Bad Cops. Good Cops. More Cops?

An examination of the Tucson Police Department reveals widespread community support--despite some alarming incidents and statistics

The list of cops who have been fired from the Tucson Police Department since 1999 is a long one, yet indications show that the TPD still has the public's support--despite the litany of black eyes reported by local media.

In 2001, a 16-year veteran of the force kicked his girlfriend (also a police officer) in the face during a domestic altercation, then pointed an unloaded gun at her; a 9-year veteran of the force shot an innocent man; and an officer with 10 years of experience failed to "remember" firing his gun three times at a suspect.

Two years ago, an officer who had been with the department for seven years was found to have harassed women.

Last year, a 48-year-old officer with 21 years of service used his TPD computer to solicit sexual acts from an undercover officer posing as a 16-year-old girl; another 6-year police officer made a pass at a 15-year-old girl.

The list goes on to include 15 firings in the last five years. As a result, although the overall percentage is low, the TPD has a disproportionately large number of problem cops who have been terminated for cause, according to a Weekly survey of other police departments (see chart on page 27).

In addition to the firings, there are numerous cases in which officers have been suspended from duty, with leaves ranging from one day to a month or more. Last year, officials handed down suspensions to a cop who was arrested for DUI and to a lieutenant and a sergeant who were involved in a bizarre love triangle, the mechanics of which (phone calls, specifically) were conducted from the office.

The department also has several other strikes against it. The Fourth Avenue fracas of 2001 resulted in rioting and ended up costing one bystander an eye and taxpayers at least $820,000 in damages. TPD was accused of using heavy-handed tactics with anti-war demonstrators last year and opponents of the proposed 2002 sales-tax increase. A detective who has since retired from the department was arrested for allegedly stealing $615,000 of government-confiscated drug money while still on the job.

Based on this crowded Hall of Shame, you'd think there might be more of a public outcry about TPD--whose motto is "Ready to Protect, Proud to Serve"--even considering the afterglow from Sept. 11 and the nation's current security fetish.

But that doesn't seem to be the case.

"One screw-up reflects on all of us," says Tucson's Chief of Police, Richard Miranda.

Admitting the record on terminations during his five-year tenure on the job is embarrassing, he also says that he's proud of the department and the work that his officers do.

"The public needs to scrutinize us when we (mess) up," he says, "but in light of what we do, I think some understanding (is also needed)."

Miranda, a 29-year TPD veteran, oversees an organization with a total operating budget of almost $119 million and a staff of more than 1,300 officers and civilians. At 51, he has passed the age of retirement for many police officers, and he has given the possibility some thought.

"It will be a family decision," he says, "since they have lived in the shadow of this job and its 50- to 60-hour work week." He has considered doing something else, but with children ages 21, 18 and 12, Miranda chuckles, "I still have to have a job."

Dressed in a neatly pressed uniform and sitting in his sparse but tastefully decorated second-floor office at police headquarters on South Stone Avenue, he recently talked about those he has had to fire, along with several others who resigned before being terminated.

"My expectation is that police officers should be held to a higher standard," he says, "and internally, there is the feeling that I'm a strict disciplinarian."

While acknowledging that the department's number of dismissals may be higher than other agencies, Miranda also points out that his decisions have been upheld upon review by the city's Civil Service Commission.

When compared to other Western cities, the record of terminations from the 133-year-old police department doesn't look good. Thankfully, there is Las Vegas, Sin City, so Tucson only has the second-highest rate of firings of the seven departments surveyed.

Especially alarming is a comparison with other nearby police departments. Tucson's percentage of fired cops is three times that of Phoenix's department, more than twice the rate of Albuquerque's and 50 percent higher than the Pima County Sheriff's Department's statistics.

Also disturbing are the figures for suspensions. Tucson's rate is more than double that of Phoenix and Pima County, but only fourth-worst on the list.

Mayor Bob Walkup figuratively scratches his head when asked about the importance of these findings, and says it's a tough question to answer.

"I don't know if the numbers are too high or not high enough," he says, "but I do applaud Chief Miranda's efforts on training and evaluation."

Sergeant Rich Anemone is president of the Tucson Police Officers Association, the local negotiating union for TPD. He believes Miranda's standards for the department have something to do with the high numbers of firings and suspensions.

