STATE SURVEY OF MPD ASSAILS FORMER CHIEF - The Explorer: Import

STATE SURVEY OF MPD ASSAILS FORMER CHIEF

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Posted: Wednesday, March 5, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Results from a survey of Marana Police Department employees administered by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and delivered to Marana two days before the town's police chief announced his retirement Feb. 15 were overwhelmingly critical of the chief and the department's administration in general.

The DPS survey, delivered to the town Feb. 13 and released Feb. 28, was requested by Marana officials in response to a series of articles published in the Northwest EXPLORER last year. The survey conducted in November found officers and civilian employees were generally satisfied with their jobs, but they roundly assailed the leadership of former Chief David R. Smith and upper-echelon supervisors in the department.

Some of the specific comments from the employees returned with the survey accused Smith of sexual harassment, racism, favoritism, vindictiveness and blamed him for the department's plunging morale.

The responses from 46 of the department's 74 employees who filled out the survey mirrored findings in the EXPLORER series published in August and an "employee satisfaction" survey administered by the town of Marana released in 2000.

Smith and Marana Town Manager Mike Hein dismissed the 2000 survey as being rigged by a handful of disgruntled em-ployees. Hein and other town officials also repeatedly criticized the newspaper's 18-month investigation of problems in the MPD as being based on "anonymous sources and innuendo."

Hein said the results of the DPS survey and an accompanying DPS review that found 28 procedural problems with MPD's investigation of a death of a Tucson man at a Marana nightclub in 2000 were unrelated to Smith's decision to retire.

Smith has not responded to requests for comment.

Just hours after officially replacing Smith, newly appointed Police Chief Richard Vidaurri held a department-wide meeting with MPD employees Feb. 28 at the Sunflower community center in Continental Ranch.

Vidaurri said bound copies of the 67-page survey and five-page review of the death investigation were distributed to all MPD employees at the meeting, in which he encouraged the employees "to put the past behind them."

"We discussed the findings and I told them we would start meetings with individual units one-on-one next week on how to improve things. My administration will have open communications," Vidaurri said. "They applauded after my discussion, so I'm going to take that as an indication they're receptive to the plan."

In addition to meeting with employees, Vidaurri also requested the Marana Town Council formally place an item on the agenda for its March 4 meeting to discuss the survey results. The meeting was scheduled to take place after the EXPLORER's deadline.

The survey, mailed to all MPD employees during the week of Nov. 25, asked 79 questions concerning work environment, job satisfaction, supervision and agency administration.

Slightly more than 62 percent of employees returned the anonymous survey response forms to DPS. In an interview in January, Vidaurri, who was then a lieutenant overseeing the department's community policing efforts, and Sgt. Bill Derfus, an MPD public information officer, expressed concern that not all of the employees had received the survey forms.

"We were running around at the last minute trying to make sure everybody got the form," Derfus said.

An overview of the survey results written by employees in the research and planning division of the DPS found "a department where people like the work they do and get a sense of personal accomplishment from it. They believe individuals in their work unit cooperate to get the job done. More than eight in 10 feel they have the ability to protect and serve the public, and almost as many (77.8 percent) say supervisors have trust and confidence in their ability to do the job well."

However, the overview also indicated employees felt unsupported, unappreciated and voiced a strong dissatisfaction with the management of the department.

"Their candid responses show many areas for improvement. Less than half of the employees are satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work, with the training they receive, or with the recognition they get for doing a good job.

"In addition, there appears to be overall dissatisfaction with the agency management. Employees were asked to rate the performance of mid-level and department management, and their negative ratings outweighed positive ratings on every question except one in those key areas," the report said.

An area of the survey dealing with communication within the department received some of the most lopsided responses.

In the most negative rating, 84.8 percent of the employees disagreed or strongly disagreed when asked if they "hear more from the department management when things go right than when things go wrong."

Only 21.7 percent of the employees felt the Chief's office "effectively communicates information" to the employees, and only 17.4 percent felt that the "views and concerns of everyone are listened to and receive an appropriate response."

The survey described responses critiquing the department's management as presenting "a major opportunity for improvement."

