We the Police: The relationship between Tempe and its protectors
Information regarding the police is getting lost in translation in Tempe. Despite an increase in programs designed to connect the police to the public, community members remain wary of the police presence, like an elaborate game of “telephone:” the farther one goes from the police department, the more the message differs.
Lt. Michael Pooley of the Tempe Police Department said Tempe’s department is like any other in that it wants to make the people in the area feel safer.
“We want an image where we’re looked at as someone anyone can go to if they need help,” he said. “We want the image where we’re looked at as a fair police department; obviously, we’re servants of the public.”
In contrast to this goal, Tempe resident Cathie Mancini, like others, said Tempe Police's efforts during the initial crackdown in August and September made her feel oppressed and unsafe.
“It’s all hype and all over-policing and I don’t know what their political motivation is,” she said. “I’ve lived in Tempe my whole life, and I’ve never lived under this type of regime.”
Safe and Sober
In 2013, during the first four weeks of ASU students’ return, police created the Safe and Sober campaign. It was designed as a collaborative project between Tempe Police and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to make a statement against illegal activity, especially underage drinking and DUIs, after 2012 saw many incidents that left one student dead and several badly injured.
Safe and Sober returned in 2014, when a grant funded by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety allowed Tempe Police to call in 18 other law enforcement agencies, ranging from ASU PD to the Salt River Police Department. It lasted only three weeks, but the program was expanded through more community outreach efforts, including “Welcome Back Walks.”
During these walks, police officers, ASU students and staff, city employees and members of the media went door-to-door in neighborhoods surrounding the ASU Tempe campus and informed residents of the upcoming Safe and Sober campaign.
Mancini said the welcome walks were disturbingly unconventional and the positive community response was likely not genuine.
“When you get positive feedback, it’s because it’s forced, because they're police officers, and they have guns in your doorway,” she said. “And the people who don't support it aren't going to answer their doors.”
Mancini said to some, having police visit their doors unannounced was frightening, especially those she knows with mental illnesses. The timing of the welcome walks with major events in the news was also an issue, she said.
“This started at the height of the Ferguson riots,” Mancini said. “It was in poor judgment for them to go door-to-door when our country is at a time when we’re talking about police brutality and their presence. It’s insensitive and it’s not benefiting our community in any way.”
She said people outside the police department need to be involved in the planning process of outreach events and she plans to try to get more involved.
Cassidy Possehl, president of the Tempe Undergraduate Student Government, participated in the walks. She said besides receiving positive feedback from residents, she felt as though she gained something from the experience as well.
“Particularly within Tempe, people have a really negative view of the police because they're so strict,” she said. “So working with them in real time during the day, I got to listen to their concerns for the officers going out. … We discussed that for a while about why there is that negative perspective, and so from that piece that really changed my perspective.”
Mike Thompson, interim chief of the ASU Police Department, said police also worked with residential associations, ASU Greek life and academic groups to learn their concerns before Safe and Sober started.
“(We want) to make sure that we are there, not just when there’s an issue, but good times, too,” he said. “Building relationships with students, being open to being approached … and the more we can build that trust within the community, the more likely they are to approach us and give us suggestions.”
Once the 2014 Safe and Sober campaign began on Aug. 21, the law enforcement agencies shifted their focus from outreach to enforcement. The official totals won’t be released until November, but according to preliminary numbers from this year’s campaign, confirmed by Tempe PD, 1,150 total arrests were made. This is a decrease from the number of arrests made in 2013’s campaign, which totaled more than 1,700.
Tempe City Councilmember Kolby Granville, an ASU alumnus, said his philosophy means less is more.
“I’d like us to issue no tickets,” he said. “The goal of police isn't to catch crime, the goal is for there not to be crime. … We want to educate you; we don’t want to ticket you or arrest you.”
Pooley said the Tempe Police’s ideas are similar, in that a large way it measures the success of Safe and Sober is to compare the calls received during the fall. If police officers are called less during Safe and Sober and afterwards, it means they were effective in sending a strong initial message. That data will be fully collected at the end of October.
Despite the decrease in arrests, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people who came in contact with a police, which went from more than 6,500 in 2013 to more than 8,100 in 2014.
Ethan, a Tempe small business owner and a Tempe resident who lives less than a mile from the ASU campus, said the high number of stops shows the true, aggressive nature of the campaign. He asked only his first name be released, because he fears police repercussions against him and his business.
“They’re using this as a money grab, and they wink their eye and say, ‘If one (DUI) is prevented, then it’s worth it,’ and they pocket a ton of loot,” he said. “If this money went to DUI prevention and care and education at ASU and funds for people who died, but it’s just going to the department. … They should make it transparent. If they're going to wage war on us, then we want to know the body count.”
There is no direct way to find out how much money was collected during Safe and Sober, because each police department’s tickets go through their respective area’s court systems. Therefore, the information is scattered throughout the state.
A minor in consumption citation starts at about $500, a DUI fine plus surcharges starts at about $1,250 and a minor in possession of alcohol could be charged anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $2,500, depending if a false ID was used. The amounts for the fines increase with each offense.
