Unlawful Entry

The high price of Denver's drug war: lies, bad busts, cops in harm's way - and the death of an innocent man.

It was a pathetic outcome to the drug investigation Officer Bini had initiated four months earlier, but not an uncommon one. Even when no-knock raids turn up drugs, that doesn't necessarily mean anyone goes to jail. Westword attempted to track seven comparatively solid no-knock cases through the criminal justice system and found that only one of those cases, a heroin bust, actually led to charges being filed in district court. Others resulted in misdemeanor charges or no charges at all, possibly because the dope seized couldn't be linked to a particular suspect or because those caught in the raid decided to become informants themselves.

But should raids like the one on 3742 High be judged solely on how many convictions they yield? Denver's district attorney doesn't think so.

"This was a classic crackhouse," says Bill Ritter. "The adult had a crack pipe in his pocket, but there was concern about what a jury would do, because he wasn't tied to the trafficking -- he didn't engage in a sale, he was in a separate room, he'd lived there less than a month. Look, this isn't about a $60 sale, it's about a twelve-year-old dealing crack. The community should be stunned about that. In trying to make it result-focused, you could get to the point where you no longer care about a twelve-year-old doing crack."

Sunnier days: Ismael Mena in Mexico.
Sunnier days: Ismael Mena in Mexico.

The house at 3742 High is boarded up now, its customers shifted to the next block or maybe the one beyond that. At street level, the drug war is a form of nuisance abatement rather than a stream of big busts yielding kilo quantities and briefcases full of cash. But that's what the community wants, Ritter insists, and has demanded since 1993's so-called Summer of Violence.

"After the Summer of Violence, there was a conscious decision on the part of the city to do more street enforcement where narcotics are concerned," he says. "The street dealing was so rampant, the city said, that we can't put up with it. So in District Six, we had more officers doing undercover work and producing more cases in a given year than [vice and narcotics officers] had.

"Have we given too much authority and discretion to the street officer? But for that, we would not be able to engage in the level of enforcement we have."

Ritter has seen the drug cases handled by his office soar from 1,000 in 1993 to 2,300 in 1999, and Denver drug convictions have been a primary factor in the surge of the state's prison population over the past decade. Those convictions may represent only a fraction of the people caught up in the daily buys, raids and busts, but Ritter believes there are other effects of the street-level campaign that are more difficult to measure.

"During the time we've ratcheted up our efforts with respect to drugs, serious violent crime has decreased around 35 or 40 percent," he says. "Many of the places where the drug-enforcement effort has been strong are places where violent crime was at its peak in 1993 and has declined. Can I do a cause-and-effect? I don't know that I can. I just think our efforts have played some role in that."

But critics of Denver's drug war say the campaign has been a colossal and costly failure. They talk about the erosion of individual privacy rights, the haphazardness of who gets busted and who walks, the absurdity involved in staging no-knocks to come up with a day's supply of crack. Sending heavily armed SWAT teams into homes to rescue women and children from the horrors of the drug trade actually puts innocent people in jeopardy, they suggest. And police may be at the greatest risk of all -- not only of physical danger, but of more subtle hazards. Under pressure to come up with more and better busts, to coerce junkies into becoming informants, to stretch the facts of a warrant to get the job done, they are never more than a few paces away from corruption, scandal and ruin.

"The drug war is stupid," attorney Phil Cherner says. "It's a totally sordid situation. Chief Sanchez is just the latest victim of this charade."

In cop lingo, one way to compliment a fellow officer is to say that you've "gone through a few doors" together. "Going through doors" implies all of the excitement and danger of a no-knock, in which every officer relies on his partner to cover his back. It also carries the suggestion of a special bond, of secrets that must be protected; if something goes wrong on the job, your buddy is supposed to cover your butt, too.

Although the Mena case has become a flashpoint, the police department's credibility problem is hardly something new. Part of it has to do with the insular, cover-me culture within the department itself, which has surfaced in the Mena case in disturbing ways.

"People are outraged that there was so much coverup and lack of valid information from the police department from the beginning," says LeRoy Lemos. "Sanchez knew they were in the wrong house later that afternoon, yet they weren't forthcoming about that. They operate under a shroud of cover, put out misinformation and go on character-assassination rampages."

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