When I moved to Denver, some of the town's top cops were tooling around in Caddys provided by Elvis Presley, the about-to-burn-out star to whom they'd provided not just security, but honorary police status, complete with badge and uniform. The Denver Police Department was just a decade removed from its biggest scandal, a burglary ring that was an inside job; a half-decade removed from the controversial cop shootings of Chicano activists in Curtis Park; and in no way removed from Buster Snider, the DPD's notorious top ticket-giver (who was later busted himself for soliciting prostitutes).
Back in 1977, Denver was a long way from the neighborhood-watching DPD of today, an outwardly touchy-feely department that decided to voluntarily police itself for racial profiling and will hold an open house in the newly remodeled Denver Police Administration Building later this month. (Denver Police Motorcycle Units, Mounted Horse Patrol, Bomb Truck and Crime Stoppers van "will be on display for viewing," promises the announcement.)
Surely I had done something in the intervening 25 years -- an era that stretched from Elvis sightings to Amber alerts; from Charlie's Angels, the TV show, to Charlie's Angels, the movie -- to earn a place in the DPD intelligence bureau's files. After all, the FBI had considered John Denver, another Colorado transplant, so dangerous that the agency compiled a hefty dossier on the faaaaar-out singer -- one that subsequently required enough Magic Marker action to get a room high before a censored version could be released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Over the past six months, information about the intelligence-bureau records -- the city's "spy files" -- has crept out. Most of what we know (and that's not much) came in a report from the three former judges Mayor Wellington Webb had charged with getting to the bottom of the bureau's filing system -- or lack thereof. In their report issued this past June, the judges put the blame squarely on a new computer program that the DPD had purchased in the late '90s -- without the necessary (and costly) training that would have taught the department how to use it. Instead, after culling through surveillance files dating back to the '50s and tossing many of them, the DPD entered the remaining info in such a haphazard, half-assed manner that people who've received police honorariums or been given concealed-weapons permits wound up sharing a database with individuals who'd been labeled "criminal extremists" -- occasionally, even legitimately so.
About 90 percent of the intelligence bureau's surveillance information was purged before the new database was created, according to Webb. (Denver officials' definition of "purge" seems rather fluid, however: I have my suspicions about what was used for the foundation of the Wellington E. Webb Office Building set to debut next month.)
And by the time the three-judge panel was done analyzing the database that had resulted from that inputting frenzy, another 3,277 files on individuals and 208 on groups were slated for purging. Organizations and citizens who suspect that one of those files may have their name on it have just 59 more days to present themselves at DPD headquarters and request information.
Just before 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, the first day those request forms could be submitted, I joined a small group of curious citizens at DPD headquarters. First in line -- and in the glare of the TV cameras -- was Jack Mudry, DJ, KUVO radio host, activist and translator, which meant he had to get his answer by 8:30 a.m., when he was due at his job in the court next door. He got it even earlier: Nada. Zip. "We have no information from our purged files to give you," said DPD spokesman Steve Carter, who followed a carefully crafted script as he reported the results on each citizen's request.
The request form, which asks for your name, date of birth and form of ID, includes this disclaimer: "The information provided below will not be used to create any new criminal intelligence file. It will be retained to protect the privacy of the requesting individual and as proof to whom information was released."
But any individual looking for privacy Tuesday morning didn't get it: The citizens looking for information were far outnumbered by reporters looking for a story.
Mudry had come to 1331 Cherokee Street with Rob Prince, Doug Vaughan and Ernesto Vigil, activists all. One by one, they got the bad news: The DPD had no information in the purged files to give them.
"It was so sad," said Prince, who teaches anthropology at Metropolitan State College and has lived in Colorado for 33 years. "Nothing's sacred anymore."
"They may be getting smarter about how they do this," Mudry observed. "It really gave them a black eye."
Vaughan, a journalist who wrote for Westword off and on through the mid-'80s, didn't mince words then and doesn't mince them now. As cameras clicked, he challenged Carter on the phrasing of his canned statement: If the panel had deemed that the DPD had a legitimate reason to keep an intelligence file on an individual, his or her file was not purged, and so of course there was "no information from our purged files to give you."
"I thought that what would happen this morning would be exactly what happened, with the DPD being able to tell people, 'Sorry, we have nothing on you' in front of the TV cams," said Vigil, who was arrested at a 1999 rally for Leonard Peltier by the same intelligence-bureau officer who'd had him under surveillance five years earlier. "Therefore, the issue is trivialized, and those concerned about the issue look either foolish, paranoid or argumentative. Or all three. Then the public shrugs and goes back to sleep.
"When the Webb administration announced the procedures, I assumed my stuff won't be released because it is going to be re-entered again with the 'correct' criminal predicate so that it can be kept in the 'files' without them having to tell me that it is there or that there is/was something on me. This is precisely what the procedures allow."
"Why do this?" Prince asked, then answered his own question. "To get a sense of what they're doing now. To try to get the picture. In the current atmosphere, the willingness to let the government erode civil rights -- I've never seen anything like it. That's why we went."
I went because I wanted to see what a DPD intelligence bureau that had labeled the American Friends Service Committee -- an organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize -- as a "criminal extremist" group would do with a cranky journalist. I went because I wanted to see how anything labeled an "intelligence" bureau could have done such a felony-stupid job of illegally spying on citizen activists pursuing their First Amendment rights. If the usual suspects -- people like Mudry and Prince and Vaughan and Vigil -- didn't have files, how many of the 3,277 people who do will think to ask for them?
"We are urging the city to live up to its responsibility and notify people who are in these files," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU, which has sued the city for access to all of the data. "It's not failure to operate the software that makes the police do surveillance of citizens that treats them like criminals."
Mudry went back later in the day and ran into a friend, a widow of one of the Chicano activists slain in Curtis Park; there was a file with her name on it. And by the end of the work day, the trickle had become a flood, as hundreds of people poured into the lobby of police headquarters to protest the existence of the files -- and see if they are in them. Glenn Morris. Rick Stanley. LeRoy Lemos. Members of Copwatch. Lisl Auman's father. Someone holding a sign that read "Another peaceful activist checking on spy files." Said one activist: "I've never felt safer in a room. These are all people trying to stop criminals."
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Steve Schweitzberger, one-time candidate for mayor, discovered he had a file -- although not for any of his environmental causes or Columbine-related actions. He rated because he'd written the police after Ismael Mena was shot dead by cops in a no-knock raid, suggesting that a "Mena Monitor" be added to DPD holsters. As the sky darkened, a handful of other requests came up positive.
But not mine.
A few minutes after I'd submitted my form, Carter handed it back to me with his standard line: "We have no information from our purged files to give you."
Like Elvis, I left the building.