"He's strict when it comes to truthfulness and integrity," Anemone says.

In Anemone's opinion, Miranda is extremely fair in dealing with his officers but demands accountability from those who work for him. This is reflected by the chief's 2002 decision to institute a "You lie, you're out" policy, which has led to the termination of some offenders.

Many of the fired TPD officers, however, were showing signs of problems long before they were let go. In several cases, the offending cops had a history of complaints against them.

In an attempt to heed these warning signals, TPD intends to begin using an early intervention computer program by this summer. Based on factors such as public complaints and reports of use of force by an officer, this data system will try to "red flag" cases in which intervention by the department may be warranted.

Lt. Jim McShea, of TPD's Internal Affairs division, has high expectations for the program.

"The idea is to improve an officer's performance," he says, "and certainly, my hope is that it could identify problems early enough to save a career."

That effort, though, won't undo past mistakes. But even with the constant media attention given to the seemingly never-ending list of police problems during the past several years, Elizabeth Bottka-Smith, former chair of the Citizen Police Advisory Review Board, is convinced people still support the department.

The board looks at citizen complaints filed against TPD officers, as does the city's independent police auditor. That agency saw a substantial decline in the number of filings it received between 2000 and 2002, the latest year for which figures are available.

"The overall perception of the department is good," Bottka-Smith believes, "and the public feeling is they do a good job, which is hard."

Anemone agrees, pointing to a recent survey, as evidence.

"People are happy with the job we're doing. Out on the street you see nothing but support. There are just a handful of dissenters."

Those dissenters' anger at the TPD is fervent. One dissenter is longtime TPD critic and local consumer advocate Willy Bils.

"Some will say this is good news based on tough discipline," Bils says about the firings and suspensions, "but terminations are only the tip of the iceberg. The public gets thrown some bones."

Bils, who unsuccessfully filed a false-arrest and excessive-force lawsuit against TPD, and who was recently found not guilty of disorderly conduct in a separate case, also wonders about the lack of firings for involvement in drug dealing. While news coverage has focused on sex and violence as the reasons behind TPD terminations, Bils alleges that a large number of officers may also be trafficking in narcotics.

In response to this accusation, Chief Miranda says, "Given an agency our size, I can't be naïve and not think it won't happen here. We do get anonymous calls and letters (about this)," he adds, "and do investigate. We don't dismiss them."

But citing data which indicates the huge role that drugs play in Tucson's economy, Bils believes the failure to identify any drug-dealing cops "flies in the face of the experience of other police departments."

Based on the media information he has collected about TPD, Bils also concludes that its policy toward officers is like a dog on a loose leash.

"Do what you want," goes Bils' interpretation of the policy, "just don't get caught."

Miranda acknowledges that that perception may be held by some citizens, but indicates he doesn't believe it at all.

"An agency with almost 1,400 employees," he says, "is going to have issues. We mirror the problems of other police departments throughout the country."

According to Michael Polakowski, of the University of Arizona's School of Public Administration and Policy, both the strict discipline and lax supervision that exist within the TPD may be factors in its poor rankings. The only way to determine the primary reason, he believes, is to do a more thorough investigation.

"The likelihood of much of what we see with disciplinary problems (within the TPD) is a result of long-term trends in administration," Polakowski says. "They've handled these problems in-house, so it's not surprising to see these issues."

Tucson resident Stanley Carpenter also criticizes the TPD, and believes the department is using intimidation tactics on the general public.

The rolling desert knolls of Greasewood Park that wrap around Maxwell Middle School on the city's westside are one site of alleged intimidation. Last fall, complaints of homosexual sex in the park led to TPD action. At the request of Wingspan--the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization that wanted to help deal with the issue--they backed off for a while, but began patrols again several weeks ago.

"They're harassing people not involved in doing what they're trying to stop," says Carpenter, who regularly uses the park. "They are being ruthless with people who aren't their targets."

Carpenter accuses the police of using the passive intimidation technique of asking many park-goers to show identification. "The police are hassling people who periodically pick up stuff like condoms, and they have a lot of outrageous questions for park visitors, whether gay or straight. They're irritating the wrong people."

In response, Miranda states there has been public indecency in the park along with people having sex in the bathrooms and other places.