For each of the seven questions directly related to the department's top management, the majority of the employees ranked upper management's performance as low or very low.

Nearly eight out of 10 of the employees said top managers do not recognize and reward good behavior and about seven in 10 employees said managers do not recognize the value of the department's employees.

The most scathing criticism of Smith and the department's administration came in the section of the survey that allowed written comments. The DPS noted that more than half the employees chose to provide comment, and the individual responses ranged from a few sentences to more than six typewritten pages.

Although four of the 24 separate responses summarized could be construed as supporting Smith and his administration, the balance of opinion was strident in its criticism of department management.

The survey and a department reorganization that promoted Vidaurri from sergeant to lieutenant was prompted by EXPLORER stories published in August that detailed allegations of dishonesty, favoritism, belligerency and vindictiveness on the part of Smith raised by former and current police department employees. The employees claimed Smith's management of the department has resulted in plummeting morale, an exodus of veteran officers and supervisors, and a rash of police misconduct that threaten the MPD's ability to protect the community.

Hein responded with a memo to the Marana Town Council Aug. 13 in which he dismissed the stories as "innuendo and complaints garnered from access to disgruntled employees" but called for an outside agency to "review the morale in the police department and a review of some of the specific allegations raised."

Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton, Jr. and Town Attorney Dan Hochuli met with DPS officials Sept. 10 and requested the survey and review of the death investigation. They also asked for a review of management practices in the MPD, but DPS officials said a recent certification the Marana department received was sufficient proof of sound policies and procedures.

One employee responding to the survey was critical of the newspaper's investigation.

"The tabloid reporters trying to drive a wedge between MPD employees should remember that employees are ignoring what you print, do not believe a word you say, and will continue to put forth the extra effort needed to succeed," the employee wrote.

Another response claimed the newspaper was on target.

"Employees feel like we work in center for battered employees … dig deeper and find out what is going on," one employee urged the DPS. "The NW Explorer was on the right track. We are filling out this survey because we care about the agency and feel citizen's need to know what's going on."

COPS HIGHLY CRITICAL OF CHIEF

The survey of Marana Police Department employees administered by the Arizona Department of Public Safety in November contained written comments from 24 employees. While most of the individual comments were critical of former MPD Chief David R. Smith and the overall management of the department, at least four employees provided supportive comments.

According to the report, the major areas of concern, ranked in descending order by the frequency they were mentioned, were:

Favoritism and unfair practices in the area of discipline, promotion, training and starting pay:

"If you are not a favorite, you don't get training. Officers often have to pay for their own training."

"Chief shows favoritism in discipline and promotion decisions. Favoritism seen on numerous occasions."

"Biggest complaint is discipline. Discipline is based on who you are friends with."

"Needed resources and training funds cut to buy chief's job for another year."

"Issues with pay inequities: female officers hired at higher starting pay then males."

"Training, specialty assignments and promotion based on loyalty to the chief, not merit."

Criticism of the chief:

"We are frightened of chief - a racist, sexist sociopath in control of our lives."

"I do not trust the man. I would not go into his office without a tape recorder or someone else with me."

"Problems are because of the chief. Officers are afraid to voice their concerns as we have seen others fired, disciplined or harassed just for asking questions."

"When (Marana Town Council) members say they want to help, they should do so. Is it cheaper to keep the chief or let him go? Make a decision now. If they let the chief destroy the reputation of the town and MPD, then the voters will take action. Help us. We like the town and what it has to offer. Let us do our job without a hostile work environment."

"Need a chief that will let officers do their jobs, who is positive instead of negative and who doesn't beat employees down."

Criticism of all agency management and lack of leadership:

"Views and concerns of officers are shot down even when valid. I can't go to my supervisor because he doesn't support or back up his officers. Hear from management only when things go wrong. Management is too quick to discipline and does not reward hard work. From chief on down, supervisors lack supervisory skills."

"Public safety sacrificed for public harmony. Supervisors take road of least resistance. Chief makes all decisions."

"Soviet style administration: disinterested leadership stresses party line."

High turnover of personnel:

"Good officers leave because they see the chief as incompetent and embarrassing."

