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COPS, COUNCIL BACK NEW MPD CHIEF

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

Marana Police Department employees crowded the March 4 meeting of the Marana Town Council to hear newly appointed Police Chief Richard Vidaurri discuss his planned response to two state police reports that detailed a divided police force and a troubled MPD investigation of a death that occurred more than three years ago.

Instead of a discussion of problems in the police department, the meeting morphed into a show of support by the MPD's rank and file and town council for Vidaurri, who replaced embattled Police Chief David R. Smith Feb. 28.

Vidaurri had asked that the item be placed on the council's agenda in order to address an MPD employee survey administered in November by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The survey responses were overwhelmingly critical of Smith and his management of the department.

The survey, released Feb. 28, was accompanied by a DPS report that found 28 procedural problems in the MPD's investigation of the death of Westyn Lee Tanawa Hamilton, a 23-year-old bar patron who died while struggling with bouncers at the New West/Gotham Nightclub Jan. 2, 2000.

"Overall, the survey was not very positive for our agency," Vidaurri told the council. "However, rather than dwell on the negatives contained in the survey itself, I would just like to point out some positive things that came out of the survey."

The survey indicated the "customer focus of our agency is very positive," Vidaurri said, noting that the survey indicated most employees enjoyed the type of work they do.

The top three areas of concern voiced by 46 of the department's 76 employees who responded to the survey were "communication, employee recognition and training," Vidaurri told the council.

According to the survey obtained from the town, employees expressed "overall dissatisfaction with the agency management" and rated the performance of mid-level and top department managers as low or very low.

In an area of the survey dealing with communications, 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 employees, and only 17.4 percent felt that the "views and concerns of everyone are listened to and receive an appropriate response."

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, according to the report.

The survey also contained a comment section in which employees alleged harassment and discrimination by Smith. One employee referred to Smith as a "racist, sexist sociopath."

On the DPS report that identified problems in the Hamilton case, Vidaurri said the DPS criminal investigators who compiled the report were wrong on many of their findings.

"I met with every member of the (MPD) criminal investigations unit that were responsible for investigating the case and after several hours of discussion, it was noted that the majority of the audit itself was inaccurate."

Vidaurri said the DPS did not review the correct file. However, the town gave DPS the file to review.

The problems noted in the DPS report included MPD detectives allowing the nightclub's attorney to sit in on interviews of the nightclub's bouncers that struggled with Hamilton; witnesses who did not receive any follow-up investigation; and a witness who was not interviewed after he retracted his statements that he saw the bouncers beat Hamilton to death.

The Northwest EXPLORER, which had reviewed both the MPD copy of the case file and the file MPD forwarded to prosecutors in the Pima County Attorney's Office, found results similar to the findings by the DPS and published them a series of articles last year. (see related story page 3)

Vidaurri said he had met with MPD employees during the previous week and informed them of his administration's plans and expectations. He acknowledged the MPD employees who crowded the council chambers and said he believed it indicated he had the department's support.

Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton, Jr. said change in the department would require the efforts of every officer in the department "pulling up their sleeves and doing their part to make it a better department."

Sutton said town government would ensure Vidaurri was provided "with every tool he needs," and added the council considers the MPD the "flagship of the town of Marana."

The only person besides Vidaurri to address the council on the topic of the police department was former Councilmember Roxanne Ziegler, who last year chose not to seek reelection after serving one term.

Ziegler said a survey of MPD employees conducted by Marana's human resources department and released in 2000 found criticism of Smith similar to that found in the DPS survey three years later.

Ziegler said as a council member, she raised concerns about the survey in 2000 and was ignored.

"I tried to explain that where there's smoke there's fire, and I was told that there was ballot stuffing and that nothing was wrong," Ziegler said. "Dave Smith was not at the call. I found a lot of things he did not do right. He did not listen to his men, he was not a leader. He also, I have to say this delicately … he was not fair to the women on this force. They were not treated as their male counterparts were."

Marana Town Manager Mike Hein and other town officials dismissed the results of the 2000 employee survey, claiming a small group of disgruntled MPD employees had rigged the survey by filling out multiple responses, or "ballot stuffing."

None of the councilmembers or Hein responded to Ziegler's comments.

NEW CHIEF BRINGS HOPE, CHANGE TO MPD

Things are moving fast for Richard Vidaurri, the man who rose from a sergeant to become the Marana Police Department's new chief in a span of less than six months.

And amid the storm of controversy that swirled around his predecessor's retirement and two state police reports that brought critical attention to the MPD, Vidaurri himself was moving even faster.

