By Alan Prendergast
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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.
The city attorney's office had been reviewing parade ordinances and discovered a rule mandating the time-and-a-half fee for moonlighting cops rather than the flat rate that the department had been quoting for years.
"It's not the first time we've discovered that we're not doing what the law says," explains Denver City Councilman-at-Large Doug Linkhart, who runs the subcommittee on safety. "It really is nerve-racking that these things come up, that suddenly we realize we're not doing what the book says. There's certainly egg on the city's face when they discover it, but I'm glad that they did discover it."
When Linkhart questioned whether off-duty officers could sue for back pay because of the longstanding mistake, both the police department and the city attorney's office said that since the officers had signed contracts that stipulated how much they would be paid for their work, a suit is unlikely. "We've heard no feedback from officers that they're unhappy at all," says Assistant City Attorney Mary Toornman.
But while enforcing the rediscovered rule would have meant more money for many cops, it would also have meant more headaches for event organizers, who would have had to cut checks for different officers at different rates. The rule was also problematic because officers sometimes fill in for one another, and their individual salaries could affect payment amounts.
To avoid such problems, the city attorney's office proposed a change in the ordinance to stipulate a flat off-duty rate as opposed to the overtime fee. The change was approved unanimously by the Denver City Council on April 1 — too late to help the 2008 Runnin' of the Green.
The city is now exploring helping McGrath recoup that money through some form of discount for next year's event, according to Kevin Scott, special events and film liaison for the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs.
Signing on for gigs through the Special Events Unit isn't the only way that cops can find extra work — and money. The DPD's Secondary Employment policy, which dates from the 1980s, has been updated over the years, and basically allows officers to get jobs three ways: through the Special Events Unit, through the Office of Secondary Employment, or on their own, via friends or contacts on the force.
The Special Events Unit handles street closures for major functions that need permits, like Taste of Colorado, the Cinco de Mayo festival and Runnin' of the Green, so event organizers have historically taken their requests for off-duty cops there. Requests for off-duty cops from bars, clubs and other entities, including the Denver Broncos, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Rockies and Colorado Avalanche, go through the DPD's Office of Secondary Employment, which keeps its own list of interested officers.
"It's a part of what we do; it's a part of the job," says technician Ted Newsome, one of two full-time staffers coordinating secondary-employment contracts. "Secondary employment has been part of the department since well before any of us came on the force, and it will likely be around long after we're gone. It's a part of the force, and it serves an important function."
Newsome has used off-duty work to supplement his income for most of his 25 years on the job, and concedes that the option is a lucrative one for him and the majority of his co-workers. "Officers weigh what's more important," he says. "Do they have the time so that it's not conflicting with a family event, or is it something they're willing to take some time away from the family in order to support the family?"
The standard hourly rate for secondary employment, as set by the DPD, is $45 at events without alcohol and $50 at events with alcohol. But cops who arrange their own contracts can charge more.
Police officers can come up with their own deals through colleagues and contacts, as long as they check with the DPD to make sure the outside employer isn't on a list of restricted establishments. Vanover, for instance, inherited his moonlighting spot at the Ogden after his boss on the force retired, and while he recovers from a recent operation, he has temporarily ceded the post to another friend, Gabriel Jordan, whom he's confident can fill his shoes.
On New Year's Eve, demand for off-duty cops is so high that moonlighters can often request four or five times the standard rate. By contrast, first-year police officers in Denver typically make $19.77 an hour (they're not allowed to take moonlighting jobs that first year), while 25-year veterans earn around $31.42 an hour on the job, according to the DPD.
Whether the cops are hired through the Special Events Unit, the Office of Secondary Employment or independently, the outside employers are all responsible for paying their hired help directly. But the officers are required to report the hours they worked to the Office of Secondary Employment, which makes sure that cops aren't working more than the limit of 64 hours of combined duty per week, says Detective Victoria Oliver, one of two employees in that office. Since there are no time sheets, the cops are on the honor system.
Denver firefighters had a similar secondary-employment policy until 2002, when it was revised to minimize conflict-of-interest risks and liability, says Lieutenant Phil Champagne, Denver Fire Department spokesman. Outside employers now hire and pay moonlighting firefighters through the department, which tacks the money — $28 an hour — onto their paychecks.
