Mesa officers rarely disciplined in excessive-force investigations, police data show
A Mesa police officer punches a 35-year-old man nearly unconscious after he refuses to immediately sit down. Two officers squeeze a 15-year-old boy’s neck after he is handcuffed. A police officer shoots a man’s pit bull after responding to a dog-barking complaint; the bullet goes through the dog’s neck and strikes another officer in the groin.
All three cases, captured by officers’ on-body cameras, are under investigation within the Mesa Police Department and the FBI is reviewing two cases.
However, an analysis by The Arizona Republic finds it is rare for Mesa officers to face any discipline in excessive-force investigations.
Mesa has shelled out more than $1 million to settle legal claims that officers used excessive force in the past four years, but only 2 percent of 158 internal-affairs investigations into such allegations were substantiated since 2014.
Some Mesa leaders are demanding that officers be held more accountable.
“The community as a whole: white, black, Hispanic, believers, non-believers, everyone is tired of harsh policing,” said Andre Miller, a pastor with Mesa’s New Beginnings Christian Church. “It’s affected every economic group. It’s affected every race in this city.”
Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista already has revised policy to prevent officers from striking people’s faces or heads unless a suspect is being combative. He also has sought to make it easier for the public to raise concerns over potential harsh treatment and improve the review process when claims surface.
As Mesa grapples with the spotlight on its policing techniques and its history related to excessive-force complaints, the future approach of the department and its relationship with the community hangs in the balance.
‘All we do is talk’
On a warm night in August, dozens of people streamed into New Beginnings Christian Church on Mesa’s west side. Miller had called a town hall in the church he’s run for nearly a decade to discuss what he sees as excessive force by Mesa police.
Miller invited Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Batista, who originally accepted but didn’t show up because of the FBI review.
A handful of tense moments marked the town hall. One man walked out after the vice president of the Mesa Police Association, Todd Zoglman, said that Johnson, the man caught on tape being punched or kneed by police, walked away “without major injuries.”
Longtime Mesa activist John Goodie addressed Montgomery, saying “It’s just frustrating because all we do is talk.”
Miller, in an interview with The Republic, said the viral videos showing Mesa police are evidence of a long-running problem.
“If we did not have the visibility, if we did not have the technology that we do now, some of these things would not be getting addressed,” he said. “This is not new information. This is a culture. This is a mindset.”
Miller said the problem in Mesa has not manifested along racial lines: it’s a “humanity concern.”
“When I explain it to people, I don’t make this a race thing because when you look at Mesa’s behavior, they’ve assaulted a 15-year-old Native American kid; they’ve assaulted an 80-something-year-old white grandmother; they killed a white gentleman; they shot an African-American mentally challenged gentleman not too long ago,” he said. “They don’t discriminate with who they put hands on.”
Few Mesa officers are disciplined
Mesa’s police department has completed at least 158 investigations into whether officers used excessive force since 2014. Three of the cases, or 2 percent, found the officer was in the wrong, The Republic’s analysis shows.
Of those three cases:
One officer was suspended.
One officer received a written reprimand.
One officer received training and counseling.
The analysis included internal-affairs cases that specifically investigated use of force, including police shootings.
Discipline rare for excessive-force cases
Two percent of Mesa police’s use-of-force internal investigations since 2014 resulted in findings of wrongdoing. Here’s how it compares to other cities with at least 20 investigations.
Some officers have been investigated multiple times for excessive-force allegations since 2014. Officer Ernesto Calderon was investigated for four use-of-force complaints. Three were unsubstantiated; the fourth is still open.
Calderon is one of five officers under investigation after the May arrest of 35-year-old Robert Johnson, whom officers punched or kneed after he refused to immediately sit down. The officers were not criminally charged after a review by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, but the FBI is reviewing this case.
In response to The Republic’s findings, Batista said that most calls to police do not end with officers having to use force, but the department is continually training officers for unpredictable situations.
“My goal is to evaluate what we do today and use my 32 years of experience and training and the advice of the Mesa police assistant chiefs along with the recommendations from outside experts to continue to train our officers on how to deal with persons in unpredictable and often dynamic situations,” Batista said.
Not just Mesa — discipline rare across Phoenix area
The Republic analyzed similar data for five other metro Phoenix police departments and found substantiated findings of officers using excessive force is rare. When it did occur, discipline ranged from written reprimands to suspensions, although Tempe police fired one of its officers after an excessive-force investigation in 2017.
Chandler police found officer wrongdoing in 5 of 27 cases, or 19 percent, in the four-year period.
Scottsdale police found wrongdoing in 2 of 13 cases, or 15 percent.
Glendale police found wrongdoing in 8 of 80 cases, or 10 percent.
Tempe police found wrongdoing in 3 of 64 cases, or 5 percent.
Peoria police found no officers at fault in 11 investigations into excessive force since 2014.
Peoria, a West Valley suburb, is about a third the size of Mesa. At about 800 officers, Mesa’s police department is about double the size of the larger comparison cities, Glendale and Scottsdale.
Police departments track excessive force investigations, but the data is not reported to an outside agency. The data should be publicly available with a public records request after the investigation is completed.
Phoenix police, the Valley’s largest police agency, would not provide comparable data from its disciplinary database. A spokesman said releasing the department’s entire disciplinary investigation database would be too burdensome, and releasing any part of it separately wouldn’t be required under Arizona public records law.
Beyond internal affairs investigations into potential wrongdoing, residents and others can sue. Mesa has been hit with more than 80 notices of claim, often precursors to lawsuits, over allegations that officers used too much force in the past four years. The city settled claims to eight different parties, paying out nearly $1.2 million.
Some of the settlements include:
$2,500 to an elderly man who claimed four police officers threw him against a wall and “beat on” him in 2015.