Ethan also said he feels Tempe is becoming a police state, because its own residents don’t feel comfortable or safe in their own neighborhoods. He has been stopped three times while riding his bike near his neighborhood during the Safe and Sober campaigns, he said.
“When you're ID'd and frisked and you don't know why, it’s a horrible feeling,” he said. “You feel like a second-class citizen. … I don’t even want to drive to work, because I don’t want to get pulled over. During Safe and Sober, it was unreal how many cops you would see. It didn’t make me feel safe.”
Ethan said his argument isn’t based on a desire to drink freely, because he doesn’t drink alcohol. He said it’s about his rights.
Ethan spoke about these stories.
“I took a Lyft driver and he said he refused to come to Tempe for three weeks because he kept getting gulled over by police,” he said. “The harassment just seems senseless.”
But Tempe and ASU PD both definitively said their departments do not do this.
“There’s no truth to that rumor,” said Chief Thompson. “We heard that same rumor last year, and we thought we dispelled it last year, but apparently not. It’s kind of one of those urban legends that keeps popping up.”
Both departments said they have told all of the 17 other participating units that this policy is not acceptable, though they cannot know for certain that the other units don’t pull over taxis.
Janelle Brannock, spokeswoman for Discount Cab, said at least for her company, which is one of the largest taxi companies in Tempe, these stories are not based in fact.
“It’s not true,” she said. “We haven’t heard from any of our drivers that police in Tempe have been pulling over our cabs to check the back seats.”
Police’s relationship with the public
Police presence has been a contested topic throughout the nation, since an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a white police offer in Ferguson, Missouri, in early August. Since then, debates, protests and riots have ensued in Ferguson, but their ripples have been felt elsewhere, including protests against police brutality in Phoenix during a First Friday event.
Another incident that sparked the public’s anger was the May arrest of ASU professor Ersula Ore. Ore was reportedly illegally crossing the street, which she said she was doing to avoid the construction seen in the background of the video, taken by a dashboard camera. The ASU officer asked her for her ID, and she responded that she felt disrespected by him. The situation quickly escalated until Ore was thrown on the ground to be handcuffed, leaving her dress flipped upward and her body exposed.
Ethan said this incident was an example of the attitude of the police and their disrespect of citizens’ rights.
“The professor Ore incident showed that when you don’t speak perfectly to police, you could land on your head,” he said. “People who go to ASU can have short-term memory. You can do your four years here, because this isn't always your home. But for the professors and those who work and live here after we graduate, a lot of us are questioning it.”
This incident occurred before Thompson became interim chief of ASU PD in July, but he said he knows his department still has work to do.
“Do I think we’re perfect? No,” he said. “Do I think we have room to improve? Absolutely; I think we always will. I think as times change and different priorities come along, our focuses will change. But my goal is as those focuses change, the communities that we are serving are part of that process and let us know.”
ASU PD was criticized again when it received 70 M-16 semiautomatic rifles as part of the Department of Defense’s surplus program.
Because of the public backlash and because many of the rifles were in poor condition, ASU PD announced in late September that it was returning them to the government. The acquisition of the rifles also meant ASU officers would have to undergo 40 hours of training, which they had not yet completed at the time of the announcement.
It is not uncommon for most law enforcement agencies to have rifles for specific, high-risk situations, such as hostage scenarios or raids. They do require special training, though, which adds cost to the police budget.
Even though the rifles weren’t out-of-the-ordinary, Thompson said ASU PD’s response is an example of his, and his department’s philosophy, of working with the community and responding to public concern.
“It’s not a reflection of the police department being militarized,” he said. “(But) we’re trying to be responsive and understanding of the people that we’re serving. We want to send the right message.”
Thompson said ASU PD still plans on acquiring similar rifles to make sure they’re prepared for special circumstances on campus, such as an active shooter, though they will not be M-16’s from the military.
An FBI Study released in September 2013 showed schools were the second-most common locations for active shooter situations, second only to businesses.
Thompson said this means ASU PD has no choice but to make sure it is prepared.
“As we talk about the overarching goal of the ASU PD, and it’s to … make sure you guys have an environment you can be successful in, it’s our responsibility to respond appropriately if in fact there was that kind of situation,” he said. “So the only way we can do that is we respond with an equal amount of force.”
Many police departments hold meetings to discuss the status of crime trends and various complaints, but many of them are internal. Mesa PD, however, has followed the example of other large cities, implementing an accountability program called “CompStat,” short for “computerized statistics.” As part of this program, weekly status meetings are held, which include high-ranking officers, unit commanders and the public.
Bill Richardson, a retired master police officer and intelligence unit supervisor at Mesa PD, as well as a former ASU PD officer, said the ASU and Tempe police departments need to implement a joint program like CompStat to improve their public relationship, rather than hold them in private like they do now.
“(There) is the need for a joint ASU PD-Tempe PD CompStat program driven by someone who is independent, who is able to hold all parties accountable,” he said.
Pooley said Tempe PD has considered making status meetings public, but hasn’t acted on it.
“I don’t have an answer for you for why it’s not open to the public, I just know we don’t do that right now,” he said.
