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COPS AGAINST COPS

Arizona sheriff Richard Mack says he's not interested in feuding with Denver police, but events are heading in that direction anyway, with a little help from a coterie of "patriots."

Mack, who heads up the thirteen-member Graham County Sheriff's Department in eastern Arizona, says the issue concerns a miscarriage of justice. Denver cops, however, say Mack and his friends were spoiling for a fight.

Sheriff Mack made a national name for himself last year--especially among gun-loving patriots--after bringing suit against the federal government to get the Brady Law overturned. When a federal judge upheld Mack's objections and declared mandatory background checks for gun buyers unconstitutional, the sheriff became a hot commodity on the lecture circuit. (His popularity with pro-gun groups was strengthened, too, by the recent publication of his book From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns.)

Mack's willingness to preach about the dangers of gun control in general and the Brady Law in particular led to his appearance January 14 at a meeting of Citizens for the Constitution, a newly formed Aurora-based group whose members say they believe in strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Although Citizens for the Constitution does not maintain a membership roster, says founder Walt Cross, the group's semimonthly meetings generally attract about 200 folks. Attendees' interests include a fervent belief in the sanctity of states' rights and a distrust of big government. The group's philosophies appeal to people such as John Bryant, a Denver cabbie and political activist who fears that the United States might be amenable to a global government.

Mack--who fought the Brady law because he says it violated the 10th Amendment's guarantee of states' rights and the 13th's ban against involuntary servitude--was a perfect choice to address the group. His words were politely received by the estimated 300 to 800 who paid $7 apiece to attend the gathering at Denver's George Washington High School.

"It was a very nice meeting, with very nice people," says Mack. "I had a wonderful time there, and so did my wife."

His good time came to an abrupt end, however, when Denver police shook up--and shook down--a few of Mack's followers. An informal, post-speech "reception" resulted in the jailing of Bryant--who has tangled with Denver police before--and a rash of irate phone calls, letters and finger-pointing between Mack and the Denver police.

According to Bryant--who attended both the speech and the reception--members of the Denver Police Department's District 3 Impact Team kept a close eye on the attendees' comings and goings. "There were two patrol cars when I arrived at the meeting," he says. "There were four when I left." Because Bryant was curious about the officers' presence, he watched as Sheriff Mack pulled away from the school at the rear of a phalanx of three cars.

"The minute they hit the street," Bryant says, "the cops came flying after them."

When the officers stopped the lead car (driven by a woman Mack later identified as Rosemary Anderson), the sheriff and the driver of the other car pulled their cars over, too. Bryant also joined the group.

"I asked the officers why they had stopped Rosemary," Mack says, "and they said it was because she had an altered plate." (One of the numbers on the license plate had been partially obscured with tape.) "They said they were going to arrest her and impound the car," adds Mack. "I asked them, `Don't you have to prove who did it?' And then the sergeant threatened to arrest me for interference. He said, `Another word and you're going to jail.'"

Mack backed off, but Bryant, who'd begun scribbling down license-plate numbers of the police cars and taking notes on the traffic stop, then became a target of the officers' ire.

Bryant, says Mack, "was thirty feet or more from the stopped vehicle" when officer Kelly Gonzales began hassling him. "I was not in the way," Bryant agrees, "but I was told to leave. If she had said that I needed to stand back, that would have been fine. But she just said, `Leave.'" Bryant ignored her order and continued to take notes.

"She told him, `Get in your car and go, or you'll be arrested,'" Mack recalls. "He told her he didn't have a car. So she says, `Then you'd better get walking.' She kept following him, harping on him. Then she grabbed his pen and threw it to the pavement. She said, `Pick it up and start walking.' So he started walking in place, and she said, `Okay. I've had it. You're under arrest.'"

The officers took Bryant to the city jail and booked him on charges of interference and disobeying an officer; Mack says that Anderson was allowed to go without being charged. Bryant spent fifteen hours in jail before he was able to get out on bond. He might have been released sooner, Bryant acknowledges, except he spent some of that time arguing with deputies who wanted to take his photo and fingerprints. Bryant says he objected because his image and prints "are my personal property," and he didn't want to give them up without first obtaining a receipt.

The arrest predictably angered Bryant, and Mack is irate about it, too.
"I don't know about Colorado," the sheriff says, "but in Arizona, we have to prove an element of a crime. You can't put somebody in jail for being a smart aleck. He didn't interfere in any way.

"I have a high regard for police professionals," continues Mack. "I believe it's the most important and noble profession in this country. But abuse of the badge makes me extremely upset. And plainly, unequivocally and without question, there was abuse of the badge that day."

Denver police agree. Except they claim it was Mack who was out of line.
Impact Team sergeant Bill Hoffman says Mack and several others "surrounded" the officers who initially made the traffic stop. "They had to call for backup because of Bryant and the way all those people were reacting," Hoffman says. Mack, the sergeant maintains, was "argumentative," and Bryant was arrested only after he poked the female officer in the face and chest with his pen. (Bryant denies doing that.) In addition, Hoffman notes, officers discovered after arresting Bryant that he had an outstanding warrant for interfering with an officer in a previous incident.

(Bryant says Denver police issued him a summons for interference in 1991 while he was distributing political fliers to other cabbies. He got the ticket, he says, because he refused to give his name to officers or to explain what he was doing. Bryant claims that he sent the court reams of paperwork explaining why the police and court had no jurisdiction over his case and that when he did not receive a response, he figured he was off the hook.)

The officers who arrested Bryant in the latest incident told their captain, District 3 commander Lyle Hesalroad, that Mack had behaved badly.

"The captain called me the next day to see if I was the one who'd been there or if someone was impersonating me, because his officers said I was hostile," says Mack. "I asked him, `What did I do that was hostile?' and he couldn't tell me anything. He said that three of us were hostile and that we'd surrounded the officers. That would be myself, Rosemary's husband and John Bryant. How do three people surround five or six?

"I told him that at least two of his officers were out of line and that if they were my officers, they'd be receiving disciplinary action."

Mack says he considers the officers' actions a form of harassment. "I thought this was still America," he complains. "Can't we have a meeting at a school without our license plates being checked?" He also questions the reason the gathering had been under surveillance. Mack says he was told by a sergeant that the Impact Team had been sent to protect the gathering from possible attacks by gang members. "The sergeant I talked to said that there was gang graffiti threatening to attack our meeting," Mack says. "I asked where the graffiti was, and I was told it had been erased. And I asked why, if there had been a threat, they didn't make us aware."

The sheriff then sent a letter to Denver police administrators inquiring into the nature of the alleged threats. Denver police now say, however, that the Impact Team had been watching the group in order to nab a "felony suspect" they believed might attend the meeting. The suspect, whom police declined to identify, was not spotted that day.

Mack has promised to return to Colorado for Bryant's April 5 jury trial "if they insist on carrying this injustice any farther." Bryant, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, has every intention of seeing it through. "The government," he says, "is out of control.