The notion of police offers stealing from the very people they were sworn to protect seemed like the perfect crime. Yet most of Denver’s corrupt cops found themselves in handcuffs by the end of 1961.
As I described in a previous blog, the two arrests of patrol officer Art Winstanley for burglary began to unravel the massive corruption. He spilled the names of two other dark riders. Further investigation turned up five more.
Interestingly, one of those officers, brought in for routine questioning, promptly confessed: “Put me down for two.”
Unsettled by the growing evidence of widespread corruption, Denver police established a special investigative squad to hunt for more suspects. Oddly, their next break came from Los Angeles, not Denver.
A Denver police officer and two civilians were caught breaking into an LA supermarket and charged with burglary. But only the cop got out on bond. (He was caught later in Denver committing another burglary.) Pissed at being left in jail, one of the civilians ratted, leading to the arrest of more Denver officers.
Arrests soon climbed to a dozen, yet more kept turning up.
The state attorney general’s office entered the investigation. Charges were soon filed against a county sheriff. Yet by August 1961, Denver police officials considered their investigation pretty well exhausted—despite rumors of more dirty cops.
“Incredible Criminal Incest”
Following reporting by The Denver Post, city officials asked the state governor for help and he appointed an ex-FBI agent to lead an investigation. On September 30, Governor Steve McNichols announced that state investigators had uncovered an “incredible criminal incest” of at least 35 Denver police officers. Their crimes included not only safecracking, but gambling and prostitution.
Minutes after the announcement, 14 suspects were paraded into the state capitol, stripped of their badges, and booked.
That day became known as Black Saturday for the Denver Police Department.
Headlines splashed across the world. Even Communist nations got in on the act, gloating that the scandal highlighted American decadence.
A copy of one of the publications headlining the scandal sits near my desk: the November 3, 1961, issue of then high-profile Life magazine. It’s one of numerous research sources that provided tidbits I gleefully “stole” for my plot, characters, dialogue, and enriching details.
(Confession: many of us writers steal from research. But we hope we do a better job of disguising our thefts than did Denver’s burglars in blue.)
The two-page Life article, “How Denver’s Cops Turned Burglar,” is chock full of insights into why so many cops turned corrupt, events leading to their arrests, and several great quotes. So great, I borrowed—okay, stole—a quote for my novel’s title, The Big Dive. (Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to learn the significance of the title).
Bigger and Uglier Police Scandals
After Denver’s burglars in blue, America went on to bigger and uglier police corruption scandals.
In New York City, officials created the famous Knapp Commission in the early 1970s to go after widespread corruption within the police department. That case stemmed from revelations by Patrolman Frank Serpico and Sergeant David Durk.
More infamous was the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles’s anti-gang unit. Their corruption involved shootings, beatings, planting false evidence, robbery, and the theft and sale of narcotics. It is arguably the most widespread case of police corruption in American history.
Both scandals spawned several movies, including Serpico and Training Day. (And for good measure, read James Ellroy’s masterful L.A. Confidential, drawing on police corruption in LA in the 1950s.)
Denver’s 1961 police scandal has never made it to film or TV mini series. It’s never achieved the notoriety of the New York and Los Angeles scandals, or the more recent widespread racism rampant in some police departments.
Still, Denver’s burglars in blue have the dubious honor of being the first among major police corruption cases in America.
In my next blog, I’ll turn to a darker stain on American history that served as yet another inspiration for my book: the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Being a crooked cop in Denver in the 1950s was easy.
Oh, there had always been the petty graft common to many police departments: free meals and coffee from local diners, free cigarettes and booze from bar owners, rolling drunks, and cash or free merchandise from store owners for overlooking code violations.
But Denver’s uniformed police took petty corruption to an entirely new level. At one point, five active safecracking rings operated in the city.
Low pay, low morale, low standards, and crooked cops corrupting honest cops contributed to the level of police crime. Veteran cops passed it down to rookie cops like fathers handing family wisdom down to sons.
“I don’t think I ever decided to be a crooked cop. It was just a natural progression,” wrote Art Winstanley, the patrolman whose arrest I cited in my previous blog.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
Honest cops who reported the crimes of this fraternity of dirty cops were shunned by fellow officers and ignored by their superiors. Or worse. One patrolman who reported a theft was sent to a psychiatrist because his superiors considered him “crazy.”
A breakdown in departmental discipline and supervision also contributed to this permissive culture, according Life magazine in a November 1961 article. “The department made it easy for us,” said one of the leading burglars in blue.
“Either you enforce the law or you forget it,”
one of the arrested cops told Life.
“I couldn’t enforce it so I forgot it.”
For the bad cops, it was easy to commit crimes. After all, they were the sworn protectors. Who would suspect them?
For example, patrol units would flock to a store after it was burglarized and they’d help themselves to merchandise left behind by the “real” burglar.
Another advantage for dirty cops was their ability to case out a business while on duty. They’d chat with the owner regarding night watchmen, alarm systems, and safes. A natural conversation.
