NORTH FOURTH AVENUE has long been Tucson's experimental ballroom, a place where social permissiveness and civic decorum practice an ongoing, awkward minuet. The police have always lingered on the fringes of this mix like stiff chaperones, sometimes reacting to a tight clutch, at other times just letting the eccentric dance glide along.
The invasion of street kids is a perfect example. Many avenue merchants argue a hard line against the young begging bands. Others urge gentle tolerance. It's a very tricky choreography, with cops ultimately calling the moves. And one momentary misstep can crumble the whole fragile construct, revealing a sordid mess of hidden agendas and outright lies.
Just such a moment occurred at about 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 1.
At night the windswept corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street is a barren cacophony of traffic and deep shadows. Across the intersection, Dairy Queen does a thriving business, and behind it stretches an enormous, glowing yellow billboard for U S West. "Here to Give You A Hand" reads the towering black letters, an odd little DEX man silhouetted beneath.
Looking north, you can see the cheerful shops and languid strollers. But from this corner, that warm ambiance provides just the illusion of safety. Step a few feet to the right, around the flanks of the northernmost shop and its windows of flowing cotton dresses, and you're suddenly in an urban wasteland, swathed by the harsh glare of headlights. There the world's uglier fallout leaps up to greet you, the crumpled paper cups and bent cans lining the sidewalk, the dirty concrete bus-stop bench leaning at a dejected angle.
It was there, early on the evening of September 1, that my girlfriend, Mary Rogers, and I first crossed paths with a 56-year-old man we'll call Vince.
We caught a horrifying glimpse as a gang of toughs, apparently hungry for his box of leftovers, beat the crap out of him. The food came from Caruso's, a popular Italian eatery on the avenue where Vince, a regular, had just finished dining with his young daughter.
We saw the gruesome spectacle through a restaurant window while eating dinner ourselves. Vince had been pushed to the corner's uncivilized side, where racing car headlights accented the grisly encounter. Pressed up against the dress shop wall, he was being punched and kicked by a band of creeps. As he began crumpling to the pavement, his daughter was safely inside Caruso's, where the owner was dialing in 911.
Mary was on the scene within seconds--"a knee-jerk reaction," she called it--and I followed. The cops had also been alerted from our restaurant phone, and were immediately on the scene as the youths abandoned their now-bloody quarry and sauntered south along the sidewalk.
"There they go!" Mary screamed to Officer Rick Wright, who at first seemed perplexed, then hollered for her to jump into his car to pursue the suspects. Just as suddenly, Wright announced he had another call. The youths, bedraggled and defiant, continued leisurely down the street.
Vince had stumbled from the corner when paramedics arrived. His thick eye-glasses had fallen to the pavement, and he staggered along the sidewalk like a wounded bull, unable to see, his nose a bashed-up mess.
A kid stood beside me on the curb. His brown hair reached his ass, and he clutched a bongo drum. "Violence is never a good thing," he said quietly, before walking away.
We retreated to the restaurant, and somberly tried to finish our meals. Some 20 minutes later Officer Wright returned, and came to our table. After a short discussion, we jumped in his car for a cruise down the street to identify the perpetrators. During the ride, Wright commented that the punks were "fearless."
With good reason, we later discovered.
One of them wore dreadlocks. He was already in cuffs, and turned to sullenly face a spotlight's glare. We identified him from the cop car, and another man who was paraded out from the sidewalk where he'd been crouching with a girl.
Then we were driven back to the restaurant. We figured the bad boys were going to jail.
Chad Alan Colbert and Adam G. Jarrett, ages 24 and 25 respectively, were cited for misdemeanor assault and released. Both had general delivery addresses.
Their crime was later upgraded to felony assault. They're obviously vicious, but hardly stupid; they've since reportedly been seen in Phoenix and as far away as Colorado.
In the press, the Tucson Police Department has claimed that Mary and I were reluctant to help. In their report, the officers said Mary "refused to be a witness because she feared retaliation. She works on Fourth Avenue and sees the street kids all the time. She's afraid they will attack her and her business if she agrees to be a witness."