"We lost good officers due to the chief's bad behavior."

"MPD 'brass' have been outdated for sometime. If they don't catch up with the times, many valuable officers will continue to leave."

"Reasons for turnover are not pursued."

"About 15 percent of patrol is seeking employment with other agencies."

"Most experienced officers leave."

Retaliation for speaking out on issues:

"The only thing this survey is going to accomplish is to upset the chief and make him retaliate against employees."

"If we speak up, we lose our jobs."

"Evaluation used as a tool to control and discipline employees who voice concerns about problems."

"Supervisors instructed to write negative entry in personnel file if we express problems or concerns."

"When people speak up, it is used against them."

Employees not valued:

"The chief doesn't care about employees."

"It's the chief's way or the highway. Employees not valued."

"Chief says employees who don't like it can leave. Employees treated as disposable assets."

"Management doesn't try to retain valuable, experienced and knowledgeable employees."

"Good work and good performance are not rewarded or recognized."

"Employees not valued. Told they can leave if they don't like it here."

Lack of training:

"I am assigned to a specialty unit, but have attended only one training class. Am told no more training due to finances. Not enough people assigned to handle criminal investigations"

"Continued training is lacking."

"MPD has not provided me with training - teach myself. Officers with special skills are discouraged from using them."

"Training is inadequate."

"We are told there is no money for training. Have to pay out of pocket to get training."

Low morale:

"Thank you for taking the time to send out the survey. I hope the results will accurately describe the low morale in MPD. Officers are encouraged to do less and less."

"The work environment is not healthy and many are planning lawsuits."

"Because of low morale and favoritism, employees are hard pressed to be motivated."

"Morale at all time low."

"Morale is very low because discipline is not handled fairly."

"Suggestions made to boost morale are not taken seriously or followed through."

Policies not followed:

"MPD doesn't have an 'active shooter plan' even though there have been incidents where students brought guns into Marana schools. MPD does not have a SWAT team to handle an active shooter incident. We do not have an outline of the schools."

"Officers not allowed to serve valid warrants"

"Would it shock them to know how many officers are working without ballistic vests?

"Policies and merit overlooked to expedite racial and gender diversity."

"MPD needs to follow policies without favoritism. Favoritism is blatant and counterproductive"

"Are arrests discouraged to make Marana look like a safer place to live?"

Loss of law enforcement focus creating unproductive officers:

"Officers were fired for writing too many tickets. That is not community policing."

"I'm told not to write too many citations. If I sit in my patrol car and do nothing, I'm told I'm doing a good job."

"Outside customer service is pushed. Internal customer service not practiced by management. The chief pays lip service what will serve him well on his resume."

"Some officers highly discouraged from being productive and proactive… department has lost its true focus as a law enforcement agency… Appears professional on the outside, but internal issues swept under the rug."

"MPD has confused community policing with community relations. Community Oriented Policing is solving problems in conjunction with the community. We are good at being polite, but we don't solve problems or catch the bad guys. It is a mistake to call Adopt a Business and Vacation Watch programs community policing. Cosmetics are not substitute for substance. The community has a right to expect protection from us as well as fiction."

Of the handful of employees who wrote comments supportive of Smith and the MPD administration, some placed blame for discord in the department on a small faction of disgruntled employees.

"Disgruntled employees affect the morale of the department. No matter what changes, they will be unhappy," one employee wrote.

"Chief has done an excellent job concerning the negative, disgruntled, small group of employees who have done their best to destroy this agency and the chief," another MPD employee wrote."

DPS FINDS FLAW IN DEATH INVESTIGATION

The Arizona Department of Public Safety has identified 28 problems and unresolved questions in the Marana Police Department's investigation of how a patron died struggling with bouncers more than three years ago at a nightclub where the MPD had been paid more than $100,000 a year to work as security.

Westyn Lee Tanawa Hamilton died Jan. 2, 2000 after a violent struggle with five bouncers behind the now defunct New West/Gotham Nightclub, 4385 W. Ina Road.

The Pima County Attorney's Office declined to file any charges in the case after a three month investigation by the MPD.