They’d return later, break in, and crack the safe with special saws and other tools they’d stolen from hardware stores.
During a burglary, a partner or another patrol cruiser might serve as lookout and monitor the police radio for dispatch directing honest cops to check out reports of the crime in progress. If an honest cop patrolled the area, they might smash a window at another store to decoy him.
If they tripped an alarm, they’d merely wait for the call to go out from dispatch, respond that they’d check it out, finish the job, and confirm there indeed had been a break-in.
Sometimes officers who committed a burglary during the night would “investigate” the scene while on duty the next day after the store owner reported the crime. This provided added opportunity to remove or destroy any incriminating evidence they might have left behind.
Even store owners took advantage of the break-ins. Art Winstanley recounted cracking a safe one night and finding less than a buck. Yet when he took down a report from the owner the next day, the owner claimed the burglars had stolen $1,500—the maximum amount his insurance policy would cover.
Cops protected each other up and down the line. One of the nearly 50 law enforcement officers arrested in 1961 was the sheriff from an adjacent county. He’d used his office to protect a ring of dirty cops. Denver’s fledgling police union also covered for its lawless members.
“We were, after all, policemen;
who is going to catch us?” wrote Winstanley.
Ultimately, they were caught. In my final segment on Denver’s Burglars in Blue and their inspiration for my novel, we’ll look at how it all came crashing down and mushroomed into an international scandal.
Like many authors, I draw inspiration for stories from real life. Why make up stuff when our lives, our history, our culture offer an abundance of rich material? Truth is stranger than fiction.
The personal fallout for Joe Stryker in the wake of his partner’s murder drives the story. But the intersecting plotlines that created his nightmare derive from two very real events in Denver and Colorado history.
The first is “burglars in blue”—or dark riders as I often refer to them in the book—a scandal that ripped open the soul of the Denver Police Department in the early 1960s. The second historical event was the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans in “relocation camps” during World War II.
I’ll examine the camps in future posts. After all these years, they remain a disturbing chapter in American history. First, however, let’s explore the piece of Denver history that caught my eye and sent me on the way to writing The Big Dive: Denver’s own “burglars in blue.”
If you lived in Colorado in 1961, and read newspapers or listened to the radio, you witnessed the biggest scandal to ever rock the Denver police department. The story even went international.
A Denver Post article at the time called it the “year of shame for the Denver Police Department.”
Shame it was. From the start of 1961, to its end, investigators hauled in nearly 50 Denver police officers, along with a sheriff, deputies, and civilians, for cracking safes and committing other property crimes in over 200 heists, netting $250,000. Over 40 people went to prison.
Sadly, the officers stole from the very businesses they were sworn to protect on their beats.
How did the scandal break?
It started out quietly enough. Police arrested three Denver cops on New Year’s Day, 1961, and charged them with burglary. Investigators at the time did not realize how far that little string would unravel.
The arrests came out of a confession from a fellow Denver cop, Patrolman Arthur R. Winstanley, age 26. Winstanley had been arrested the year before, August 1960, when—get this—a safe fell out of the trunk of his personal car right in front a patrol car responding to a call about that very break-in.
Guess where the idea of my book cover came from?
Winstanley was quickly tried and convicted. But while free on bail during his appeal, he inexplicably committed another break-in for which he was caught Christmas night, 1960.
That’s when Winstanley fingered the three cops arrested New Year’s Day. But that proved just the beginning. As the investigation spread, more officers were arrested. The darkest moment came on September 30, 1961, when nearly three dozen cops turned in their badges and were arrested.
It became known as “Black Saturday.”
The arrests knocked out seven percent of the department’s officers. At the time, it was the biggest and most public case of police corruption in the nation’s history.
Years later, Winstanley published an account of his criminal past. Aptly, he titled it Burglars in Blue. The book provided me with another rich source for research.
One final note. The Big Dive takes place in 1951, ten years before the scandal broke. You might say I took liberties with the historical facts, as fiction writers often do. It’s a novel, after all, not a docudrama about the scandal. However, police investigations at the time revealed that these corrupt cops had been burglarizing businesses for 15 years before the scandal surfaced.
I hope you have found this tale of greed and corruption as fascinating as I did. In my next blog, I’ll poke deeper into the crimes and burglars in blue behind them. If you read my novel, perhaps you’ll spot details I “stole” from history.
Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, or raise topics you’d like addressed in future posts. And share my posts with friends who enjoy mysteries.
Bruce Most is an award-winning mystery novelist and short-story writer, and former freelance writer. His forthcoming The Big Dive is the sequel to the award-winning Murder on the Tracks, which featured a street cop investigating a string of murders in 1949 Denver. He's also written the award-winning Rope Burn, involving cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming ranch country, and Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds, featuring feisty Denver bail bondswoman, Ruby Dark. A free short story about Ruby can be found under Short Stories.