Longform

Justice, Boulder Style

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No one goes into police work for the pay or the popularity. "If you want the public to love you, become a fireman," he says. "Cops only respond to people when they're at their absolute worst. People don't call 911 to say, 'Hey, come and celebrate this birthday party with me.'"

Thomas's experience on the streets and his conversations with cops soon tempered his opposition to the death penalty. "They'd say, 'You do this job for a few years, and you see what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings,'" he remembers. "These people don't belong in this society."

At the same time, Thomas became concerned over the unequal application of capital punishment: "In this country, capital punishment simply means if you don't have the capital, you get the punishment," he says. "Why are we so disproportionately executing black and poor people?

"One of the first things they teach you in the police academy is the concept called 'equal application of the law' -- that as a sworn law-enforcement officer I apply the law equally to my father as I do to, say, Patsy Ramsey. It always bothered me that some of these same prosecutors who taught in the police academy seemed to suspend that precept for this particular case. Name me one other case in which a poor defendant was afforded such access to the case files, such access to CBI forensic evidence results, such access to all elements and aspects of what was supposed to be an ongoing criminal investigation."

After college, Thomas signed on with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, where he started working in the jail. It was, he says, a tremendous learning opportunity. "You're responsible for 48 maximum-security inmates, you don't carry a gun, and you have to rely on your powers of communication and reasoning to get people to do what you want them to do...There were some very, very hardcore people there, scary people. And most of the people they hire into police work, they don't have a lot of life experience. They've never been punched before; they've never been in a fight."

The inmates, meanwhile, tend to be "bored as hell sitting in the dayroom playing cards all day, and they'll tell you about their greatest scams, their best burglaries, how they get into a house, out of a house, what their tattoos mean. And then, when you get out on the street and see all that, you can separate the real thing from the bullshit."

In 1988, Thomas went to work for the City of Wheat Ridge and became an undercover narcotics detective. "They give you an undercover car. They give you a big flashroll of money, and basically your job is to go out and broker drug deals," he says. "I guess there were times, in hindsight, where you think, boy, that was really dangerous. I can remember a couple of stings where I was wearing a wire and the bad guys told me, 'Take off your shirt,' and the guys are in the van listening. Unless they get the bust signal from you, they're not going to come in. And I've been able to talk my way out. In one particular case, I had a T-shirt on and then a sweatshirt, and I had the wire taped between the two shirts, so when they grabbed me, they saw nothing but skin. The best defense is a good offense, so I pushed them back and got very indignant. And then later you think, had these guys found the wire on me -- this was an ongoing cocaine undercover -- it would have been very bad."

Thomas laughs; he thoroughly enjoyed the undercover job. During his time in Wheat Ridge, he also received a medal for rescuing an elderly couple from a burning building.

Then came the offer from Boulder. Thomas accepted it and -- as he puts it -- stepped through the looking glass.


In Boulder, Thomas says, cops were encouraged to crack down on students holding cups of beer or bags of marijuana while turning a blind eye to much larger drug deals. "I remember at one point, in a ninety-day period in the early '90s, there were six heroin overdoses, three or four of which resulted in death," he says. "There is so much dope in Boulder!"

After a sting in which he arrested several prostitutes and some pimps and found money, cocaine and guns, Thomas remembers, city officials insisted there was no prostitution problem in Boulder, and further stings were discouraged.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman