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Scandals Spotlight Denver Police

March 24, 2000 GMT

DENVER (AP) _ Despite a sharp decline in crime, Denver’s finest are under the gun in the worst series of police scandals since the city was known as the ``crooked cop capital of the United States″ in the 1960s.

This week, the city paid $400,000 to the family of a man killed in a raid at the wrong house, was fined $10,000 by a federal judge for failing to cooperate with a police brutality investigation, and swore in a new cop who admitted he once used cocaine and LSD.

Last month Police Chief Tom Sanchez was ousted in the fallout from the SWAT raid. Police also have been criticized _ and cleared of wrongdoing _ in recent beatings of three suspects while television crews taped them.

City Councilman Ed Thomas, who spent 22 years as a Denver officer, said Denver has become one of the most prosperous cities in the nation under Mayor Wellington Webb, with crime dropping 25 percent from 1992 to 1998.

But, he said, the police controversy could become ``Webb’s snowstorm,″ referring to a major snowstorm that crippled the city for a week, costing Mayor Bill McNichols his job in the 1982 election.

Acting Police Chief Gerald Whitman said he does not believe the problems are insurmountable.

``I think we are suffering from the same problems affecting other departments. We’re going to try to look at their problems and get ahead of the curve. We want to prevent those things from happening,″ he said Friday.

The police force was last rocked by controversy of this magnitude when 54 cops were charged with operating a burglary ring from 1954 to 1962 and became known as ``The Burglars in Blue.″ Most were convicted and went to prison.

``Cops would stand watch outside businesses and homes while colleagues stole dresses and appliances and cracked safes,″ said historian Tom Noel. ``With perhaps a million dollars in ill-gotten gains, it made Denver the U.S. crooked cop capital.″

The recent spate of problems began in 1997 when officers were caught by a TV news camera beating Gil Webb Jr., whose vehicle smashed into a patrol car and killed an officer. Webb is serving prison time after being convicted of vehicular homicide, assault and driving a stolen car.

On Sept. 29, Ismael Mena, 45, was shot to death after officers broke into his bedroom in a so-called ``no-knock″ raid on the wrong house. Police said he threatened them with a gun.

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Two police officers were cleared of wrongdoing. Officer Joseph Bini, who requested the raid, is charged with perjury for allegedly lying when he said he saw an informant going into Mena’s house to get cocaine. The correct target was a suspected drug house next door.

The shooting prompted a public outcry over no-knock raids. A panel assembled by the mayor is considering a temporary ban.

``No matter what the misconduct is, the police are always exonerated,″ said community activist LeRoy Lemos, who has led protests about Mena’s killing. ``People are outraged that there was so much coverup and lack of valid information from the police department from the beginning. ... They operate under a shroud of cover, put out misinformation and go on character-assassination rampages.″

City officials have agreed to pay $400,000 to Mena’s family to settle claims stemming from his death. Sanchez was forced to step down as police chief after Bini was charged Feb. 4.

In a separate case, city attorneys have drawn the ire of a federal judge who ordered them to release 3,000 internal-affairs files to attorneys representing a man in a police-brutality lawsuit.

The judge ruled the city had violated his earlier orders to hand over the documents, and he fined Denver $10,000. City attorneys have appealed, contending they were complying with the order.

That case arose from Matthew Combs’ allegations that police officer Timothy McAleer beat him unconscious after a 1998 traffic accident. Police have denied the allegations.

One of the city’s newest officers, Ellis Johnson II, 40, was hired last year even though he admitted that he had used LSD and cocaine. Sanchez opposed the hiring but was overruled by Manager of Safety Butch Montoya.

Johnson declined to comment after graduating from the police academy Friday.

Thomas, the former cop on the City Council, pointed to the huge police corruption scandal that has erupted in Los Angeles since a former officer was caught stealing cocaine from an evidence room and then revealed disturbing abuses in an anti-gang unit.

``If the lax hiring practices that have been approved by Butch Montoya creates the kind of atmosphere that we had in 1960 and that we have now in Los Angeles, he should apologize to the citizens of Denver in his resignation letter,″ Thomas said.