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Retired Denver police officer Mark Leone, who now teaches at Westwood College after 23 years on the force, believes the off-duty arrangement works well for Denver. "It's a marvelous system," he says. "If we didn't have that system in place, imagine the number of calls...police would get from these establishments and have to call on-duty officers getting paid by taxpayers as opposed to getting paid for by the people who are making a profit. They pay for their own services and they have them right there. If you dial 911, you're looking at a minimum of a two-minute response time.
"I think any conflict of interest is more of a perception than it is a reality," he adds.
Chief Whitman no longer works off-duty himself, but during earlier years on the force, he did shifts at banks, bars and even shopping malls.
"I think that we are really clear on our position as far as the policy goes," he says. "Officers are there to do law enforcement. They are police officers, and nothing else."
Denver compensates officers who are hurt working off-duty the same way as those who are hurt working on-duty, as long as the officer is injured while taking an official police action. There are currently no such compensations being made, according to city records, nor are there any active lawsuits against the city connected to officers working off-duty, according to the city attorney.
This past January, a woman who lives near the 3400 block of Larimer Street called police after hundreds of teenagers gathered there for a rave, drinking and dancing in the streets and alleys, urinating behind cars and parking illegally in every direction. When two cops showed up around midnight, she says they told her the party was legit — that they'd spoken with an off-duty officer working security at the warehouse where the rave was taking place, and the promoter had a permit and two firefighters on site.
But when the woman called the fire department a few days later to complain about the permits, she was told there was no record of a permit or any firefighter on the scene. When she called the DPD again, she was told the matter was being investigated by Internal Affairs. (The department couldn't confirm that claim.)
Some incidents involving off-duty cops are far less murky — and much more tragic. Three years ago, two off-duty cops were working at a baptism party at the Salon Ocampo banquet hall in southwest Denver. One of them, Detective Donnie Young, refused to let Raul Gomez-Garcia back into the party because he didn't have his invitation with him. Gomez-Garcia left, then returned with a gun and killed Young, whose wife will reportedly collect more than a million dollars from the city.
Back in 1995, two off-duty cops working at 1082, a Broadway nightclub owned by Christou, unloaded 25 bullets into a car, killing 25-year-old Jeff Truax and wounding his friend. The cops said the driver had refused to stop and nearly ran over them. A few years later, a federal jury awarded the Truax estate $500,000 from the city's treasury. Although political pressure was put on the department to get liability insurance for off-duty gigs in order to save the city from future settlements, that move went nowhere.
"Everyone fails to see that there's a huge demand for off-duty officers and the city can't afford to employ enough officers," says DPD sergeant Mike Mosco, a former president and current boardmember of the Denver Police Protective Association. "The off-duty workforce is supplementing the on-duty officers. It really doesn't matter if they are on duty or off duty; their safety is being looked after."
As a public information officer for the Denver Police Department, Detective John White is one of the force's most recognized faces. But his public appearances aren't the only reason he's known around town.
When his regular work day ends, White can often be found standing guard, coffee mug in hand, at Pete's Kitchen, the East Colfax eatery that turns into a madhouse on weekend nights when people pile out of nearby bars looking for a grease fix. White makes sure that no one gets too rowdy or tries to take off without paying his bill. He scored the gig through word of mouth when another officer retired, and has been at it for about two years.
"I have a really good working relationship with Pete, and I've been told by many of his patrons that they appreciate the fact that he has an off-duty officer working there. They feel safer," White says. "It also gives us an opportunity to be seen in a very positive light by our citizens."
Even the drunk ones who need a breakfast burrito at 2 a.m.