$1 million to family members of a Mesa man who police fatally shot inside his gated community in 2015.
$15,000 to a man who claims he was physically accosted by an officer while riding his bike to work in 2015.
Most of the notices of claim never spurred an internal-affairs investigation. Of the 77 officers named in the notices of claim in the last four years, 18 appear to correspond with an internal-affairs investigation, according to a Republic analysis of the claims.
Some claims never made it to court; others are still in litigation.
A lawsuit against the city is pending in federal court over the shooting of Daniel Shaver by police Officer Philip Brailsford in 2016. The FBI also is reviewing this case.
The FBI also reviewed the case of 28-year-old Scott Farnsworth, who was shot 11 times by three officers on Sept. 22, 2017. The FBI informed Mesa on Oct. 30 that it would not pursue further investigation, a Mesa police spokesman said.
Videos force change, public awareness
The pervasiveness of smartphones and police on-body cameras make it easier to capture and share video of police behavior, forcing police departments to address potential abuses of power.
“It’s no longer a police officer’s word against a suspect that they have stopped for a possible crime, because you have these real-time depictions of these encounters,” said Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Such police behavior is not new in some communities, said Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina.
“When I talk to people of color, they tell me our communities have been knowing about this police behavior for years. They’ll say police have been abusive for a long time,’” he said. “But now, white people and middle-class communities have been confronted with police behavior they’ve never seen before.”
The Mesa Police Department has about 800 police officers who patrol the 36th-largest city in the nation. Sixty-one percent of the residents are white, 28 percent Hispanic, 4 percent black, 2 percent Asian and 2 percent Native American, according to U.S. Census data.
Batista, who was hired in July 2017, has publicly called for internal investigations into at least three cases since June. He tapped former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to be part of the internal investigations. He also hired Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C., to review three years of the department’s use-of-force cases.
“We are willing to go the distance in the process of self-evaluation and improvement through the use of outside experts,” Batista said. “My aim is to study and evaluate the recommendations from outside experts with a focus on improving our training and providing our officers with greater skill and opportunity to resolve volatile situations peacefully.”
Scottsdale police, at Batista’s request, investigated officers’ handling of the Johnson case and another involving 15-year-old Gabriel Ramirez, whose case is also under FBI review. Ultimately, the County Attorney’s Office cleared seven officers in the two cases of any wrongdoing.
Batista has also called for an investigation into the officer who, responding to a barking dog complaint, shot Isaac Smith’s 4-year-old pit bull, Mio, and inadvertently struck another officer in the groin.
As far as the FBI investigations, Batista said he’s open to input.
Meanwhile, the chief has already made changes. He revised the department’s use-of-force policy to prevent officers from striking people’s faces or heads unless a suspect is being combative.
The Police Department also changed how it opens an internal investigation for an excessive-force allegation. Batista said that anyone, including people internally or externally, who wants to report a potential police-brutality case can do so online, over the phone, in person or through a notice of claim.
“An extensive review process has been improved to evaluate use of force incidents immediately after they occur,” Batista said by email. “This includes a thorough multi-layered review at all levels of the organization to include sergeants, lieutenants, and commanders. Non-involved supervisors are also required to respond to the scene of any dynamic use of force.”
In August, DiAnn Alexander sat at the Alston House with a group of residents in Mesa’s historically African-American Washington-Escobedo neighborhood. The Alston House was the home of Dr. Lucius Alston, the first black doctor to practice in Mesa. They met there to talk with The Republic about the perception of police in Mesa and other community issues.
Alexander is torn because she has seen positive interactions between officers and community residents in her years in the neighborhood, though she now lives in Chandler.
But her grandson fears the police. The young men who hang out in the park at night in Mesa feel intimidated when officers come around, she said; they worry they’ll get hassled.
“It’s like a fear that overcomes them because of history, because of what they’ve heard,” Alexander said.
Ray Villa, the community partnership coordinator for Mesa police, interviewed high school students earlier this year about policing and hopes to interview more residents in the future.
“One of the biggest things we found out was that they didn’t know if law enforcement liked them or not,” Villa said.
Dennis Kavanaugh, a former Mesa city councilman who served on a council committee overseeing the Police Department, has heard the debates over use of force and internal investigations for years.
He believes the review process is working.
The issues facing Mesa are the problems that would face any urban police department, he said.
Mesa residents, he said, know that crime rates have largely declined. He doesn’t believe the department has fallen out of favor with the residents it’s policing.
Instead, he attributes the rise in noteworthy use-of-force cases in Mesa to the rise of social media.
“It’s easy to pick a villain, and you have the villain of the day,” he said. “Social media is quick to judge and seldom investigates the facts or the circumstances.”
Kavanaugh urges those concerned to participate in the Mesa Citizen Police Academy, to get a glimpse of police officer training.
What’s the solution?
For Miller, the pastor, the solution to the seemingly never-ending spate of alleged excessive-force cases is civility. More training. Mental-health resources for officers. His suggestions go on and on.
Miller said he plans to work with other advocates to lobby for a change to the city’s charter. Specifically, they want the City Council to remove the part of Mesa’s charter that prohibits a police review board made up of civilians.
The job won’t be easy. A charter amendment must get through the council, then go before voters.
Miller said he is not asking for a civilian board that would have the power to hire and fire the police chief.
“It’s where we have a seat at the table and we look at these use-of-force instances with the city of Mesa,” he said. “They need community input and need to know how those who are being policed feel about their tactics. And that’s what we don’t have right now.”
The Republic reached out to Mesa’s mayor and council for comment. They issued a statement saying they would work with Batista and the department “to improve and grow the organization and the partnership it has with all the communities within Mesa.”