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.

But deception -- and knowing when to keep your mouth shut -- are part of the cop culture, too. Ten years ago, a Denver police detective named Marco Vasquez was castigated by the Colorado Supreme Court for making a "deceitful promise" to a potential informant. Vasquez had promised to help the informant get a deal on a weapons charge in exchange for his cooperation, even though the detective already knew that the charge had been thrown out for lack of evidence.

In another line of work, such a public tongue-lashing by the state's highest court would be considered a liability, but Vasquez was promoted. He was Officer Bini's commander at the time of the Mena shooting. He has since been transferred to the patrol division downtown, in the wake of allegations by technician Sue Scott that she felt pressured by Vasquez and others to alter reports in the Mena case. (Officials have said that Vasquez's transfer is not a disciplinary action; Scott's complaint is still being investigated.)

If Mena hadn't been killed, would the public ever have known that police were at the wrong house that day? Most complaints concerning officer misconduct never make it out of the DPD's internal files, and there may be more of those complaints than even the department's strongest detractors could imagine.

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

Recently, Detective Betty J. Smith filed an affidavit in response to a civil lawsuit against the police department, stating that 7,515 complaints have been filed against Denver police officers since 1990 "involving allegations of sexual harassment, assault, sexual assault, battery or any sexual misconduct or crimes of violence." Smith ought to know: She works in the DPD's Civil Liability Bureau as a liaison to the chief.

Of those 7,515 complaints, Smith states, 1,859 have been sustained, meaning that the complaint was investigated and found to have factual support. It's an astounding figure; 1,859 sustained complaints over ten years works out to Denver cops committing assault, battery, sexual misconduct, harassment or "crimes of violence" on an average of once every other day. It's also considerably higher than the figures on police discipline cases released to the Denver Post three years ago in response to a public-records request. And that raises even more troubling questions: Do you believe that the DPD complied with the law and provided accurate documents to the press in 1997, or do you believe the sworn affidavit of a police officer that was filed in federal court a few weeks ago?

The proliferation of street-level drug cases -- especially no-knock cases -- troubles attorneys already grappling with other instances of alleged police misconduct. In hindsight, it's easy to declare that the Bini warrant for 3738 High should not have been issued, but the ACLU's Silverstein thinks there were enough red flags in the warrant to alert police officials, the judge and the prosecutor that something was wrong even before the shooting occurred.

"In theory, the warrant process is supposed to protect you from a zealous officer who's caught up in the heat of pursuing crime," Silverstein says. "The officer's job is to serve up all the facts, and the judge has to decide if these facts are enough. It seems to me that this warrant cuts corners on probable cause. And if that's the case, then we need greater scrutiny of the procedure by which any warrant is issued, not just no-knocks."

LeRoy Lemos has an even more succinct opinion. "This," he says, "is a glaring example of bad police work."

Westword fellow Sean Neumann provided research assistance for this article.

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