Mary does work on Fourth Avenue. At least that much is true.
Officer Wright never offered his name. He didn't request our names. Nor did he ever ask if we'd be willing to testify.
We would have.
Meanwhile, TPD's official lies have traveled up the command chain to the lips of Tucson's new police chief, Richard Miranda, who repeated them to the City Council during a September 14 study session.
That's how the cops' latest Fourth Avenue dance has played itself out, as they scramble to explain why two thugs who beat a man on a public street are now apparently somewhere in the Rockies.
Mary and I smell a big skunk. It's dressed in blue and carries a badge.
SEVERAL DAYS later Vince sits at a low table in the bar at Café Sweetwater on Fourth Avenue. He's a short, tight, stocky Italian with a ruddy complexion, a carpenter whose thick arms are crossed closely against his chest.
His face is still puffy and bruised, and his eyes are swollen like a bad hangover behind thick glasses. A fresh, pinkish scar meanders above his left eye. He seems robbed of something deep and crucial. An accent from a New Jersey childhood is faint but noticeable as we talk, and from this spot we can see the corner of Sixth and Fourth.
Vince is also nursing a broken rib. He leans forward slowly, carefully, and prods a small slip of paper towards me.
It's from his daughter.
"Hi Dad," the note says. "I hope you get better soon. I know you will. P.S.--I don't think we'll go there anymore. Love you. Lisa."
Vince takes the letter back, and tucks it into a leather folder dotted with well-worn pictures of his little girl.
The police suggest that Vince provoked his attackers. They question why he sent his daughter inside Caruso's to call 911, and then returned to face his tormentors. They say he refused immediate medical treatment, making it difficult to assess his injuries and resulting in the initial misdemeanor assault charge.
Until recently, Vince thought the cops were on his side.
"We walked out of the restaurant, and the kids asked if they could have my food," he says to me. "I told them 'no.' Did I have any spare money? I said 'no.' Then they hit at my right hand."
At that point, he says he took his daughter back into the restaurant to call 911. Then he returned outside--to retrieve his fallen glasses.
"I picked them up. I remember getting them in my hands. They were on the steps. I wasn't on the ground. I was on my feet, surrounded by quite a few people. I tried to avoid that situation. I remember thinking I had to get out of there.
"I go to Caruso's, I'd say at least once a month," he continues. "And I'm a gentleman, and the waitress that night remarked how much she thought of my daughter and myself because we're so close."
He says he'd never raise hell with Lisa nearby. "I'm very protective of my daughter. I don't let anyone cuss in front of her. I don't expose her to those situations. You know, we were walking down the stairs and it all started right there. They instigated it more and more until I finally got smacked."
Officers also said they doubted Vince's ability to positively identify his attackers, since his glasses had been broken in the final assault. He shakes his head in disbelief.
At first, he says the cop wouldn't let him out of the police car. "I said, 'I can't identify them from here.' He let me out of the car. I put my glasses on--I popped both lenses back in--I walked up to them, and I said 'Those are the two who did it.' "
He wants to know who claims he provoked his attackers. I tell him it's the police.
"But I wouldn't do that in front of my daughter," he says.
As for the claim that he refused medical help, he says first he waited for Lisa's mom to come pick her up. "I refused to be driven in an ambulance because I didn't want it to be any more traumatic to my daughter," he says. "I asked them, 'Do you really think I need to go?' and they said, 'Yes. We think you really need stitches.' I said, 'Okay.' And I drove myself.
"I think it's pretty crummy of the Tucson Police Department to accuse me of something like that when I definitely identified (the youths). I had no doubt in my mind. And to say that I provoked it. Well, if I had called (the youths) some bad names, maybe they would have done that, so that could have justified it maybe in somebody's eyes. But I never, never provoked anything. I was in a restaurant having a good time with my daughter, and was going home.
