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Marty Vanover has been part of Denver's music scene for a dozen years, greeting crowds at the Ogden Theatre and listening to the bands on stage, whether they be hip-hop or hippie. After more than a thousand shows at the East Colfax concert hall, he's gotten to know hundreds of people who frequent the venue. Rock stars and fans alike ask him to pose with them for pictures.
A sergeant for the Denver Police Department during the day, Vanover works off-duty for the Ogden at night, wearing his uniform and packing his gun and handcuffs. He doesn't check IDs or pat people down, because cops need probable cause for a search regardless of whether they are on or off duty. But his very presence at the door discourages mischief, something both he and his boss at the Ogden appreciate.
Most concert-goers are friendly, but every once in a while someone hassles him, saying that off-duty cops who work at bars or clubs are just sitting around doing nothing. "You have to realize that we get paid not so much for what we're doing, but for what we may have to do," Vanover tells skeptics. "We're there to make sure everyone is safe and has a good time, not to ruin people's good times."
Inevitably, though, some people's definition of a good time involves something illegal. And just as Vanover isn't allowed to enforce any Ogden rules that aren't also laws, he can't ignore people breaking rules that are laws, no matter who signs his check.
"Striking a balance is common sense," he says. "Obviously, at concerts people smoke marijuana, and obviously, it's against the law to smoke marijuana. So that's where the balance has to come into play. If you have, for example, 1,500 patrons in the concert and the lights are down and you smell marijuana, it wouldn't behoove you as a police officer to walk through that crowd of 1,500 with the lights down and try to find out who is smoking marijuana. I don't see the balance between enforcing the law and officer safety to go through that crowd of 1,500 with a gun strapped to your side.
"But if there was a homicide, I'd be going right through that crowd," he adds.
During his years at the Ogden, Vanover has arrested twenty people, including a man who came walking through the door with a joint behind his ear and another who mistakenly pulled a joint from a pack of cigarettes. Only four arrests got physical.
"When the crowd comes through the door, I'm standing there, and each one passes me, and each one knows an officer is standing there. I think that alleviates 80 percent of the problems that would've occurred," Vanover says. "It's good for the public, at least the law-abiding public. It might not be as good for the criminal element."
Three-quarters of Denver's 1,550 police officers collected a paycheck from someone other than the city for police work in 2007. All together last year, these men and women worked more than 200,000 hours at bars, sporting and cultural events, marathons and parties, shopping malls, banks, liquor stores and grocery stores. Most of them did it in uniform, although some off-duty cops — such as those who ride RTD routes looking to bust dealers, hookers and vandals — are hired to go undercover.
Although there have been criticisms of police moonlighting over the years, lately the Denver Police Department's secondary-employment policy has been working fairly smoothly. But as Denver marches toward the Democratic National Convention in August — when police could end up putting in plenty of overtime, both on and off duty — the city is trying to iron out any existing kinks.
Terry McGrath has been organizing the annual Runnin' of the Green, an informal race that takes place during St. Patrick Day's weekend, for the past two decades. Every year, he contracts through the DPD's Special Events Unit to hire off-duty cops.
This year, the race took off from 17th and Wazee streets in LoDo. Racers wearing green — green tights, green headbands, green Afros and green devil's horns — lined up for the start. A blind runner passed by first, linked by a rope tied around his waist to another runner who served as his eyes. Moms pushed strollers, and a three-legged dog ran behind them, followed by a man running with a cigarette in his mouth. Some people looked ready to race, some seemed hung over, some were still drunk. All of them appreciated the presence of the cops.
Until this year, McGrath had been paying his moonlighters a flat $50 hourly rate set by the police department. But a few days before the event, he received an e-mail from the DPD telling him that the policy had changed. Instead of a flat rate, he'd have to pay the amount that each officer would make if he was working overtime on the job — typically time and a half. That meant the 66 officers McGrath had hired through the DPD would cost $1,800 more than he'd expected.
"The cost of our race just skyrocketed, and there's nothing we can do about it because they say they found an ordinance and they have to enforce it," McGrath complained.