Within hours of taking over the top cop job from David R. Smith Feb. 28, Vidaurri called a department-wide meeting at the Sunflower retirement community's recreation center and addressed most of MPD's 80 employees.

He gave each of the MPD officers and civilian employees copies of the Arizona Department of Public Safety reports - a 67-page survey that revealed festering dissatisfaction with Smith, and a five-page DPS report alleging serious problems with the department's handling of a high profile death investigation three years ago - and told them what he planned to do about the problems that had wracked the department.

Vidaurri spent his first week as chief examining some of the more startling findings in the reports, such as an allegation that MPD had no building diagrams or plans on hand that would allow it to respond to an "active shooter" in one of Marana's schools. He found the plans had simply "vanished from neglect."

He questioned the MPD detectives who investigated the death of bar patron Westyn Lee Tanawa Hamilton at the New West/Gotham Nightclub in 2000. The detectives told Vidaurri that most of the DPS findings were wrong, but no one could tell the new chief who ultimately let the bar's attorney sit in on interviews and question the bar employees who were piled on top of Hamilton when he died.

Reviewing his schedule on his Palm Pilot, he can provide a day-by-day account of how he spent his first week meeting with employees in just about every squad and division within the MPD. He can tell you what their gripes are and what they hope to see accomplished.

In that first week, he also sat for a detailed interview with the Northwest EXPLORER and shared what he believes has gone wrong in MPD, what remains right and where he hopes to lead the department in the years to come.

"What I've seen over the past week has really opened my eyes," Vidaurri said. "I've had a lot of officers come up to me and say 'We're ready to work side-by-side with you to make this department better.' I've had individuals come up to say this is the best they've felt in a long time about the agency, and that they're ready to really start pulling together as a team."

The DPS survey was more than an instrument that measured gripes in the department. Although a huge swath of the results consisted of complaints - and invective - directed at Smith and his management style, the employees also voiced concerns about specific procedures and practices.

In his memo to the Marana Town Council last month announcing Vidaurri's appointment, Town Manager Mike Hein said his instructions to the new chief were simple: Identify the problems and fix them.

Vidaurri said he has yet to examine all of the issues, such as the allegation that officers were going out on the street without the Kevlar vests that could save their lives, but he plans to tackle the complaints one by one.

"I've heard, but I haven't yet confirmed it, that there are some officers that don't have ballistic vests, but I think every effort is made every fiscal year to try and purchase more of the vests. It also depends on the budget," Vidaurri said.

While no one apparently knows how many officers are lacking the vests, Vidaurri has already sent a memo to the MPD support lieutenant describing a program that will allow the department to purchase them from the federal government at reduced rates.

Another refrain in the survey was that there was a lack of training for officers and civilian employees, with some saying the cause was insufficient funding to pay for it.

Vidaurri said he has yet to examine the budget to see if the department has the resources and training needed to be effective, but believes officers have been getting at least the minimum of eight hours of state-mandated training per year.

"It's been a crazy week. We haven't looked at some of the finer details yet. But obviously if I see the need that maybe we need more money and training, we'll see if we can get some more. But I'm also realistic and know the town has to balance its budget and sometimes they can't provide us with the money they would like us to have," Vidaurri said.

The complaints of officers paying for their own training were limited to a handful of cases where officers wanted to go to out-of-town seminars that MPD could simply not afford.

Most of MPD's training is done in Marana by MPD trainers and that has been a source of friction in the department, Vidaurri said, adding that he has no intention of changing the policy.

"The officers aren't real keen on doing in-service training, but we're going to be doing a lot more in the future. We have a lot of skilled and capable people in the department to do that training, That's not what they want, they want to go places and do training, but we're a small department," he said.

Other specific issues also have been addressed. The missing building plans for Marana schools have already been replaced, as have the response plans, Vidaurri said.

Larger, less tangible issues will take time. So far, Vidaurri believes he's identified communication as being the greatest problem afflicting the police department.

The disconnect, he said, ran both directions along the chain of command, with officers unable to communicate to management their concerns and problems, and management failing to clearly inform the rank and file what was expected from them and why.

"I think the reason that it was so important to call the meetings that I did this entire week was because I felt people were just starved for communication. They actually had someone there finally that they could vent their frustrations on, they could say say … 'how can we help? Or give us this project.' And that's what I want to do, is give people the opportunity to do things they haven't been able to do in the past," he said.

His plans include trying to improve the flow of information between the office of the chief of police and the town hall that sits 40 yards across the parking lot.

In addition to "hoping to brief the town manager once or twice a week on what we're doing and where we're heading," he also is looking at setting up briefings for the town council on a quarterly basis, Vidaurri said.

