The Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center is a place where people expect to get healed, not hurt. But one center employee says he was in serious pain after the hospital's chief of police confronted him about $80 worth of unpaid parking tickets he'd racked up in the hospital lot.
William Curtis, a 51-year-old who's worked as a housekeeper at the hospital since 1989, says that on December 15 he was summoned into the police chief's office at the medical center. There, he says, "four officers picked me up and body-slammed me. I put up a hell of a struggle after they grabbed me, but I'm only 5-7, and they almost knocked me out. I've been arrested before by the Denver police on traffic warrants and even cussed the officers out, but I've never been manhandled like I was that day in the chief's office."
Curtis isn't the only employee who is complaining about the VA police. Emma Sneed-Ford, who as president of the hospital's chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees represents approximately 700 employees, says she's received many complaints about VA officers using excessive force and abusing their authority.
"The problem isn't crimes being committed at the hospital," says Sneed-Ford. "It's mostly the police getting on employees about parking. Can you believe that's their main issue? Really, I have no idea what they do besides writing parking tickets and then harassing the employees about them." She adds that harassment of VA employees has increased since a federal mandate changed the name of the hospital's security department to "VA Police" about ten years ago.
"You could see the attitude change after that happened," says Sneed-Ford. "Now they seem to think they're something."
Officers at the VA Police department did not return repeated phone calls from Westword, but the offense report filed in conjunction with Curtis's arrest lists police chief Ron Young as the victim.
According to the report, after Curtis was brought into the chief's office, he became agitated and loud. "Curtis turned towards Chief Young, who had his back to the glass entrance door to the VA Police office," reads the report. "Curtis put his right hand approximately two inches from Chief Young's face and began shaking his right index finger stating, 'You don't talk to me, you can't talk to me.' At this time, using his right hand, Curtis pushed Chief Young into the glass door. Curtis had put his right hand down, but began to raise it again as if to strike Chief Young.
"Curtis was advised he was under arrest and an officer attempted to restrain him using mandibular angle pressure."
Curtis was charged with assault, resisting, impeding police and possessing a knife that exceeded three inches. The knife wasn't used in the assault.
"None of their report is true," says Curtis. "The scenario didn't come down like that at all." He says the real impetus for the arrest was an argument he'd had with a VA officer earlier that week. Curtis says the officer threatened to tow his car if he continued to park in the lot reserved for patients. He says he told the officer that he'd move his car but that if the officer had his car towed without calling him first, he'd "come down and see him."
Three days later, Curtis says, he was summoned into the chief's office, but none of the officers present would explain why. When he started asking questions, Curtis says the chief "jumped in my face and told me to sit my ass down." When he refused, Curtis says Young told his officers, "We're going to have to take him down." Then, according to Curtis, Young pushed him into a row of lockers, where he was assaulted by Young and three other officers.
Both Curtis's account and the police report note that prior to the fight, the officers dismissed a housekeeping supervisor who had walked Curtis down to the chief's office. The lack of a witness to the incident leaves several hospital employees skeptical about the arrest.
"Curtis is the quietest guy you've ever seen in your life," says Mel Ingram, vice president of the hospital employees' union. "None of us can believe that he did what he's accused of doing. It doesn't make any sense at all."
This isn't the first time security officers at the medical center have been the subject of a serious complaint. In 1994, a VA nurse named Carly Kincaid filed a lawsuit claiming that a couple of the hospital's officers used rooftop surveillance scopes to watch her undress in her apartment across the street from the hospital, at 1055 Clermont Street, and that hospital officials didn't appropriately discipline the officers ("Is Justice Blind?" April 7, 1993). One of the officers accused by Kincaid, I.L. Freeman, was eventually fired, then rehired by the hospital. According to the December 15 incident report, Freeman was also present in Chief Young's office during the alleged attack on Curtis.
The rooftop surveillance scope cited in the Kincaid case was supposed to be used by security officers to monitor the parking lot--the same lot that has been the site of the recent tumult at the hospital. Although construction of a new parking structure is slated to begin this spring, employees doubt that a new lot will get the hospital cops off their backs.
"It so arbitrary," says one VA worker who asked not to be identified. "Employees who are friends of the officers or ladies they're trying to date never get tickets. But if you get into an argument with them about it, they'll come after you.
"I apparently got on their wrong side," continues the employee, "and they called me into the office and told me that they ran my plates and discovered I had a warrant out for my arrest. Well, that's just not possible, because the car I drive is registered to my brother. So the security guards--oops, I mean the VA police--must have run my name to find out about unpaid tickets I had in Boulder County. Then they called the Denver cops and had them come out and arrest me. It's like they're on a witch-hunt. And now I hear that they want to be able to carry guns."
Officers at VA hospitals across the country are currently lobbying Congress to allow them to carry sidearms. Employees at the Denver VA Medical Center say this struggle is just another indication of the cops' intense desire to be taken seriously by hospital staff.
"When they get guns, maybe they'll just shoot you for a ticket," says the anonymous employee.
William Curtis says that the VA police did enough damage to his body without firearms. Curtis's wife, Cheryl, is a nurse at the downtown Denver jail and says her husband had soft-tissue damage, swollen wrists, bruised ribs and possibly a dislocated shoulder as a result of his scuffle with the VA cops.
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"The injuries are similar to what I see down here at the jail," she says. "They're like the assault injuries you see when a guy gets slaughtered by a cop. There's enough damage so that the cop got the message across, but not enough so it's too messy and the guy has to go to the hospital."
Since his arrest, Curtis has been on paid leave from the hospital. He recently got a visit from the FBI after he told a counselor at the hospital's Employee Assistance Program that he was "feeling postal" as a result of the incident. "But the FBI guys were cool about it," Curtis says. "They asked me if I had any automatic weapons, and I told them I didn't. They understood that I just said what I did to the counselor out of frustration."
And Curtis remains frustrated about the behavior of the VA cops. He says he's trying to find a lawyer to pursue the issue in court.
"I've got no problem with the night crew," says Curtis, "but these four officers who work during the day are terrible. Maybe they've got too much time on their hands, and this sort of thing is the result. But the bottom line is that they're just dickheads who wish they were real cops.