Marana POA battles City over conduct of Assistant Chief

Incident at Chuy’s

For a while, the Marana police department had low level disenchantment with management.  No significant incident had occurred but the officers were unhappy about favoritism in assignments and promotions.  Then came the Incident at Chuy”s.

A number of off duty officers and other PD employees got together at a Chuy’s restaurant one day in August of 2007.  That day a vehicle easing out of a parking spot allegedly bumped into another parked car and left the area.  The owner of the parked car called 911 to report a “hit and run” accident.   Marana officers responding to the call found the parking lot full of off-duty PD employees on their way home and alerted the department.

Believing a Marana Officer committed the act, Marana Assistant Chief Harris “assumed control” of the incident.  The Ass. Chief immediately set about to make a giant erupting volcano of a problem out of something that shouldn’t have amounted to a mole hill.  Her first order of business was to order a full blown criminal investigation by Marana detectives.  She ordered all of the officers and employees who had been at Chuy’s, (virtually an entire shift of employees!) to the station to sit and wait to be interviewed.

Almost immediately MPOA members began complaining of threats and intimidation during their interviews and in their “post interview talks” with Ass. Chief. Harris.  Officers were kept isolated, sitting in the station for up to nine hours, without food, while they waited to be interviewed.

Upon learning of the idiocy transpiring at the police station, MPOA leadership sprang into action.  They consulted with AZCOPS legal regarding violations of law and immediately confronted the Ass. Chief.  MPOA leadership, in no uncertain terms, advised the Ass. Chief to stop the violations or be sued.  MPOA leadership also took exception to the investigative tactics and tried to get the Ass. Chief to give some sort of rational explanation for taking a whole shift of officers off the streets.

The Ass. Chief conceded the violations of law and later interviews comported with state law.  MPOA made sure that officers were given food and water as they sat in PD station “confinement” while waiting to be interviewed. The MPOA did not, however, get any explanation as to why Ass. Chief  Harris felt the need to sequester an entire shift officers for hours over a fender bender on private property.

MPOA members were solidly represented by MPOA leadership, which halted the abusive and illegal interview tactics. The Ass. Chief, however, was really not very happy and was already planning moves against the MPOA.

Assistant Chief Strikes Back

When the interviews were over the Marana PD was able to get back to patrolling the streets and handling calls for service.  Officers were upset and angry with the PD’s response to the incident.  Most saw the investigation as an incredible over reaction and said as much.  The more outspoken officers began to experience what they recognized as subtle retaliation by management.  Within a few weeks, the Ass. Chief’s conduct had so disrupted morale and had caused such discontent that officers began directly emailing their complaints to Marana Town Council members.

A Town Council member contacted the MPOA president and asked him to bring forward all of the membership’s issues with the department.  Not wanting to become the Ass. Chief’s number one target for retaliation, our MPOA President, Bill Derfus, respectfully declined.   Instead, he invited the Town Council member to that night’s MPOA meeting so that she could hear, first hand, from the officers.

That night’s MPOA meeting was a classic.  Over one half of the membership attended.  Our members, no pansies, stood up and told the unvarnished truth about morale issues, petty retaliation, and the Ass. Chief.  Members told the Town Council member about how they had been trying to use management’s “open door” policy to try to get change, but that nothing ever seemed to happen because Chief Vidaurri was asleep at the wheel. The meeting went on for hours and late into the night.  The Town Council member was shocked at what she heard, but was utterly convinced by the overwhelming stories of forty officers. Apparently the Ass. Chief heard the stories too.

The next day the Ass. Chief ordered two Lieutenants to begin interviewing everyone who had attended to the MPOA meeting to find out exactly what was said and who had said it. Within days after the meeting, vocal officers and MPOA leaders began to experience small acts of retaliation.  The MPOA president (a 16 year veteran with the Marana Police Department and with no disciplinary history) was given “direction” after suggesting a more efficient method for completing an assignment. Everyone understands how even a “direction” can negatively impact an upcoming performance evaluation.  Other officers suffered similar low-level retaliation such as being removed from assignments.