"Believe me, I don't want to spend time doing this," Miranda says, "but I've been out there and seen mattresses and condoms." (It should be noted that a Weekly photographer working on this story also found condoms in the park.) Miranda adds that Greasewood Park has been listed on the "Cruising for Sex" Web site.

In response to the charge of police intimidation in the park, Miranda says, "The cops shouldn't just be asking for the ID of someone sitting at a table in the park. We typically don't do that, but we have almost 1,000 cops."

Bev Ginn, of the City Attorney's Office, is assigned to work with the TPD. She confirms the public's right to refuse to show identification to a police officer, and says that under state law, there are only two situations in which ID must be provided: motor-vehicle and liquor cases.

"An officer can ask for identification anytime, and there is a difference between asking and demanding," she says. "If people are walking in the park and asked to show their ID, their answer can be, 'No, I don't want to do that,' and the officer should respect that." Taking that stance, however, can be stressful (See "Suspect Identification").

If people do have a problem with a police officer asking for identification, Miranda says they should request the cop's name and badge number, and let Miranda know about it.

hile "bad cop" and intimidation charges persist against the TPD, Miranda is doing his best to add hundreds of new officers to the department.

"People are pretty open with me at the grocery store," he says, "and they are pretty satisfied with the job we're doing. Their greatest dissatisfaction is with the time it takes to respond to calls."

In addition to that complaint, Miranda cites scary statistics as he rolls off a series of crimes that aren't being adequately investigated in Tucson because of a lack of staff.

"There are thousands of fraud cases we don't get to," he says, "plus last year, we had 900 solvable auto thefts we didn't get to."

In addition, 60 percent of workable narcotics cases aren't assigned to be investigated, and thousands of burglary cases went unattended.

But the most tangible impact of too few officers, the chief thinks, is the time it takes to answer nonemergency calls. Miranda believes this takes away from the quality of life in town. "When the service people are getting is three to four hours to respond to a burglary, naturally, they are upset." He adds that average response time to a traffic accident without injuries is more than an hour.

The volume of calls received by the TPD has grown to almost 360,000 annually, an increase of 17 percent in the last five years. In addition, while the number of crimes such as homicides, aggravated assaults and burglaries remained fairly constant during that period, narcotics violations and motor-vehicle thefts skyrocketed.

Pointing out the department meets its goals of five- and 10-minute response times to the two highest levels of emergency calls, Miranda insists the TPD has to grow substantially to keep up with other situations. Comparisons with other cities selected by the department show that Tucson has 1.8 cops for every 1,000 people, compared to a national average of about 2.4 per 1,000.

Last month, Miranda asked the City Council to add 65 new officers annually to the force during the next five years while also hiring enough to fill any vacancies caused by attrition. The result would cost more than $21 million.

This would be a quadrupling of the officer-addition rate seen by the TPD over the past decade. But Miranda thinks it is necessary, and lists three problem areas this growth could address. Not only would it reduce response times and allow many more solvable cases to be investigated, he says, but the school-resource officer program could be fully staffed. The TPD, according to Miranda, has only 23 cops for the 171 public schools inside the city limits, and he believes it is important to expand the program.

"We need to get involved with intervention and prevention with kids," he says, adding the department's now-disbanded crime-prevention unit could also be re-established.

Facing a $26 million budget shortfall, though, the City Council is unlikely to address the entire request, at least this year. That leaves Miranda hoping they will fund the positions which were cut out of his agency in 2003 as a cost-saving measure. That move alone will require almost $5 million.

Mayor Walkup indicates he will back this short-term objective. As for the five-year plan, he says, "We'll have to check it out to see if it's a reachable goal."

Both Bottka-Smith and Anemone also support hiring more officers.

"Staffing is unbelievably low," says Anemone, "... We're getting our butts kicked out there." Anemone predicts that police services will suffer even more unless the need for additional officers is addressed soon.

After seeing the police in action at Greasewood Park, though, Carpenter wonders why more officers are needed.

"If the department is so limited on resources," he asks, "why are they wasting them in parks on the westside?"

Miranda insists the police action in the park was appropriate and not a waste of time.

Miranda also believes that when City Manager James Keene presents his proposed budget to the City Council in April, he will recommend having considerably more officers within 12 months.

"By this time next year," the chief says optimistically, "we should have 1,000 officers. That's my goal, and I think it will happen."