Initial plans also have been discussed to establish a civilian advisory board to offer the community a voice in how the police department charged with protecting them is run.

Another complaint repeated in the survey was that Smith arbitrarily administered discipline to employees who violated policies. Some of the responses said flatly that it was more a matter of "who you know rather than what you did."

Vidaurri's plan is to create a matrix, or a sort of flow chart that clearly delineates what punishment would be administered for a particular infraction - something that didn't exist under Smith.

"I can't totally answer for the previous administration and the final decisions that were made there. The only answer that I can give in that respect is that a lot of it had to do with people's perceptions. A lot of individuals felt that if someone was disciplined the individuals were left with the impression that it wasn't harsh enough, or it was too harsh," Vidaurri said.

"I want to make (discipline) more consistent than it has been in the past. I think the changes we will put in place will cause us to be a lot more consistent. For example, there will be a chart that says if you wreck a (department) car, you're getting a day off on your first violation, and it's like that no matter who that happens to - whether it's a command officer, a sergeant, or an officer. It happens the same for everyone."

The review of Hamilton's death has already been addressed, Vidaurri said.

Vidaurri spoke last week with Rick Unklesbay, the Pima County Attorney Office's chief criminal deputy, who said prosecutors have no intention of reopening the Hamilton investigation based on the DPS findings.

Unklesbay said he reviewed the case, but partially based his decision on Vidaurri's claim that the DPS was wrong on many points.

Vidaurri claims DPS detectives reviewing the investigation received a disheveled, working copy of the case and that a better organized file that had been forwarded to the county attorney's office refutes many of the DPS findings.

The Northwest EXPLORER, which last year completed the 18-month investigation of the Hamilton case and problems in the department related to Smith's management that led to the DPS review, came up with findings similar to those identified by the state police.

The DPS report indicated witnesses who gave important information in the case did not receive follow-up interviews. Vidaurri sticks to his guns, so to speak, and said after meeting with the three MPD detectives and the sergeant who conducted the investigation, he believes that simply wasn't the case.

"I think the thing that jumps out at me were allegations that there was no follow-up. Regardless of whether it was their version of what the definition of follow-up is, when I see transcriptions that show they talked to some of these individuals, that shows me there was a follow-up done or at least attempted," Vidaurri said.

Equally serious, the DPS review found that the attorney for the bar that Hamilton died behind was given unusual power in the investigation, including ordering additional blood tests on Hamilton's body and providing witnesses and leads that the MPD detectives acted on unilaterally.

Vidaurri said he still doesn't know exactly who allowed the bar's attorney, Mike Piccarreta, to sit in on interviews and ask questions of the bar employees who struggled with Hamilton.

"My understanding, based on what the (MPD) investigators told me, was that when they were told that Piccarreta would be sitting in on the interviews, that it had been a management decision coming from their sergeant. They were adamantly opposed to him being in the interviews, but they went ahead and decided to allow that to happen," Vidaurri said.

"But as to who specifically gave that authority or order to do that … I specifically asked (the sergeant) for that information and he said he couldn't recall exactly who (ordered it) but that it was a management decision. To this day, I don't know anyone who has been able to answer that or say where that order came from. He said it came from management."

By addressing the problems in the DPS survey and review, meeting with employees to hear their concerns and restructuring MPD policies, Vidaurri says he hopes to bring about wholesale change in the department.

But beyond that, Vidaurri said the greatest difference between Smith's administration and the one he intends to build in the department will simply come down to a matter of maintaining respect for the men and women in the MPD.

"I think the biggest difference is - and this is what people tell me without me soliciting the information - they said they feel the respect is there. The biggest difference that they're telling about is the respect level," he said.

Random interviews last week with MPD employees seem to indicate that change - and mutual respect - may indeed be germinating in the department.

"With Chief Vidaurri, you have the openness and you have someone you can look at and know that things are going to be done consistently. Nobody cares if the policies and procedures are strict, as long as everyone knows up front exactly what's expected … I know with Chief Vidaurri that's what to expect," said Sgt. Bill Derfus, one of the department's community affairs officers.

"He's good for the department. You see people happy now …. (Vidaurri) was my first sergeant when I was on patrol and he got out and worked with us. He wasn't just a supervisor and I think he brings that same kind of attitude to the chief's position," said Officer John Montgomery, who works as Marana High School's resource officer.

"He's a class act … it's going to go 100 percent forward now," said Sgt. Roberto Jimenez, who works in the patrol division.

"Simply put, people are excited and looking forward to the change," said Det. Terry Evans, president of the Marana Police Officer's Association. "We believe he's the right man for the job."

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