"My getting walloped like I was," he says, "I don't think I had any judgment in time. To me, it was an eternity. So I couldn't question (TPD's) response time. I definitely, definitely question why they didn't put (the youths) in jail after the damage that was done to me. I think if they were in jail and they were responsible people, they'd have to account for what they did. And at this time right now, there's no one to account for what happened to me. No one."
"I was not punched in the nose one time," he says. "I was really viciously attacked by a few people."
At that point he gets tears, and they seem every bit as authentic as the swollen eyes, and the raw scar on his face.
"We have done a subsequent review of this situation, and because of that we have gone to the County Attorney's Office, and...charges that were subsequently issued have been dropped, and have been reissued to felony charges for aggravated assault in the situation.
"When somebody's yelling at you in your face, that could be a misdemeanor assault. But when somebody's laying into you, physically laying into you, that's a felony. Plain and simple. Those cops probably just didn't want to hassle with taking those guys in."
"She said, 'Are you willing to talk to me?' " Mary recalls. "I didn't know what she wanted at first, and I was really angry when I read in the newspaper that the police had let these kids go."
After Mary explained what she had seen, she says Scott "was shaking her head, and making remarks like these officers messed up. I told her about how vicious the incident was, and how I ran out there and told the officer when he drove up, 'There they go, there they go!' They were only a few feet away. They weren't even hiding or running. And the officer was saying 'What? What?' Then he said, 'Oh, can't go. Got another call.' "
Scott told Mary how the officers claimed she wouldn't help them. "She said, 'Just so you know, they're saying you were an uncooperative witness.' My mouth dropped. I was really surprised, and I was a little hurt too. I told her, 'That's a lie. Just so you know, that makes me really angry because I ran out there that night to help.' I told her about the officer not seeming to want to catch the perpetrators, when they were walking casually right by his damn police car.
"The only time I expressed any reluctance was when the officer wasn't clear to me about getting into a police car (to go down and identify the suspects). I thought he wanted me to walk down and go face-to-face with them.
"Actually this officer, in my opinion, he was very friendly, but he was overly casual about the whole thing. He acted like, 'Hey, no big deal.' "
Scott also told Mary that Officer Wright said Mary wouldn't give her name. "That made me really angry. He never asked me my name. Or my boyfriend's name. Never once, not when I was on the street at the beginning of the incident. He didn't ask me in the restaurant when he came to get me. He didn't ask me when I was in the police car. And he didn't ask me when we stood outside chatting on Fourth Avenue.
"As a matter-of-fact, when we went back in, I said, 'Well, I guess they're not going to need me, because they never asked my name.' "
Mary says her faith in the police department has been shaken. "Ultimately, I guess I'm confused and disappointed with this outcome. I always thought the police were the ones you turn to. I know cops have a difficult job, and they have to make tough decisions. I support them in that. But to me, it looks like they made a mistake in this situation, and then tried to cover it up."
A few days later I spoke to Detective Scott myself. I reiterated that I'd also be willing to testify. Then I asked for comment on her remarks to Mary about the mistakes made.
"From what I was hearing (from Mary), I was getting more and more annoyed," Scott said. Then she referred me to her boss, Capt. Kathy Robinson.
The captain said it was judgment call based on sketchy information from the victim. "The description (Officer Wright) received was very vague. This gentleman's glasses were broken. They had to physically bring him within five feet of these subjects, and he's squinting. I mean, it wasn't a solid ID.
"The officer didn't mess up," Robinson said. "When paramedics treated this gentleman, he was pretty bloody. He had a bad cut above his eye. The paramedics told him, 'You know, your nose is probably broken.' They said 'You're going to need a couple of stitches over your eye.'
"He refused treatment then, other than getting cleaned up for his daughter, because he didn't want his daughter to see him. He refused medical treatment, he refused to be transported anywhere. And he told them, 'I'll follow up with my own doctor.' "
She said the officers saw him get in and out of his vehicle. He wasn't bent over in pain. "They had no indication at all that there was a cracked rib. There was some indication that his nose might be broken. But that's a misdemeanor. Unless there's some substantial injury--at the time the officer didn't know there were broken bones--it would have gone misdemeanor. I don't fault the officer for going misdemeanor. I probably would have gone misdemeanor."
