The Denver Police Department is the gang that couldn't file straight. Its intelligence bureau should be renamed The Stupidity Bureau.
Six months after the American Civil Liberties Union stumbled upon the existence of the DPD's secret surveillance records of citizens -- the so-called "spy files" -- the bureau still can't sort out its own intelligence. If this were a CSAP test, Governor Bill Owens would be turning the entire department into a charter school. Keystone Kops Kindergarten.
The bureau flunked another test on Monday, when an officer discovered some forgotten spy files stashed in an old cabinet. There hasn't been such a find of dangerous, undocumented waste since the feds sniffed out plutonium in the ducts at Rocky Flats.
"I was surprised when they told me about this," says DPD chief Gerry Whitman, who describes himself as "tight-jawed" over the mess. "I pulled six guys over and put them on it."
"The mayor was as frustrated as the chief was," says mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson. "We had been working very closely with the police to make sure this process was open; we had this three-judge panel; we had a lot of meetings about how we could make the files accessible. It's ridiculous."
So ridiculous that the next day, Whitman was taking solace at the nation's first "Donut Duel," a police fundraiser that pitted Krispy Kreme against LaMar's. Judges from four local law-enforcement agencies declared LaMar's the winner. It was a victory for the hometown, now that LaMar's Donuts International has moved its headquarters to Denver. For consolation prizes, it matched Mayor Wellington Webb's celebration in May 2001 of a local restaurant serving its millionth meatball -- the same week that Denver lost Boeing's headquarters to a sophisticated pitch from Chicago.
The ACLU gave this city plenty to chew on back in March, when it revealed that the DPD had been keeping track of people exercising their First Amendment rights to do nothing more suspect than protest. In response to the ACLU's bombshell (and subsequent lawsuit against the city), Mayor Wellington Webb charged a panel of three former judges with investigating the intelligence bureau's database to determine which, if any, files were relevant to actual police work and to devise a plan for eliminating the rest of the information.
The bureau had started compiling that database in 1999, when the DPD bought a new computer system -- and in order to save money skipped the expensive (and, in retrospect, very necessary) training program. At the time, alleged intelligence officers had gone through the bureau's paper files, some of which dated back almost fifty years, and then entered any material they deemed worthy into the computer system -- apparently wherever, and however, they wanted. As a result, the judges determined, people who'd received police honorariums and people who'd applied for concealed-weapons permits were mistakenly -- and stupidly -- stored in the same spot as people being tracked by the intelligence bureau as potential "criminal extremists." That was computer-user error.
But that doesn't explain away the appearance in the database of people who'd participated in peaceful protests. "It's not the failure to operate that software that makes them do surveillance of citizens," points out ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein.
After studying the database, the judges determined that about 3,500 of the files kept on individuals and groups were inappropriate and should be purged. With that purging set for November 1, two weeks ago the DPD opened its doors to anybody interested in finding out if there was a file with their name on it. All they had to do was show up at police headquarters and fill out a form requesting information about the existence of any such file (starting a new paper trail in the process), and minutes later they learned if they were the proud possessor of a file slated to be purged -- or if the department had "no information from our purged files to give you." That standard line could be interpreted two ways: Either the intelligence bureau indeed didn't have a file on you -- or it had been determined that your questionable behavior justified the bureau's continuing to maintain a secret surveillance file on you.
Now, however, a third possibility has emerged: The DPD's search for its own intelligence has been so half-baked that it doesn't know whether it has a file on you or not.
That third option could explain why so few of the usual suspects -- including a who's who of political and social activists who showed up en masse on the first day that files were available -- have scored a hit.
The DPD has not just flunked filing; it's failed its English lesson on definitions, too. Because when the department says it "purged" a file, it apparently means "it reserved the right to stuff the purged papers into whatever old box or file cabinet it wanted to and then only admit to their existence when the ACLU had the temerity to sue the city for keeping under surveillance citizens who were exercising their rights to free speech, protesting assorted causes that occasionally include police misconduct."
The stash of files unearthed Monday contains information on people whose names were not included in the database studied by the judges, which suggests that either the DPD is continuing to keep hard-copy files outside of the computer system, or that the 90,000 pieces of intelligence allegedly purged back in 1999, when the database was introduced, are still around. Somewhere.
Silverstein learned of the new find through a reporter's late-night call. But he'd already suspected there might be more material: The computerized database "has references to paper files," he explains. "But we don't know what they've found now -- whether they're purged files or new paper files." He can ask when depositions in the ACLU's lawsuit start this week.
In the meantime, the city has eased the rules for people interested in viewing their files -- if the DPD can find them. Rather than require that they show up in person -- perhaps for a second or even a third time, as new files are discovered, uncovered, recovered -- the department will respond to written requests. The DPD will also start contacting individuals and organizations, particularly those located out of state, that have files slated for purging. And that translates to "shred, delete or destroy," says Whitman.
"I'm going to get this done once and for all," he adds. "We're touching every piece of paper we can find."
They might start by looking under all those stale doughnut boxes.
Public Safety accounts for the largest portion of the city's budget, and although other areas are being cut back, the Denver Police Department "will have the same authorized strength as in 2002," Mayor Wellington Webb announced Monday, when he released his proposed $769 million budget for 2003 -- the last budget he'll submit "as Mayor of this great City."
And if the intelligence bureau finally gets its spy-file mess sorted out, that could free up a few more officers to actually do police work.
Certainly the city is going to need every extra body it can find. Although Webb promised that the budget was not "doom and gloom," it wasn't sweetness and light, either, not after two years in which sales-tax collections were "flat and less than flat."
At last count (and that count was recent enough to require a hasty addition to the printed budget proposal), 110 city jobs were empty, and now they might stay that way indefinitely. (The position of parking czar John Oglesby is not among the empty slots -- not officially, at least. Almost three months after his thirty days' paid leave was scheduled to end, Oglesby is still on the public dole -- and still out of the office, awaiting the completion of an independent audit of the parking division. If Webb's looking for a fast hundred thou, might we suggest giving Oglesby the boot?)
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Although "basic trash collection, snow removal and street sweeping are maintained," Webb pronounced, recreation centers will be closed on Sundays, and "new tree planting is halted until the drought is over."
This last stipulation has a particular, peculiar resonance after the Grand Prix -- one of those "economic development" projects that becomes even more important (to a city budget, at least) in tough times. In preparation for the Grand Prix, twenty trees were removed from around the race area and replanted in Benedict Park last spring.
But over Labor Day weekend, the city hastily chopped down another 32 trees -- half of them conveniently dead, reportedly -- to clear the sightlines for race-goers. In exchange, the Grand Prix promised to replace the trees (the live trees, that is) in a three-to-one ratio, at a cost of up to $15,000. And in fact, the Grand Prix has already paid the city for the trees, which is holding the money in escrow.
"The plan is to reassess the city's drought situation next spring," explains mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson. At that point, some of the trees will be planted along Speer Boulevard and the rest along the Auraria Parkway -- if the budget and the environment look liquid enough.