And the DPD has had its own trouble keeping track of moonlighting and overtime hours. Two years ago, when questions were raised about whether cops were calling in sick and then working off-duty jobs so that they could collect two paychecks at the same time, the DPD conducted an internal investigation. According to Denver Chief of Police Gerald Whitman, that investigation into so-called double dipping showed that most personal absences that coincided with off-duty shifts were justified. For instance, one officer had used sick time to tend to sick children and then worked a secondary gig later that night when his spouse was available to take over.
"The biggest issue is not being able to audit it through an automated computer system," Whitman says, noting that the department has tried several software programs to streamline tracking officers' hours into one database, but none of them has worked out. "That puts the burden right back on the police management to identify conflicts within the policy." How the DPD tallies on- and off-duty hours, along with overtime hours, to ensure that officers do not exceed the 64-hour weekly limit is one focus of a Denver City Auditor's report set for release on April 17. Whitman has seen the report, but says he can't discuss details prior to its release.
Whether to lift the 64-hour cap during the upcoming DNC is a decision that the chief has yet to make. But the city has already asked other metro-area municipalities to help out with law-enforcement duties during the convention.
Denver is one of only a handful of major cities across the country that allow police officers to moonlight at bars and clubs. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans are among those that don't permit their police officers to work off-duty in such establishments (although New Orleans did until recently). St. Louis and Atlanta let cops work in bars; in Phoenix, they're only allowed to work in the bars' parking lots.
And Denver's policy is much looser than the policies of many municipalities in the metro area, including Aurora, Boulder, Littleton, Lakewood, Commerce City, Thornton and Arvada. Some of those cities allow officers to work off-duty at events, races and such businesses as banks and churches, but not in bars.
"We just feel like it's not a wise decision to have our people subjected to the types of things that would go on when they're working in an off-duty capacity at an establishment or an event where alcohol is being served," says Steve Davis, public information officer for the Lakewood Police Department. "I think it's too much of a liability for the officers and the department."
Even the Denver Sheriff Department is reluctant to allow its employees to work off-duty in bars. According to Captain Frank Gale, just 66 of Denver's 740 sheriff's deputies worked off-duty in uniform last year, mostly for traffic control at highway construction sites and as security at churches. Of the 66, only four deputies received permission to work in a bar, and all four worked at the same place.
"We have a policy that requires that you get approval first, just as a matter of practice," Gale says. "The undersheriff scrutinizes the applications by off-duty deputies who want to work in establishments that serve alcohol. When you are applying, you have to demonstrate there is not going to be a lot of conflict that surrounds working around alcohol." Off-duty officers need to recognize that their role as law-enforcement agents takes priority over their role as private employees when it comes to such matters as enforcing liquor-code violations, he notes.
Although DPD moonlighting hasn't created many headlines lately, many people — officers and bar owners alike — are reluctant to discuss the practice on the record, for fear of rocking the boat.
The DPD does have a few restrictions. According to the policy, off-duty cops aren't allowed to work at strip clubs because it "constitutes a threat to the status or dignity of the police as a professional occupation," which is much the same reasoning other cities use for keeping cops out of bars altogether. Nor are Denver police officers allowed to work off-duty at establishments facing public-nuisance cases, or that have been put on a restricted list. (The department won't release that restricted list because of what it calls "security" reasons.) A decade ago, for example, Denver police were prohibited from moonlighting at bars owned by Regas Christou, who owns the Church, Vinyl, the Funky Buddha and other clubs.
Mike Bertinelli, who owns LoDo's Club Bash, says he's had bad experiences with the police in other cities, but the Denver cops he's hired have been straight with him. "Over the years, there may have been one or two instances where we didn't have a proper fit and the police department gave us somebody different. Those officers down there — my experience is that they aren't willing to push anything under the rug," he says.
"Having that presence seems to help," he adds. "If somebody wants to challenge a security guard, even if it's not in their best interest, they may still pick a fight. But nobody wants to go to jail. It's the uniform."
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.