Kings of the Hill

Officers O'Bannon and Duncan have racked up an amazing number of Capitol Hill drug busts. And citizen complaints.

"Everybody knows O'Bannon and Duncan," Moten says from behind the bars of the Denver County Jail. "Half the guys in here 'cause of them."

Making a lot of arrests, which O'Bannon and Duncan do, is easy.
Keeping the crooks in jail is the hard part.

The District 6 precinct is centered in the heart of a neighborhood that, were it human, would be schizophrenic. Rows of gorgeous Victorian homes tower above massive front lawns that slope dramatically down to the sidewalk. Around the corner, drab, Eastern European-style apartment buildings are stuffed with students, bartenders and struggling musicians. The people of Capitol Hill show themselves in their windows: rainbow flags, American flags, "Room for Rent," "No NRA!" or "This Owner Armed!"

East Colfax Avenue cuts through the middle of it all like a hyperactive child, its liquor stores, antique shops, used-furniture lots, whizzing cars, fast-food chains, music halls, adult bookstores, bars, bars, and more bars usurping the energy of the neighborhood.

In March, Officer Daniel O'Bannon applied to serve as one of Capitol Hill's official neighborhood police officers. Neighborhood officers are supposed to be the comfortable liaison between the people and the police. They tool around on foot or bicycle and give neighborhood groups tips on preventing crime; they're the kind of cops who carry toy badges for the little guys. Some officers share their pager numbers with neighborhood crime-watchers, who can track them down at a moment's notice.

On paper, O'Bannon exceeded the credentials. During a one-year span, from February 1998 through March 1999, he was either the primary or secondary officer in 1,215 arrests--a remarkable pace even for a cop working in the pits. According to his records, O'Bannon specializes in making drug busts and sending evasive crooks back to the slammer: One-third of his arrests are drug-related, and he returned 168 criminals who failed to appear in court--more impressive numbers.

Joseph Duncan makes the team a two-man war on drugs. Both officers joined the force in 1995 and began patrolling together out of District 6 in 1997. The two often worked the swing shift, when the lights went down. Together, O'Bannon and Duncan cuffed 477 people one year; 166 of the arrest were drug-related.

"They are very good officers who work very hard and focus on drug enforcement," says their supervisor, Captain John Lamb.

But in the last few months, a lot of people outside the department and inside the neighborhood--and the legal system--are questioning O'Bannon and Duncan's policing style.

For his hoped-for job in the community, O'Bannon interviewed with Tom Knorr, executive director of the Capitol Hill United Neighborhood association. Knorr can't recall why the group passed on O'Bannon, saying he could think of nothing memorable about the officer. "We just went with someone else."

At the time, Knorr didn't know that on January 31, during the Super Bowl celebration of the Broncos' victory, O'Bannon was involved in a macing incident outside the Denver Detour, at 551 East Colfax. And Detour owner Sheila Keathley remembers officer O'Bannon clearly: "Tall, white, blonde, thin."

After the game ended that Sunday evening, celebrators spilled onto East Colfax. Keathley and her patrons joined the cheer, slapping high fives with passing carloads of jubilant fans. Usually, Keathley keeps the door facing East Colfax locked to prevent vagabonds from coming in to use the washrooms. (Keathley also grew tired of watching uncomfortable faces reveal shock when they realized they had entered a gay bar.) But this night, Keathley unlocked the door and let East Colfax come to her. Soon, a white patrol car driven by O'Bannon pulled up to where patrons were still cheering at the curb.

"He walked right up to the first person and briefly said something to her and sprayed her from about six inches' range," Keathley says. "I don't know what he said, but by the time he got through with her, her shirt was yellow. And then he went right down the line and got four or five or six more.

"Then he got back in his car. He left. He didn't write any citations; he didn't write a report. I wasn't even aware that he had a partner in the car. I just thought he was a rogue officer, an angry person, a person acting alone. I didn't know someone else was with him." (Investigators won't confirm whether Duncan was inside the car.)

After O'Bannon's car pulled away, Keathley started yelling for her customers to get back inside. The mace victims ran to the bathrooms to rinse their eyes. It took them an hour to get the burning yellow goo out of their hair and off their scalps, Keathley says. The first woman who was sprayed had noticed O'Bannon's name tag just before he'd unleashed the stream of deterrent. She wouldn't let herself forget his name. Keathley and the others wanted to call the cops to report the incident, but the "celebration" outside turned violent. Cops clacked down East Colfax in protective lines, decked in riot gear. White, misty clouds of tear gas wafted into the tentacles of Capitol Hill. "It wasn't the best time to go have a little chitchat with the cops," Keathley says.

Initially, none of the mace victims considered filing a complaint--the cops had done enough, they figured. But in March--about the same time O'Bannon was applying for his neighborhood policing job, Keathley wrote a letter to Mayor Wellington Webb detailing O'Bannon's performance in the community. She demanded an investigation.

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