The report of the DPS findings, released to Marana officials Feb. 13, but not released by the town until Feb. 28, was prompted by a Northwest EXPLORER investigation published in January 2002.

The Northwest EXPLORER also published in August a series of stories about Chief David R. Smith's management of the Marana Police Department. Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton, Jr. and Town Attorney Dan Hochuli met with DPS officials in September and asked the state police to examine allegations raised in the articles.

The Hamilton stories questioned the MPD's conflict of interest in the case and the relationship between Chief Smith and the nightclub, and detailed the accounts of witnesses who claimed Hamilton was beaten.

The DPS provided Marana officials the review of MPD's investigation of Hamilton's death, along with an MPD employee survey that was critical of Smith's administration (see story page 1), just two days before Smith announced his retirement.

Town officials claim the DPS reports had no bearing on Smith's decision to retire. Smith has refused requests for interviews since stepping down Feb. 28.

The five-page DPS review of the Hamilton case noted information from some witnesses -- including a bouncer who claimed he watched from a doorway as the other bouncers brutally beat Hamilton -- was not pursued more thoroughly.

The bouncer, James Conklin, told MPD detectives in a two-hour videotaped interview conducted four days after Hamilton died that he watched the other bouncers "murder" the 23-year-old Tucsonan.

Conklin recanted his story three months later after being contacted by a private investigator working for the nightclub's attorney, Michael Piccarreta, according to records obtained from the Pima County Attorney's Office.

The DPS report characterized Piccarreta's involvement in the case as "unclear."

"On March 21, 2000 MPD detectives received a typewritten letter allegedly from witness James Conklin, who recanted all of his previous statements about the incident," DPS Det. John T. Bottoms wrote in the report. "The letter was sent on March 19, 2000, one day prior to Mr. Piccarreta's office receiving the letter from Mr. Conklin recanting all his previous statements.

"There was no documentation explaining if additional follow up investigation had been conducted to verify the validity of this document with Mr. Conklin or why he recanted all his previous statements."

The review conducted by members of the DPS's Major Crimes Investigative Unit, also noted that Piccarreta sent police reports to the county attorney that listed Conklin as a suspect, investigative lead or witness in unrelated criminal cases.

The report said MPD allowed the attorney to sit in on interviews with the bouncers and question them when he was not representing them.

"By allowing Mr. Piccarreta to participate in the interviews, it granted him access to information and evidence prior to legal discovery by the prosecution," the report said.

The DPS also noted Piccarreta had asked for and received additional drug testing of Hamilton's body, and provided investigative leads to the MPD that the department acted on "unilaterally."

Piccarreta said he did nothing improper and was acting as legal counsel for the corporation that operated the New West/Gotham. He maintains his actions in the case were done with the full knowledge of the MPD.

"Had anyone from the DPS talked to me they might've understood why I had any involvement in the investigation," Piccarreta said. "Basically, I was representing the company and we were cooperating fully with the Marana Police Department, including providing them with information. What they chose to do with the information and any requests that we made, is up to the police department."

The report also noted another witness, a patron who said she watched the bouncers "put the decedent in a 'choke hold' in what she described as 'excessive force.'" The witness did not receive any follow-up questioning from MPD investigators, the DPS found.

Lt. Tim Chung, who heads the DPS division that conducted the review, declined to comment on the report, citing an agreement with Marana that only town officials would comment on the findings.

Chung said in an interview in November that the DPS would restrict its review to the investigative procedures used by the MPD and would not look at the conflict of interest and other allegations raised in the EXPLORER articles because Marana officials had not asked him to.

The bulk of the findings in the report documented problems with procedural matters in the MPD investigation, including only scant indication police secured the crime scene, failing to create diagrams, and poor photographic documentation.

Newly appointed MPD Chief Richard Vidaurri said he would be meeting with members of the department's Criminal Investigations Unit to discuss the DPS review.

"We'll be taking a look at it to see if in any of the instances the DPS misinterpreted information or if we just dropped the ball," Vidaurri said. "We're prepared to take a hard look at it."

