sees the bartender serving an obviously intoxicated customer another drink, what does he do?" asks Aurora Police Department spokesman Bob Stef. "On one hand, he's working for the city and is supposed to write a ticket for this. On the other hand, he's being paid by the bar owner. It's an awkward situation we avoid by not letting officers moonlight at bars."

Denver police spokesman David Metzler says that kind of policy shows that other cities don't trust their officers to do the right thing--such as write up the bartender for a municipal violation.

But Jerry Kennedy says potential conflicts of interest aren't the source of controversy. He chalks it up to plain and simple jealousy. First, he says, you've got public jealousy. Many average citizens don't like to see officers getting paid $20 for their mere presence--which often closely resembles standing around.

"It's difficult to call it work," says Kennedy, who now spends most of his days standing around the golf course. "I knew one policeman who used to earn his extra money by working wrought iron. Now, that was work. That guy would be falling asleep at red lights the next morning. Most of the time you're working off-duty, all that's required is your presence."

Kennedy says the other, bigger, source of jealousy comes from within the department. He knows all about that. Before he retired almost a decade ago, he was in charge of farming out every major off-duty job in the city. Kennedy started out moonlighting at a 3.2-beer bar and eventually acquired a monopoly on the city's off-duty work. After more than twenty years with the force, his jobs ranged from providing security for Broncos games to guarding hotels where Elvis Presley stayed. (His friendship with Presley earned him a brand-new Lincoln, courtesy of the singer, and an ensuing date before the city ethics committee.) According to one veteran cop, if an officer wanted to moonlight anywhere besides the senior citizens' bingo hall, he "kissed Jerry's ring."

Kennedy laughs this off now, but he admits that interdepartmental jealousy was one of the reasons he was sent out to the gulag--otherwise known as Stapleton Airport--in 1988. But soon after Kennedy's disciplinary reassignment, other officers requested to be transferred out to the airport to work in his unit. Whether this was because they wanted to stay close to the man who handed out the good jobs is left to speculation. "I had one gal come up to me," says Kennedy, "and she said, 'Kennedy, is it true you only let your friends work?' Hey, I don't hire my enemies! But basically, it was all poppycock. I got the good jobs because I was dependable, and so was my crew. Some guys got pissed because they screwed up and got axed. End of story. I'm sure it still happens today."

Today, concerts, festivals and Broncos, Nuggets and Rockies games are all handled by specific officers, who hire their own crews. Broncos games, for example, require up to eighty off-duty cops; the idea is that having one officer in charge makes things easier for the cops and the event managers. But for all of these jobs, paperwork must be filed with Sergeant George Maes at the Secondary Employment office. Ten years ago the DPD created a $62,000-a-year sergeant's job at department headquarters to broker and monitor all off-duty jobs. A bar owner will call Maes to request a cop for moonlighting duties, and Maes will refer an officer from a waiting list. The officer negotiates his own deal with the bar owner, and if they can't come to terms, then the bar owner doesn't get an officer. This rarely happens.

The Denver Police Department currently employs 1,400 police officers. Though the department refers to the Secondary Employment office as a "control mechanism" for the chief of police to keep tabs on who's working off-duty and where, the office refuses to say how many cops moonlight and how much money they earn doing it.

And in the case of Christou's bars, it seems as if the office can also be used to keep bar owners in line.

Christou explains: "If you're coming up for a public-nuisance hearing, which is the most common way the city can shut you down, it's essential to have an off-duty cop there to testify about how you run your bar. A judge may not listen to the owner, but they'll always listen to a cop. So if you don't have off-duty cops working for you when that hearing comes up, you're screwed."

DPD spokesman Metzler says that Christou is reading too much into Chief Whitman's decision to ban off-duty cops at his bars. "This has nothing to do with Mr. Christou as an individual," says Metzler. "This is not a conspiracy. But the fact is that off-duty officers aren't there to make his operation run smoothly. He's supposed to be able to run these clubs without cops babysitting him. And until he gets his excise and license problems resolved, we're going to pull our officer out of there."

Metzler says that the idea is to reduce the risks placed on off-duty officers, even though it's rare that the city ends up paying legal bills in cases such as the one involving Clarry and Chavez. The last big payout before Truax was a 1994 settlement of $400,000, paid to a motorist who was shot and wounded by an off-duty officer during a traffic altercation. But it's apparently still a sticking point for politicians like Councilman Ed Thomas.

"Eddie Thomas is a liar," Metzler says bluntly. "There's no insurance company that a cop can buy off-duty liability insurance from. And if there is, he didn't tell us about it. In fact, Eddie ran [security for] the People's Fair and the Cherry Creek Arts Festival for years, and he didn't give a shit about cops paying for their own liability insurance then, did he? Now he's a politician, so he figures a suggestion like that will get some ink."

Thomas declined to comment for this article.
But Kennedy, who's been through his share of off-duty scrapes with politicians and the department, thinks the liability issue is minor. He says the department shouldn't overhaul a good program just because of political pressure.

"But as sure as the sun is going to come up tomorrow," says Kennedy, "somebody is going to be giving somebody else shit about off-duty work. In any other profession, if you work extra hours you're looked at as being industrious and hardworking. Not policemen.

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