Expensive Oversight

Tucson's police auditor has recommended two cases out of 372 be revisited. Is this worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Richard Miranda now occupies a large, attractively decorated office on the 10th floor of City Hall. From this lofty position, Miranda--an assistant city manager--oversees the operations of several neighborhood service functions, including the Office of the Independent Police Auditor.

This fact has some critics shouting the phrase "conflict of interest." After all, Miranda spent 34 years with the Tucson Police Department (TPD), the last 10 as chief. Could Miranda unduly influence the work of the independent auditor?

That office was established in 1997 to "provide a thorough, objective and fair external review process of citizen inquiries and complaints of police misconduct." As a retired chief, does Miranda have a potential conflict of interest in his new job?

He doesn't think so. "There are too many people involved (for me) to influence the process," he says.

Earlier this year, discussions were held about having Deputy City Manager Mike Letcher assume responsibility for oversight of the auditor's office. He already oversees the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), with which the police auditor function was co-mingled in 2003.

"We talked about consolidating (the oversight)," Letcher recalls, "but things won't change. Liana Perez (who directs both offices) wanted it to stay the same."

The workload of the police auditor's office has changed recently. Up until a year ago, it looked at two types of complaints about police activity. The first type involved investigations by the TPD's Office of Internal Affairs of the complaints the auditor's office received directly from the public. The second set included a small sampling of the hundreds of misconduct complaints filed annually with the police department itself. For the 12 months which ended on June 30, 2007, 55 complaints were filed with the police auditor, and the auditor's office reviewed 15 samples of those complaints received by TPD. Of these 70 cases, the independent auditor recommended that five be reviewed again.

However, that is now different. Robert Barton, working for the Office of the Independent Police Auditor, since July 2007 has been examining all of the complaints filed against TPD officers, irrespective of where they originated.

During that time, Barton says he reviewed 372 cases. He recommended that the TPD take another look at only two of them.

"I thought critical things were missing," Barton says about these two cases. "I didn't believe (the complainants') concerns were adequately addressed in the original investigation."

One of these cases is still under review by Internal Affairs, so the police won't release information about it. The other began with an arrest in early 2007 for domestic violence. The person arrested accused the police officer involved of a litany of errors, including a lack of probable cause for the arrest and the use of excessive force and profanity.

Following an investigation, Internal Affairs decided that the charges could not be sustained, because "(it) cannot be determined if the (TPD) member committed the alleged violation." But after reviewing the case, Barton suggested the police take a second look. TPD agreed to do so, in September.

That follow-up resulted in a written reprimand for the arresting police officer, for not completing a thorough investigation of the domestic violence allegation, among other findings.

Are results like that one written reprimand worth spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain, for a city government in serious financial trouble?

An exact total of how much is spent to operate the Office of the Independent Police Auditor can't be determined, because it shares a budget with the OEO. Combined, the offices are authorized to have 12 employees and have been allocated more than $831,000 for the current fiscal year.

Miranda believes strongly in the function of the auditor's office.

"It's very important the community have trust in the police, and outside looks (at the department) are important," he says. "The police have extreme powers to arrest and take rights away. Community feedback, whether criticism or praise, has made TPD better."

But that public feedback can also be obtained through the city's Citizen Police Advisory Review Board. A seven-member group of volunteers appointed by the mayor and City Council, the board reviews a small sample of Internal Affairs investigations after they have been completed--not during the process, as the Office of Independent Police Auditor does.

Board chairperson Susan Thornton thinks it is vital to maintain the dual police oversight responsibilities. "The board provides another avenue for complaints about police activities," she says. "The auditor's office is much more accessible on a daily basis."

Thornton points out that the public can file complaints with the auditor's office. Plus, she adds of the auditor's office, "It provides much more outreach than our committee can."

In 2007, the citizens' board reviewed 30 completed investigations of complaints against TPD officers. According to its annual report from last year, "Most of the cases reviewed were found to be fair and thorough."

Thornton stresses that Tucson is seen as a model for how communities around the country can deal with the contentious issue of police oversight. Because of that, she concludes about the Office of the Independent Police Auditor and the Citizen Police Advisory Review Board: "It's important to have both."