Punch Tickets, Not Crooks | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

Punch Tickets, Not Crooks

To your typical Cheesecake Factory patron, these cops are almost invisible. But for the street people who use the 16th Street Mall as their living room, the off-duty police who periodically cruise down the mall's "buses only" lane are an irritating part of the furniture. The officers putt up and...
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To your typical Cheesecake Factory patron, these cops are almost invisible. But for the street people who use the 16th Street Mall as their living room, the off-duty police who periodically cruise down the mall's "buses only" lane are an irritating part of the furniture.

The officers putt up and down 16th Street in a white RTD Jeep, often getting stuck behind slow-moving shuttle buses in the "authorized vehicles only" lane. They're moonlighting cops, hired by the Regional Transportation District to patrol bus shelters and boot smelly vagabonds off the shuttles. As peace officers, whether on duty or off, they're also authorized to bust drug deals, break up fights and hustle skateboarders off the pedestrian strip. And they come equipped with Denver Police Department badges and guns in their holsters.

RTD will spend more than $205,000 this year for some fifty off-duty police officers to cruise the downtown mall and keep an eye on district property. But these cops are also ticketing DUIs and arresting prostitutes--generally the task of the Denver Police Department-- while RTD users as far away as Boulder and Aurora are helping to pick up the tab.

RTD security files show that off-duty police working for RTD made 7,576 "contacts" with offenders last year, an average of 145 per week.

During 1997, the officers responded to one homicide, eight robberies and nine cases of aggravated assault, as well as 34 cases of vandalism, 180 "sex offenses," 751 drug-abuse violations, eight DUIs, nearly 2,000 cases of drunkenness, 2,140 cases of disorderly conduct, and 1,713 violations of curfew and loitering laws. Only eleven people were charged with not paying their RTD fares.

The expansion in RTD service over the years accounts for the rise in off-duty police costs from about $39,000 in 1992 to more than five times that this year, says RTD spokesman Scott Reed.

But the off-duty cops are only part of the mix: RTD also employs a fleet of armed security guards through a contract with Wackenhut Security, as well as sixteen uniformed fare inspectors, street supervisors and three full-time security officers who manage the program and hire the off-duty cops. And after contentious discussions between RTD and the mayor's office last month, the RTD board agreed to pay $120,000 a year for security patrols at the DIA-bound Park-n-Ride at the old Stapleton.

The Denver Police Department has its own mall squad--six officers per shift who patrol the 16th Street beat on foot, on motorcycles and in cars painted with the designation "Mall Unit." The lawbreaker business is brisk during the day, with lots of calls about shoplifting, illegally parked vehicles and dope deals among minors. Unlike a decade ago, when the mall was new and the late shift stayed busy dealing with downtown strip clubs, at night cops now deal with "bar fights out of the LoDo yuppie joints," says Sergeant Richard Mahony, a supervisor for the District 6 mall unit.

Having off-duty cops working for RTD frees up the on-duty police for more serious crimes, Mahony says. Denver's undercover narcotics officers are going for the big prizes--the ten-kilo seizures, the dope kingpins--and can leave the nickel-and-dime transactions at the Colfax-Broadway transit hub to the RTD part-timers. "If you can get somebody else to pay for it--and in this case it's RTD--it saves the narcs for other duties," Mahony says.

But should RTD be paying to clean up crime--or just worry about cleaning up bus operations?

That question came up at the October 20 RTD board meeting after District A director Jack McCroskey put it on the agenda. But that was the raucous meeting where McCroskey was censured by his board colleagues--the room could have used a couple of off-duty cops--and few members paid attention when McCroskey took the floor. "The only time we should be concerned about prostitutes is when they don't pay their fare," McCroskey railed, as other boardmembers chatted among themselves or headed to the coffeepot. The board took no action on McCroskey's complaint; he may try to bring it up again when a new board convenes in January. "The current board and the current staff have showed they're not interested," McCroskey says.

Most of RTD's off-duty cops come out after dark. Many of them--RTD won't say how many, for security reasons--are plainclothes officers who ride high-risk bus routes, such as the No. 15 east on Colfax, or hang out at bus shelters looking for troublemakers. In 1997, undercover and uniformed officers working for RTD confiscated twelve guns, eight knives, four clubs and an ax. But their only radio contact, even in the RTD vehicles, is with an RTD dispatcher, officers say; in dicey situations, they have no direct way to call Denver police for backup.

Still, cruising the mile-high mall for $21 an hour is a coveted gig. It's much better than some of the other jobs offered by DPD's off-duty employment office, such as busting up brawls in smoke-choked nightspots or trying to control the rowdy crowd at a Broncos game, says Officer Dave Springer, a 29-year veteran of the Denver police force who moonlights once a week for RTD.

On this rainy Tuesday night, Springer and his partner, John Kilpatrick, start their shift by intercepting a bicyclist riding on the mall. Kilpatrick points out the no-cycling signs to the young woman and records her name and birthdate in a log. The two gum-chomping officers usually make about twelve such "contacts" a night, ranging from friendly warnings like this one to a "family incident" a few minutes later, when a couple's public smooching on the mall turns into a feisty altercation.

As a teenager, Springer says, he and his buddies used to cruise up and down 16th Street on Saturday nights. Today he's more likely to glide by the well-heeled business crowd heading to Cafe Rialto for a nightcap, or "the jogger guy," a gray-haired runner who zips up and down the one-and-a-half-mile mall every night, rain or shine, in a red windbreaker, black Lycra pants and white cap.

Suddenly "Mall 39"--Springer and Kilpatrick's vehicle--gets a call to check on a reported assault at the RTD Civic Center station. Two bus passengers have tussled; both smell of booze.

One, wearing a tattered backpack and a weather-worn face, rants about how the other--a "he-she" transsexual--offended him on the bus. Springer takes IDs from both but has no way to radio police headquarters to see if either has an outstanding warrant. So the cops tell the men to go their separate ways and leave them with a stern warning: If they see them again that night, they'll haul them straight to the city's detox unit.

On most nights, this is their job--to act as referees among the indigents and the drunks. "The mall is a gathering point and a magnet for undesirables. For a while, they were getting to be quite a problem," says Kilpatrick, a jovial sort with a daytime desk job at DPD headquarters. As an off-duty cop for RTD, he can concentrate on rider safety and those pesky problems that are low priority for on-duty police--like the belligerent passenger who once defecated on a city bus. "You've got a drunk on the bus and a call about a robbery in progress--where are you going to send the on-duty police officer?" he asks.

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