Later, when Vince's injuries were reevaluated, the charge was upped to a felony. "Broken bones. That constitutes aggravated assault," Robinson said.
Still, she called it a weak felony at best.
The Fourth Avenue assault wasn't a big deal, she said. "These things happen every single day. This isn't a serious incident. Yes, it's serious to this gentlemen. But he made some decisions. He made some choices. He brought his little girl back in to call 911. There was no reason for him to go back out and confront these individuals. And that's something we need to look at when we're going felony. Was he the aggressor on the second incident? Could he have avoided all of this by staying inside?"
"Well, you know what he said to those kids when he approached them the second time," she added cryptically.
I said no, I didn't.
"I can't discuss it," she replied. But, "that's one of the things the officers weren't real comfortable with. They wanted to find someone who overheard that conversation."
My opinion? I think the police are groping for a way to cover their butts, and hang Vince the carpenter out to dry.
SO WHAT are the larger ramifications of the Fourth Avenue beating, and how it was handled? Some suggest that this and other incidents on the avenue are aimed at forcing the merchant's association to hire more off-duty TPD cops. The association already bankrolls two officers, at an annual price tag of about $30,000.
Others suggest the police are deliberately highlighting their department's manpower shortage, or that they're not being paid enough. Then there are those who say the incident just exemplifies the lower caliber of cops now common in Tucson.
Whatever the reason, the assault on Vince isn't the sole clue that there's a problem. In late August, for example, a disturbed man carrying a big rock chased a girl selling flowers just outside Café Sweetwater. But when bartender Susie Cullen called 911, she was told the cops didn't have time to respond.
"They said they were too busy," Cullen told me. "But the flower girl was hysterical, and this guy was dangerous, and still out on the street. Now I wonder, what does it take, if there's a bad situation, to actually get the police to come?"
For a time, merchants were told to page their off-duty cops when an emergency arose, instead of calling 911. But that became sticky since the calls weren't routed through official TPD channels. That meant the department had no record of those situations unless there was an arrest. Theoretically, the number of reported incidents directly correlates to the number of cops assigned to Fourth Avenue.
Recently the association sent its members back to using 911. The flip-flop has sown confusion, however, with some business owners not knowing who to call at all.
Politically, the City Council has taken a tepid peek at the matter, but no action. The biggest stab at some solution came from Councilman Steve Leal, who suggested the city lease Fourth Avenue's sidewalks to the merchants. By making the walkways private property, Leal argued, both merchants and cops would find it easier to dispense with troublemakers. But that suggestion has raised a firestorm of criticism, along with several ethical and constitutional questions.
All of which puts Fourth Avenue right back where it started years ago, straddling the line between liberal non-conformity and the larger world's chaotic realities. The September incident has only made that balancing act more critical.
Some fear an over-reaction. "People need to take a deep breath about all this stuff," says Paul Gattone, head of the Southern Arizona People's Law Center, located on the avenue's northern reaches. "Merchants seem to be in a state of mass hysteria."
Indeed, Daniel Matlick, president of the merchant's association, says some business people want to take a very hard line on panhandlers and other ne'er-do-wells.
"Most merchants have the same concern," he says. "It's this aggressiveness they see with the kids. Some of them want to pay for more security. But it cost us $30,000 last year for the off-duty officers. As for police protection in general, while I'm mindful of the department's limited resources, I can't say it's adequate."
He admits that achieving security while retaining the avenue's funky flavor is a cultural crapshoot. "If there's a problem, we want to do something about it," he says. "But we're not like a mall, where you can pick and choose who you let in because it's all private property. That's fine--we have enough big malls already. Fourth Avenue is a public area, and we're trying to maintain those things that make it unique. And it's not easy."
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