For his part Vidaurri pooh-poohed any suggestion of morale problems in the department.  Vidaurri’s oft repeated and uniform response to questions of morale was to loudly blame “a few bad apples” among the officers.  And this response enraged the MPOA and would provide the ammunition to publicly lambaste Vidaurri in a few short months.

In mid October, 2007, more than two months after the Chuy’s incident, the PD sought criminal charges against one of its own officers, – Officer DeStefano for the “hit and run” accident.  Days later the department also fired Officer DeStefano.

Then the Ass. Chief stooped to a new low, enlisting a sergeant (one of the golden children) to contact officers to coerce them into signing a “we support the administration” letter.  This sergeant called officers while they were on duty and told them to sign the letter because, “Either you are or you aren’t in support of the administration.”  The insidious message was clear, support the administration or you join DeStefano.

This was the last straw for the MPOA in terms of trying to resolve the issues in house.  The MPOA met with the AZCOPS board, AZCOPS legal and crafted a careful plan to publicly deal with the issues that Chief Vidaurri would not face, – the morale issues that were tearing the department apart.

Return of the MPOA

The first part of the plan was to bring the Ass. Chief’s shenanigans directly to the attention of Town officials and the public through the media.  On October 16, 2007, AZCOPS legal emailed, faxed, and mailed a three page letter to Vidaurri, the Town Manager and each of the Marana Town Council members.  The letter traced Ass. Chief Harris” poor judgment from the bungled Chuy’s investigation, through the petty retaliation and ill-conceived discipline of DeStefano, to the coerced ‘letters of support for management’.

AZCOPS legal wrote to Vidaurri:

This conduct is inappropriate and wrong on so many levels and reflects extremely poor judgment by senior staff. Quite frankly, seeking a compelled “letter of support” smacks of some sort of childish popularity contest, rather than the highest professional conduct the citizens expect from their police department.  We are asking you to nip this unprofessional and unseemly conduct in the bud before we are forced to take more significant legal action.   We would suggest you could begin to restore the confidence and morale of the Department with a thorough investigation of issues raised in this letter coupled with an order halting the petty retaliation currently plaguing your officers.

AZCOPS legal also warned that the DeStefano discipline was unwarranted, would be appealed, and after a full hearing in the light of day, would be overturned.  Vidaurri and company scoffed at the idea of DeStefano ever returning to work.

The second part of the MPOA -AZCOPS plan was to force the Town to come to grips with the fact that morale was a huge and unaddressed problem.   To effectuate the second part of the plan, AZCOPS legal’s letter advised the Town that AZCOPS would be commissioning a formal ‘morale study’ of police department employees by a college professor and invited the Town to join in.  The Town had long ago asked Vidaurri to complete a Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) study to determine if there were any problems in the police department.  In true Vidaurri fashion, he had done nothing for months, except to run around Chicken-Little style crowing that “PERF was coming”.

Predictably, the Town responded to this letter with a whiney three page missive that appeared to have been ghost written by the Ass. Chief.  Importantly though, the letter indicated that PERF was not only coming, but coming soon!  The letter, at some length, discussed how PERF was the “pre-eminent” reviewer of law enforcement agencies and would conduct an unbiased and professional assessment of the Marana Police Department.  The letter was copied to the Town Manager, and each of the Town Council members. AZCOPS and MPOA were elated. AZCOPS had successfully pushed Vidaurri into a corner.  Vidaurri would get a real review of his slip shod management team and. Vidaurri had promised the PERF results to the Council.  Vidaurri was locked in and all we had to do was wait for the results.

PERF Reviews Marana PD

During the latter part of 2007, PERF came to Marana.  PERF professionals interviewed employees, management and circulated a survey to be filled out employees.  This was all in preparation for the much anticipated PERF report.  In the meantime, the AZCOPS study went forward. The Texas professor circulated questionnaires to every one of the MPOA members.  The questionnaires were anonymous and were returned to the professor for analysis.

