A man living in the metro area says the response of the Denver Police Department to the recent theft of his vehicle was so slow, rude and ineffectual that he decided to search for the car himself. He adds that many hours later, after finding the vehicle on his own, the officer he called to clear the case was more polite than his predecessors. But the cop's comments about the charges and fees he'd incur for an investigation and the long odds of catching the culprit ultimately convinced him that the DPD would be of no help. So he took the vehicle home and shared his experiences on a neighborhood Internet bulletin board, prompting plenty of similar tales from folks living near him.
"I was honestly stunned by the responses," says the man, a resident of South Park Hill and Denver Police Department District 2 who requested that we not use his name or share any other potentially identifying information, including the time and date of the crime, the vehicle type, his address or the location where he found his ride. "There were some very intense anecdotal stories about the lack of response and caring from the Denver police over the years."
The Denver Police Department's reaction? I shared the broad strokes of this account with two DPD public information officers and asked them to provide general takes on the man's claims. Instead, the reps left most of the issues unaddressed in lieu of asking on multiple occasions for the very details the man didn't want to divulge, in order to inquire into his specific case.
The vehicle owner reacted via email like so: "I remain steadfast in my decision to not pursue any complaint against the officer/s involved. While I respect that they (the department) want to look into this (although I still have my personal doubts that they will pursue this with any success given their continued issues, and issues in the past with respect to this), I don't believe anything will come of it."
On a morning a few days ago, the man says, his wife discovered that their vehicle had vanished. When he called 911, "I was told the police would be there shortly," but that didn't prove to be the case. About 45 minutes later, by his estimate, "Denver police dispatch called back and said, 'We still have you in the queue. We're just really busy. Sorry.'"
This delay was the one subject Denver police PIO John White addressed in conversation with Westword. "There could have been a number of reasons for that," he said. "The way our calls are triaged, they're done on a priority basis, which basically takes into consideration the severity of the call. For example, if there's an assault, that type of call would take precedence over sending an officer to take a report if there was no crime in progress."
Even so, the vehicle owner was frustrated by the message — "I'd never received a call saying, 'We're so busy we can't respond to you'" — and after spending a few more minutes contacting neighbors and a local business to see if they had surveillance cameras that might have captured the crime (they didn't), he returned home just over an hour after initially dialing 911 and phoned police dispatch again. "Knowing full well the line was being recorded, I bitched them out," he acknowledges. "I told them, 'I can't believe it's taken you guys so long to show up. Apparently you don't actually care about stolen vehicles.' The dispatcher said, 'Sorry, but we're really busy.' And I thought, if that's true and things are this bad in District 2, it's a huge problem."
No telling if his tone lit a fire under dispatch, but between five and ten minutes later, the man says, "two very surly and grumpy officers showed up at my house. One of them stayed in the driver's seat of the police car — I'm not even sure if he put the car in park — and the passenger got out and sauntered up to me with his hands in his pocket, so I could see he didn't have a pen or paper. He asked general questions, like, 'Where was it parked?' I said it was in my driveway and started walking over to show him where it had been, and he said, 'I don't need to see that.' Then he asked what kind of vehicle it was, and I was like, 'It's the kind of vehicle I reported,' and he said, 'Oh, yeah.'"
In the man's opinion, "it was just a very half-hearted, half-assed attempt to take any information. He was here about five minutes, and he didn't write anything down — and then about ten minutes later, he called on my cell phone and said, 'We're having problems finding you in our system. Can I get your driver's license number?' And I said, 'What?' I was stunned, because he'd taken so little information that he couldn't do his job and had to call back. I'd understand that if the city was under attack and every officer was being held at gunpoint, but I doubt that was the case. The response I got was, 'We're mad that you're making something into a thing that we don't think is a thing.'"
By then the man had lost any hope that the police would treat the theft as a priority. Luckily, he has a search-and-rescue background, "and I set up a grid system and began looking for my own vehicle." He methodically explored the area surrounding his home, and along the way, he got some helpful tips from a security officer at Johnson & Wales University. Finally, after six or seven hours, he spotted his vehicle, which hadn't sustained any substantial damage.
At that point, the man called the police again "to clear the vehicle," and this time, an officer arrived on a timely basis, after only about ten minutes. "I liked him," the man says. "He was pleasant to interact with, and he was fairly candid with me. He volunteered information that this area was a common drop spot for stolen cars, and he told me it's a known fact that people in that neighborhood have been stealing cars for generations. 'We simply have car thieves in that area,' he said, 'and if they run, we can't chase them, because we have a no-pursuit policy. So there's very little reason for them to stop doing it, because we can't catch them in the act.'"
The officer was equally downbeat about the likelihood of finding usable fingerprints in the vehicle (although he did check to see if a bottle or can with prints had been left behind). "I asked, 'If you do an investigation, are you guys going to have to take the vehicle? And how long will you have it?'" the man recalls. "And he said, 'We'll have to take it and impound it, and you'll have to pay for the tow, and you may be on the hook for the expense to collect the evidence to begin with.' Now, I don't like to think of myself as a victim — but you're really victimizing the victim if you're doing that."
In short, the man continues, "there was a lot of discouragement to try and pursue an investigation. And to be fair, I was elated that I had found my own vehicle." So he called his wife, "and after a brief discussion, we both decided that this crap had gone on long enough — and based off the experiences we'd had leading up to that with the Denver Police Department, it was clear they weren't motivated to investigate it in any fashion. That's why I told the officer, 'Forget it. Release the vehicle back to me and I'll take it home.'"
