Where the Wilding Things Are

Denver tries to corral the chaos of LoDo at Let Out.

It was one in the morning on July 4, and LoDo felt like a fuse that had just been lit. The bars and clubs of lower downtown were about to let out thousands of patrons at closing time. Waiting in the streets and on the sidewalks were more than fifty police officers, including members of the Denver SWAT team in tactical gear. Soon the night would reek of puke, piss and pepper spray.

July 4 marked the second weekend of the Denver Police Department's LoDo crackdown at Let Out, the witching hour after last call at the clubs. Three weekends before, around 1:30 a.m. on June 14, eleven young black men had run amok on the 1900 block of Market Street during Let Out, smashing car windows, sucker-punching innocent bystanders, hooting, hollering and videotaping themselves doing it. None of the hooligans were arrested that night, and none have been arrested since -- but the next day, an investigator seized a video camera from a suspect in a separate case. Two local TV stations broadcast excerpts of the rampage, which was characterized on-air and in headlines as a "wilding."

The DPD's reaction was swift and forceful. Police Chief Gerry Whitman declared a zero-tolerance policy on street crime in LoDo and ordered a massive increase in the number of officers stationed there on Friday and Saturday nights, transforming the nightclub district into an occupied zone.

John Johnston
The closing-time crowd outside LoDo's.
John Johnston
The closing-time crowd outside LoDo's.

Until last month, it was routine for only two or three officers to patrol LoDo on weekend nights, in addition to the dozen-plus off-duty cops hired by clubs to bolster security, according to DPD District 6 Commander Deborah Dilley. On some weekends, only one on-duty officer was stationed in LoDo. On others there were none.

"That needed to change," Dilley says. "The problem was, we're dealing with very large crowds, and if a fight breaks out in the middle of the crowd, it's just not safe for a single officer to wade into that fight. We did not have enough officers to make the appropriate arrests."

In the first weeks of the crackdown, police made between twenty and forty arrests per weekend at Let Out. Most of those arrested -- more than two-thirds -- have been black or Hispanic males. Almost half the arrests have been for public fighting. Other charges include disturbing the peace, disobeying a lawful order, interference with police authority, and owning a pit bull.

Dilley says LoDo is no more dangerous than similar entertainment districts in other cities where a large number of bars and clubs are concentrated in a small area, such as Sixth Street in Austin or the Gaslight district in San Diego. "Anywhere you have a lot of bars in one place, you're going to have fights and you're going to have crowd-control issues," she says.

Club owners say the June 14 wilding was an aberration. "The media is over-amplifying one isolated act of senseless violence," says George Manning, a managing partner in the LoDo Restaurant Group, which operates LoDo's and two other clubs. "It's not like hoodlums are roving the streets in large numbers."

Even so, every Friday and Saturday night in LoDo, the air crackles with menace. It's sketchy down there at Let Out, and it's gotten sketchier over the past year, as the drink specials have gotten cheaper, and some clubs have switched from a top-40 dance format to hip-hop.

These days, LoDo at Let Out is not for the squeamish. The stumblebums and urban pioneers who drank in the warehouse district in lower downtown's decrepit days of old could hold their liquor. Now, every Friday and Saturday when the clubs close, it's amateur hour. Vomit splatters the sidewalks. Most of the club-goers who flood the area on weekends do not live in Denver. They are the Mile High City's Bridge and Tunnel crowd, coming from the suburbs to guzzle penny-a-drink-before-11 p.m. cocktails and beers, mixing their booze like crazed alchemists outfitted in the latest mega-mall fashions. Their sub-species include the backward baseball capsters, the hoochie-skirted "woo" girls, the shiny-shirt mafia. There are also the poseur thugs who show up looking for trouble. Jacked up on energy drinks, testosterone and illegal powders, they act like they've got something to prove but don't know what, casting hard stares, trying to catch a fight. Brawls are common.

"When I lived above the Wynkoop, the biggest complaint issue at closing time was people being loud, yelling things like, 'I'll meet you at Racines tomorrow at ten for breakfast!'" says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who's lived in LoDo for ten years, the first eight of them above his Wynkoop Brewing Co. "Now it's quite different. The complaints are about people getting punched in the face. What I've noticed over the years is this increasing sense of energy at Let Out from the small number of kids who are down there looking to fight. I don't understand why they do that, but I want to make sure it doesn't escalate. The increased police presence is necessary. Long-term, it's good for business and good for Denver."

Before midnight on July 3, only a handful of police were out in LoDo, most of them off-duty officers hired by club owners. Two officers in uniform shared a pizza and a laugh with a black-shirted bouncer on the deck outside Market 41, a popular dance club in the 1900 block of Market. Around the corner, on 19th Street, a pair of taggers spray-painted gang signs on two white, undercover cop cars. The streets were peaceful -- but then, LoDo in the hours before Let Out can be deceptively calm, with the sweaty, drunken throngs still inside the clubs, waiting to be disgorged after last call.

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