To further prod Marana, in early December AZCOPS served a public records request on the Town Manager requesting all PERF materials, studies and reports.

Two days later, Ass. Chief Harris ordered MPOA President Derfus to a fitness for duty examination. The Ass. Chief ordered the exam because Derfus, in an innocent conversation with the Ass. Chief, had commented that he had just received some injections in his back and was feeling better than he had felt in years.  It is clear that the Ass. Chief hoped that Derfus would not meet standards so that he could be dismissed. Unfortunately for the Ass. Chief, Derfus was found to be fit for duty by both the Town’s physician and a Tucson specialist.

The Ass. Chief then found another avenue of retaliation.  She arranged to have Derfus transferred from his administrative position to a patrol sergeant position. The next day the Ass. Chief  and Town HR officials met with Derfus to encourage him to: (1) file for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, (2) request FMLA leave and (3) reopen his Workers Compensation claim for the old back injury.   Derfus declined the Town’s suggestion (which would have given the Town grounds to fire him) and returned to patrol.

AZCOPS and MPOA believed that the Ass. Chief’s machinations were a pretty good indicator and that PERF had not gone well for Vidaurri or the Ass. Chief.  And in late December the Town provided MPOA and AZCOPS a copy of the PERF report, – a report that confirmed everything that MPOA and AZCOPS had been saying for months.

After coughing up the PERF report, Marana PD management took another lame shot at Derfus, – they ordered Derfus to produce more medical releases so that Marana could review even more of Derfus’ medical records.  On January 4, 2008, through AZCOPS legal, Derfus refused the demand.

AZCOPS and MPOA recognized that PD management was becoming increasingly desperate to jettison Derfus.  Additionally, the Town had not publicly announced the PERF report.  AZCOPS and MPOA then kicked off part three of their strategic plan,- publicly taking Marana to task for problems in the police department.

AZCOPS announced that on January 8, 2008 it would be holding a press conference on the steps of the Marana Town Hall.  The purpose of the press conference would be to publicly release both the PERF report and AZCOPS’ own study and to publicly hold the Town to account.

At the appointed time AZCOPS President Larry Lopez, flanked by off duty MPOA members and Marana Town Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler, stood before the television cameras of all of the major Tucson media outlets and announced that both the Town’s PERF report and the AZCOPS study confirmed serious problems with the management of the Marana Police Department.

The story ran on all of the television channels and was in the papers.  Marana officials, once again outmaneuvered, declined comment. Read the story from the local newspaper.  http://www.explorernews.com)

The PERF study identified 12 problem areas needing urgent attention:

Policy decisions need to be outlined by management staff

  • Management must adhere to chain of command
  • Management must keep personal issues confidential
  • A policy development process must be formalized
  • Integrity of internal investigations must be reviewed
  • Chief should reassert his leadership role
  • Roles of chief and assistant chief should be clarified
  • Assistant chief should involve lieutenants in problem-solving and decision-making
  • Chief should have a one- to two-day management conference
  • Chief should have regular labor-management meetings
  • Agency’s vision, values and mission statement should be rewritten
  • Recruiting and hiring process should be restructured

On the issue of morale, the PERF survey stated that “levels of supervisory and organizational accountability are either weak or nonexistent.” While the AZCOPS survey revealed “80 percent said that they have no confidence in the fairness of the administration.”  And both surveys stated a need for stronger leadership.

“Staff interviews revealed deep concerns regarding the ability of the chief of police to lead the department through the dramatic growth of the department and the city,” according to the PERF survey. “Seventy percent said that they lack confidence in the leadership of the Police Department,” according to the AZCOPS study.