This narrative struck a chord after the man published a version of it on the aforementioned bulletin board. He's now deleted the post, but the comments attached to it before then were varied. A few criticized the man for not filing a formal complaint with the Denver Police Department, suggesting that such an approach might improve the system, and he also took heat for his recap of the story about entrenched neighborhood car thieves. But plenty of others discussed personally witnessing the disinterest of police in investigating thefts of cars and other items, or even more dangerous offenses.
"There was one post about a family being robbed at gunpoint, and a woman managed to get away and call 911 — and she was put on hold by 911 dispatch, and then they hung up on her in the midst of everything," the man says. "Now, I don't know if that's true. But if it actually happened, and I have no reason to believe she wasn't telling the truth, that's really intense."
In an effort to get the DPD's reaction to such assertions, I first reached out to PIO White, telling him up front about the vehicle owner's request that I not share his name or identifying information. After offering a possible explanation for the original delay in the officers' arrival at the man's home, as quoted above, and repeatedly requesting details about the crime I'd been asked not to divulge, he asked that I summarize the events in an e-mail and send it to the department's main PIO address. In the resulting email, I asked that a spokesperson get back to me either later that day or early the next, but I didn't receive a reply.
The following morning, I re-sent the email and followed up a few hours later with a phone call answered by another PIO, Doug Schepman. At Schepman's request, I sent the email a third time, and he confirmed receiving it. Hours later, he sent a note saying that a District 2 lieutenant "asked if you could pass along her contact info to the individual who reported his car stolen so that she can get a better understanding of what happened and look into it administratively." I explained again that the vehicle owner didn't want to reveal this information, but promised to forward the lieutenant's request, which the man turned down. Nonetheless, Schepman followed up with an email that reads: "The Denver Police Department would like to look into this anonymous complaint, but has not been provided the information necessary to examine the situation and determine exactly what happened. The complainant is encouraged to file a formal complaint with either the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor or the Denver Police Internal Affairs Division."
Instead of doing so, the man has been conducting an informal survey, asking residents if they'd be willing to contribute to a fund to hire a private security firm to supplement Denver police patrols. He says early results of the poll show that more than 50 percent of respondents were interested in some form of additional security.
That doesn't mean he feels crime is out of control in South Park Hill and District 2. "I wouldn't say it's rampant," he allows, "and the majority of people probably haven't had anything like this happen to them. But you shouldn't have to lock yourself in your house and put bars on your windows to feel safe. I'm not interested in being a prisoner in my own neighborhood. I want a sense of community."
He also would like to believe that the Denver Police Department sees crimes on the level of car theft as important — but he's got his doubts. In his words, "There seems to be a process in which they're discouraging people to pursue any action in cases like these. I don't know collectively if they know at every single step where each step leads, and I doubt that there's an eye in the sky directing them to say, 'Do this. Do that.' To say it's an active endeavor is a bit much. But that's the result, and I think it's fair to say that this is a systemic problem within the Denver Police Department."
By the way, the DPD's Schepman submitted one more item in regard to questions prompted by this incident — an excerpt from the Denver police operations manual that says the Manager of Safety can waive towing and storage fees for a stolen vehicle if it is "subsequently recovered and impounded by the police." It's unclear if the current case would apply, since the owner, not the DPD, recovered the vehicle. We've bolded sections of the code highlighted by Schepman:
a. The Denver Revised Municipal Code, Section 54-813, authorizes the Manager of Safety to waive and/or adjust towing and/or storage charges under the following conditions:
1. When the vehicle was impounded as a result of the operator being taken into custody and the operator has been released without charges being filed.
2. When the vehicle has accumulated storage charges while being held as evidence, if the operator is not convicted of an offense associated with the impoundment.
3. When the vehicle licensed in Denver County was reported as stolen and subsequently recovered and impounded by the police.
b. The Manager of Safety has delegated to the Chief of Police the authority to waive and/or adjust the towing and storage fees outlined in subsections 1 and 2 above. In those cases when a vehicle is towed/stored by mistake by a member of the Department, the towing and storage charges outlined in OMS 206.04(9) a.3 are the responsibility of the Director of Corrections.
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c. The Chief of Police has delegated the authority to waive and/or adjust these fees to the Deputy Chiefs, Commanders,or their designees, and the Commander of the Civil Liability Bureau.
d. MEMBERS OF THE DENVER POLICE DEPARTMENT HAVE NO AUTHORITY TO MAKE RESIDENTIAL DETERMINATIONS OR WAIVE/ADJUST TOWING FEES BASED ON HARDSHIP CONSIDERATIONS.
e. The person waiving or adjusting the fees must complete a DIF Form 001 (1/94) and forward to the Vehicle Impound Facility. The completed form can be faxed to the Impound Facility or given to the owner of the vehicle.
f. It is the responsibility of the detective assigned the case or the person waiving or adjusting fees to notify the owner of the vehicle. An owner who is notified by telephone must remove the vehicle within forty-eight (48) hours of notification. An owner who is notified by mail must remove the vehicle within one hundred-twenty (120) hours (5 days) of the time that the notification is mailed. The VIF will consider receipt of the FAX as the start of the time limit.