PITCHING A BLUE STREAK
Two weeks ago a young newspaper hawker named Robert Lewis caused a stir after he was handcuffed and jailed at Coors Field. Lewis's incarceration by off-duty Denver police officers on a criminal trespass charge made news because few people realized Denver's new ballpark has its own private cell block. But Lewis was more annoyed at the reason for his apprehension: He was passing out free game programs on a sidewalk inside the "DMZ," police lingo for a little-known "enhanced enforcement boundary" that rings Coors Field.
Within that magic bubble, even if a peddler, pushcart owner or shopkeeper has the requisite license or permit to vend or display his wares on the public sidewalk, he can be told to move at the discretion of the police--whether they're working on-duty for the city or off-duty (at between $19 and $25 per hour) for the Rockies.
Denver's DMZ is a joint creation of the city, the Rockies and the baseball stadium district. Denver police captain Mike O'Neill, the supervising officer for the off-duty cops who work for the Rockies, and Denver Director of Excise and Licenses Balvino Chaves say it exists for the safety of the public: to ensure that panic, stampedes or traffic jams don't result in injury. But to the shopkeepers, hawkers and peddlers who work the beat, it looks more like a scheme to ensure that the Rockies make all the money there is to make off Denver's baseball team. And Lewis isn't the only one who's had trouble getting his boat to rise with the Rockies' lucrative tide.
Bert Matthews felt the long arm of the law even before the new ballpark was built. In April 1993 he was jailed for selling his $1 Homestand Flyer outside the Rockies' old home, Mile High Stadium. He spent the night in jail, was released on bond, and went out the next day to try to sell his paper again. He parked his car in the parking lot of what was then the Holiday Inn (he says he'd received permission from the management of the hotel to do so) and went back to the sidewalk outside Mile High. When he returned to his station wagon for refills, he says, he found a group of three policemen and a Rockies official inside the car, hauling out the remainder of his programs. Matthews claims the cops took the papers (about $500 worth) to the District 1 station. He never saw them again.
"One officer took me aside as they were loading up and told me, `You have to understand something: The Rockies paid a lot of money to have that team come here, and they don't want to see you out here,'" says Matthews.
Now that the Rockies have moved to Coors Field, even people who own businesses and lease building space on the blocks surrounding the ballpark say they've been hassled. Dave Reynolds, who owns The Show Inc., a baseball memorabilia store at 1925 Blake Street, says that he has been harassed five or six times since opening day. "Back on March 31 and April 1, when they were playing with replacement players, I put a table out in front of my shop for two days, and it helped business a lot," says Reynolds. "Then, beginning on April 26, after the strike was over, they started hassling me." Denver police officers told Reynolds to "move it or they'd move it for me," he says. Reynolds adds that one officer even said, "If you step one foot outside your building, I'll shut you down."
Reynolds says he asked a motorcycle officer just what law he was breaking by standing on the front steps of his building. According to Reynolds, the officer radioed back to the District 6 station and relayed the message that his superiors didn't know the law but said it was a mandate from the city attorney. "It seems like the Rockies have the cops in their hip pocket," says the shopkeeper.
Both Captain O'Neill and Assistant City Attorney Jim Thomas, who advises the police department in its Coors Fields operations, disagree with that evaluation. Thomas says he's never even heard of the "enhanced enforcement boundary." And both he and O'Neill say that on-duty officers and police who accept off-duty "secondary employment" are allowed to enforce only actual laws and ordinances, not what are known as "house rules." A police handout defines house rules as those made "solely in the interest of management."
But just where "house rules" end and the law begins is hard to nail down. For instance, Jim Thomas says the police didn't apprehend Robert Lewis for giving away programs (which is not against the law) but cited him for trespassing because he refused to leave private property. So does that mean that anyone who breaks a Rockies house rule and is asked to leave can be busted by the cops if he refuses to do so? It's a question that causes both O'Neill and Thomas to balk.
"I see where you're going," Thomas says. "But no. We'd have ushers do that."
"Most people are reasonable," O'Neill adds. "They go along."
Keli McGregor, vice president of business operations for the Rockies, says he's concerned that "isolated incidents" such as Lewis's arrest, the disputes with program vendors and a public-relations fiasco earlier this year when police impounded dozens of bicycles fans had locked to the ballpark fence, will give the park a bad name. "We promote a family environment," says McGregor. He characterizes the DMZ as a step the Rockies have taken to "protect the neighborhood from loitering, litter and trash."
Robert Lewis, who has hired an attorney and recently learned that the American Civil Liberties Union has agreed to take his case on free-speech grounds, calls McGregor's explanation "bullshit.
"If they're so concerned about trash, why didn't they arrest Mayor Webb's people when they were handing out leaflets [prior to the June 6 election]?" he asks. "They decided to get me because I'm competition."
Blake Street business owner Reynolds agrees. "The Rockies don't own Denver," he says. "They play baseball in Denver. Period.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.