The AZCOPS study pointed the finger at the Ass. Chief and AZCOPS President Larry Lopez laid it on the line telling the media, “The way I see it, you have a rogue commander,” referring to the portion of the survey finding that the assistant chief had taken the reins of the department.  And Larry’s comments were supported by the PERF survey which stated, “even by her own account, the assistant chief does not consistently follow the chain of command.”

Two weeks later the PD management pulled itself up off the floor and held its own press conference to announce that it would implement all of the PERF suggestions within 120 days. Of course the only person who actually disagreed with the report was the Ass. Chief who told the papers, “I don’t think the PERF results had a real feel for the department. I think that some of the recommendations were based on perceptions, rather than reality.”  (Click on the link to read the story as it ran in the local Marana media http://www.explorernews.com)

At the press conference, Vidaurri told the media that two weeks before, the department had a consultant come in and go over each of the recommendations and how best to implement them.  It was not lost on AZCOPS and MPOA that the “consultant” was only summoned after AZCOPS and the MPOA put the screws to the department in the press conference at the Town Hall!

Nevertheless, AZCOPS and MPOA were pleased that once again Vidaurri had locked himself in by taking a public position on PERF. Vidaurri had now given AZCOPS, the MPOA and the Town a time frame in which to evaluate his performance.  He could either implement the changes as promised, or try to bury the report.  And if he tried to bury the report, those “few bad apples” in the MPOA and AZCOPS would crucify him.

Return of Destefano

In early March 2008, the Marana Personnel Board met to hear the Officer DeStefano’s termination appeal.  In a letter months earlier AZCOPS Legal had promised Vidaurri a vigorous defense of DeStefano.  At that time Vidaurri responded in writing and encouraged AZCOPS put on a strong defense of DeStefano.   Ultimately, Vidaurri certainly got a little more vigor than he”d hoped for.

During his opening, AZCOPS attorney Mike Storie told the Board that DeStefano was not only innocent but that he (Storie) doubted the Town could even prove that an accident had occurred.  The Town put on its witness investigators to testify about all aspects of the criminal investigation.  And then the blood letting began.

On cross examination Storie ripped the investigators, – asking if they had made any attempt to reconstruct the accident by backing DeStefano’s car up to the alleged victim’s to determine if the bumper and dents actually matched, – answer no.

Storie asked why the investigators focused on DeStefano (who has a shaved head) when some witnesses stated that the driver causing the accident had “long curly blond hair.” – no good answer.

At one point Storie asked why the investigators had not taken photographs of the scene from the vantage point of the various witnesses. – answer “my bad.”!!!

For what seemed like hours, Storie attacked inconsistencies in witness statements, pointed out enhanced and altered photographs and multiple errors going to the heart of the investigation.

Then Chief Vidaurri testified. On cross examination Chief Vidaurri conceded all of the mistakes in the investigation but testified, under oath, that none of those mistakes bothered him or changed his mind.  In the end, Chief Vidaurri took full and complete responsibility for the decision to dismiss DeStefano and he stood by that decision.

After two days of contested hearings, the Personnel Board voted unanimously to reverse the discipline and reinstate DeStefano with full back pay. Everything AZCOPS Legal had been complaining to the Department about was proven true during the DeStefano hearing.  Witnesses had been badgered, the investigation was driven by management’s misguided belief that officers were “covering” for each other rather than by a search for facts, and that there had been a rush to fire DeStefano.  Interestingly, the Ass. Chief never testified and stayed out the proceedings.   DeStefano and the MPOA were ecstatic with the result and it was the beginning of a very bad day for Vidaurri.

The Apples Come Home to Roost

Chief Vidaurri was a victim, a victim of unfortunate timing.  DeStefano’s hearing had gone much longer than expected and an extra day was scheduled which coincidently fell on the same day as a Town Council meeting. Making things worse was the fact that even the last day of the hearing ran late. About an hour before the Marana Town Council meeting, the Marana Personnel Board entered its order, – Officer John DeStefano was to be reinstated with full back pay.  While Vidaurri and his team were regrouping from the whipping administered by AZCOPS Legal, the MPOA was preparing a little ass whipping of its own.