Pooley said because its meetings are not public, Tempe PD bases a large measure of its community approval on the city’s annual community attitude survey, which measures citizen satisfaction with city services by randomly sampling Tempe households.
According to the 2013 survey, 81 percent of Tempe residents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of local police services. Satisfaction with how Tempe City employees treated the residents was measured at 85 percent, which was 16 percent above the national average.
United or divided front?
Richardson said a chief issue that needs to be addressed is the poor relationship between Tempe PD and ASU PD.
“I can’t tell you how many people, not only at the University, but people from other law enforcement agencies that talk about the attitude that Tempe Police Department has towards the ASU Police Department,” he said. “It’s almost like a bastard stepchild. There’s this animosity; they look down on the University police department as a second-class organization.”
Richardson said this toxic mindset has a negative effect on enforcement, because ASU PD’s voice isn’t given as much value during executive strategic meetings.
“It doesn't help and it comes from the top,” he said. “The officers generally get along with each other because, they’re all in the same boat, but that kind of attitude from the top down isn’t beneficial to anybody.”
Richardson also cited the differences in starting salaries at the two departments as indicators of their unjust differences in status. According to their recruitment websites, the starting pay for an ASU police officer is about $44,000 per year, while it’s about $57,000 at the Tempe department.
Lauren Kuby, a recently elected member of the Tempe City Council, said during her campaign that the relationship between Tempe PD and ASU PD desperately needed to be fixed.
But with the new leadership of Thompson, who has been the interim chief of ASU PD since July and has formed a strong relationship with Tempe Assistant Police Chief John Rush, Kuby said matters have significantly improved.
“If you had asked me this question six months ago, my answer would have been very different,” she said. “Communications have been poor, but I think it’s improved a lot, as it should be, they can’t be separate silos anymore.”
Kuby said she receives her information from sources within both departments but declined to name them.
The community outreach projects, such as the welcome walks before Safe and Sober, are evidence of the departments’ new willingness to try to work together along with the community, she said. She said she wants efforts like these to continue, including integrating the public forum of the CompStat system.
“Even though it was a clumsy attempt, because people were alarmed when they saw police at their door, I still applaud those efforts, to talk to neighborhoods and go door-to-door,” she said.
She said she isn’t sure why ASU and Tempe officers have a disparity in pay, but suggested it was because many university jobs offer salaries below the open market.
Both ASU PD and Tempe PD said theirs is a relationship of collaboration and respect.
“ASU is part of our weekly meeting where we talk about what’s going on in the city,” Pooley said. “We’re now working in the stadium, or any special event that they host, whether it be traffic control, security positions, whatever it may be. Our homeland defense unit, our bomb techs, they are always assisting ASU so obviously we have a very good working relationship with them.”
Tempe as a city, not just a campus
While Safe and Sober has greatly targeted alcohol-related offenses such as DUIs and minors in consumption or possession of alcohol, there is still the issue of more serious crimes in Tempe, namely rape and murder.
Thompson said these two categories are connected because alcohol is often involved in most crimes in the Tempe area.
“A lot of the issues that we see, the nexus of those issues are usually attributed to alcohol or some type of drug use,” he said. “So that can be anything from fights, aggravated assaults, sexual violence, DUIs, a myriad of things. If you were to kind of filter it all down, alcohol use is somehow at the beginning of it. Not every single time, of course there are exceptions to that, but there is that underlying thing.”
Richardson said he disagrees, but points to Tempe PD as the one guilty of giving alcohol-related crimes too much attention.
“Tempe PD is arresting all these kids for drinking in order to solve its crime problems,” he said. “What does that accomplish? The problems in Tempe now are to a point that they're not going to arrest their way out of a problem by rounding up hundreds of college kids on Friday and Saturday nights.”
According to police records, there were 62 total rapes reported to Tempe PD in all of 2013. From January to August 2014, there have been 61 rapes reported to Tempe PD, or a 125 percent increase from last year’s rate.
Comparatively, looking at ASU police records, there were 14 sex crimes committed on campus at this time last year which were reported to police. So far in 2014, there have been seven.
Richardson said even with these numbers, ASU PD is in a unique position because of the high crime rates in Tempe, and Tempe’s lack of an effective response.
“How does the University best protect the campus, the people, faculty, staff, students, visitors and the property when it’s surrounded by a city with a serious crime problem?” he asked. “That really puts the ASU PD in a tough position.”
He also said rapes need to take an especially higher priority, because of the jump in numbers and the severity of the crime.
Pooley said Tempe’s resources are being well-spent because of the tragedies seen in the past as a result of alcohol being involved.
“Looking at it from our side, we’ve seen a lot of horrible accidents,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of students lose their lives. We’ve seen a lot of students make some very bad decisions that affect them for their entire lives, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
Pooley said all the controversy surrounding Safe and Sober and the police’s philosophies in general are all part of the job description.
“We’re always going to have critics no matter what we do,” he said. “And when we have those critics we try to address their concerns, but people are going to be unhappy. … And that’s just part of being a police department and working in public safety and law enforcement.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @mahoneysthename