Hamilton's mother, Toni, has been working since her son's death for legislation requiring bouncers to be trained and licensed the same way conventional security guards already are under Arizona law. She has repeatedly questioned the quality of MPD's investigation.

"It's just what I've been waiting for," she said after being advised of the DPS report. "We don't know what the future holds, but I'm still hoping for the day my son can have the justice he's so worthy of."

Toni Hamilton and other members of her family filed a wrongful death suit against the New West/Gotham owners and settled for a reported $1 million in 2000.

Rick Unklesbay, chief criminal deputy for the county attorney's office, had not seen the DPS report when contacted by a reporter March 3, but said his office would consider reopening the case if new evidence came to light.

"If law enforcement brings us back a case with new evidence - or any outside agency or the victim's family asks us to look at it, we're always open to reconsidering the case if there's new material," Unklesbay said.

The Northwest EXPLORER series found Piccarreta had not crossed any legal or ethical lines in the case, but instead focused on why the MPD had allowed his extensive involvement in the investigation, and examined the circumstances surrounding Conklin's subsequent recantation.

Conklin has consistently refused requests for interviews.

MPD officers and an investigator close to the case interviewed for the Northwest EXPLORER series said Smith was meeting privately with the bar's owners and Piccarreta during the criminal investigation.

The officers, including one of the four homicide detectives assigned to the case, said they suspect Smith "leaked" information about the criminal investigation to the New West owners and Piccarreta.

One of the detectives said the Marana investigators were being "pressured' by Smith for information at the same time Smith was meeting with Piccarreta, and one detective frequently tried to conceal the case file from Smith by taking it home at night.

The MPD officers requested anonymity because of fear of losing their jobs. Smith declined to comment on the allegations shortly before the series was published.

In an interview in 2001, Piccarreta said he couldn't recall when or how many times he met with Smith, or exactly what was discussed. The attorney also declined to examine his files that he said he believed would contain the information, or allow the Northwest EXPLORER to examine the files or time records.

However, Piccarreta did say his actions on behalf of the New West/Gotham were always "appropriate."

"I never received any leaked information from anyone in this investigation … there was nothing inappropriate done, I thought, by the detectives or anyone in the Marana Police Department," Piccarreta said last year.

An autopsy found 52 cuts, bruises, and abrasions on Hamilton's body and two minor internal injuries to his neck and head, but determined Hamilton died from restraint asphyxia, a little understood phenomenon in which a restrained person's heart quits beating and their breathing ceases.

The bouncers involved with the struggle with Hamilton claimed they simply pinned Hamilton to the ground to control him after he struck a bouncer in the head while being ejected from the club for fighting.

One of the MPD investigators told the Northwest EXPLORER that the bouncers' version of events was doubtful.

"Look, Hamilton was no angel, not by a long shot," the investigator who worked the Hamilton case said.

"He went in there and he was acting like an a------, getting into a fight, fighting with the bouncers. But do I think that the bouncers were just simply trying to gently restrain him? No. He fired off on that employee and they kicked his ass.

"But who are you going to charge in that? Answer me that. Out of all those guys involved in it, how do you prove that this is the person that's responsible for Hamilton's death?"

Town officials had ordered an end to the MPD off duty work at the bar just days before Hamilton died. All of the MPD detectives who conducted the criminal investigation had worked as off-duty security at the bar alongside the bouncers they were now investigating.

The bar was shut down by state liquor regulators in January of last year after being cited for repeated acts of violence and other liquor law violations. MPD had provided off-duty security for the nightclub from mid-1997 until late December of 1999.

Smith's involvement with the bar between 1998 and 2000 included refusing to act on a 79-page MPD Office of Professional Standards report that concluded the off-duty work was a conflict of interest; defending the nightclub before the Marana Town Council and in a letter to administrators of the state's liquor licensing agency; sending high-ranking police officials to help coordinate the club's security and making security recommendations himself; and assigning additional officers to patrol the bar after Marana administrators ordered an end to most of the off duty work.

Smith's daughter was also given a job at the nightclub, and Smith allegedly removed his chief's insignia and worked off duty security for pay at the bar more than 20 times, according to records obtained for the series.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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