As a rule, very few members show up to union meetings, – unless of course the members are already nearby for some other reason.  Most the MPOA”s members had attended the DeStefano hearing and were feeling very vindicated by the hearing testimony.

The MPOA members also recognized that it had now been nearly 90 days since the Town had received the PERF report and 45 days since the Chief had publicly announced that he would act on the PERF recommendations.  And no MPOA member had seen Vidaurri or the Ass. Chief take the slightest step toward actually implementing PERF.   As far as the MPOA was concerned Vidaurri’s time was up.

MPOA members and their families filed into the Town Council Chambers. One MPOA member signed up for the call to the public and would address the Council.  Each MPOA member was conspicuously holding,- an apple.  A stranger looking around the room would surely have wondered why so many people sitting there were holding apples.  It must have seemed like everyone in the room had an apple.  A few bad apples indeed!

The MPOA member rose to address the Council and the room went silent.  The member carefully went through the litany of misjudgments, errors, and inaction by Vidaurri over the previous seven months. Council was told that although the DeStefano matter was a big problem, it had been corrected, – by the union and the personnel board.  The biggest problem, Council was told, was that, in spite of public promises the Chief had taken absolutely no action on PERF.  Accordingly, Council was told the MPOA was going to hold a no confidence vote on the chief right then and there, in the Council Chambers.  Council was told that MPOA members each had an apple, and were going to leave the room. If members still had confidence in the chief they would keep their apple.  On the other hand, if a member had no confidence in the chief, he or she would leave the apple in basket at the back of the room.  Our member then thanked the Council, turned around, headed for the door and dropped his apple in the basket.

MPOA members rose and slowly and silently filed out.  When the last MPOA member had gone all eyes turned to basket in the back.   The bushel basket was filled to rim and was actually overflowing with apples.  The apples had spoken and it is clear that there is no confidence in the Chief at Marana Police Department.

The vote not only shocked the Council, but it left a vivid and tangible reminder of Vidaurri’s failings.  The Council saw a courageous, determined, unified and utterly justified MPOA membership quietly make a giant public statement.

To be clear, this situation in Marana is not over yet.  We have the upper hand and management is on the run.  Of course all management ever had to do was the “right thing”, – treat its employees fairly, investigate them fairly, follow through on promises of change.  Unfortunately, management failed miserably.   AZCOPS and MPOA have now brought the problem directly to the Council.

The latest news is that the Ass. Chief has been given a few days to pack her things and get out.  Her office is cleaned out and she has not been seen around the police department. http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/231434.php (Click on link for newspaper article).  It also appears that Chief Vidaurri has decided to leave within 60 days. Hopefully the new administration will work with the MPOA to better serve the needs of the community.

This is a classic case study of how we do business at AZCOPS.  We support our members and fight like hell when pushed after giving the other side every opportunity to do the right thing.  After reading this you can see that if the MPOA had adopted the defeatist “go along to get along” attitude of other police associations, nothing would ever have changed.  No PERF recommendations, no reinstatement for the wronged member, no change in administration and no respect from Council.

It’s hard and it takes guts and determination, but nothing worth anything comes easy.  And this is not some isolated event in Marana.  AZCOPS groups around the state are known for this same attitude.  This year at least five associations will pull petitions get meet and confer initiatives on local ballots, eight associations will be negotiating MOU’s with their agencies, including Corrections which obtained an executive order from Governor granting it exclusive meet and confer rights.  Probation associations have forced administrations to back off and “suspend” onerous policies and have taken the fight directly to the Administrative Office of the Courts. AZCOPS not only supports each member association but is the driving force behind the law enforcement employee agenda at the State Capitol.  AZCOPS and its associations are in motion, bringing change for law enforcement officers through out the state.

You can be proud be to be a member of AZCOPS as we push the power of law enforcement.