THE CHIEF - The Explorer: Import

THE CHIEF

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Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2002 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

First of a two-part series

As the Marana Town Council was beginning its meeting July 2, Marana Police Chief David R. Smith sat alone in the back row of the council chamber looking tense and speaking to no one.

Outside, centered in the short stretch of parking lot separating the town hall from the Marana police headquarters, a group of about 12 police officers milled about with an air of uncertainty. One officer detached himself from the group and stuck his head inside the council chamber doorway before retiring slowly with the rest of the group back to the police station side of the parking lot.

After the mayor's gavel slammed down and the pledge of allegiance was recited, Boy Scouts in attendance to earn their government merit badges were introduced and Smith's expression changed to a smile, as he engaged in friendly banter with the town's public relations intern.

The retreating officers were members of the Marana Police Officers Association, the essentially powerless union which has no standing in Marana or formal recognition by town government.

The cops were looking to make a show of force, one reserve officer said. They wanted nothing more than to stand in the chamber and try and gain some glimmer of recognition from the council and town manager that their department was in turmoil, to make those who have the power to change things aware that the small parking lot between their station house and town hall had become a gulf.

Instead, the officers returned to their side of the parking lot.

"I'm ashamed. Everybody has lost their nerve," said the reserve officer. "The chief has just reached the point where everyone is bullied into submission and he can keep just burying the problems. This department is sinking and none of us will come forward and say anything."

The reserve officer would tender his resignation less than three weeks later, identifying Smith as the primary reason for his departure.

Few would question these officers' bravery. Almost all of them have at some point in their careers placed their lives in jeopardy, tasted fear, and done their jobs anyway.

But a well respected MPD lieutenant, a long time critic of Smith, had been suspended just one day before the council meeting. Several officers characterized the suspension as being based on trumped-up charges and say it was retaliation by Smith that was widely expected.

The lieutenant's suspension and subsequent resignation, along with the reserve officer's resignation, came on the heels of a pornography scandal in the department that led to one officer being fired, his sergeant suspended and facing termination, and the resignation of a third MPD patrol officer.

The exodus, or the "blood on the floor of the department" as one officer phrased it, was fresh in the officers' minds as they wavered, and ultimately surrendered, outside the council chambers last month.

The incident was just the latest manifestation of a police agency mired in years of dysfunction, several officers say. But the fear of retribution and the terror of being black-balled from a profession they love has kept a lid of silence on the department until recently.

So far, 18 former and current police officers, supervisors and support personnel from the MPD have overcome that fear to tell their stories to the Northwest EXPLORER.

Officers still working for the department came forward with the full knowledge that Smith considers talking to reporters a severe infraction. MPD officials confirmed that officers being investigated for the pornography scandal were asked while strapped to a lie detector if they were talking to the media - a tactic even the department's own contracted polygraphers question.

The MPD employees say they question their chief's ethics, citing police reports that were ordered changed or were prosecuted only as a last resort, and his relationship to a now defunct nightclub that was for years the epicenter of crime in Marana.

They say his favoritism extends to protecting officers charged with startling accounts of wrongdoing, while targeting other officers for petty harassment if he "sniffs even so much as a whiff of disloyalty."

They claim that Smith's divisive management style, berating personality and selective enforcement of policy has led to a morale crisis and employee turnover rate that is eroding the effectiveness of the department.

The MPD employees also question why Smith's bosses -- Marana Town Manager Mike Hein and the Marana Town Council -- have refused to take action in the face of the mounting turnover, rising incidents of serious officer misconduct, scathing employee exit interviews and an MPD employee survey that leveled serious allegations against their own police chief.

The only two men besides Smith who have ever held the position of Marana police chief both sought out the EXPLORER to express their concerns about the state of the department.

"It's not the cops, it's not the pay, it's not the working conditions, it's not the benefits or any of those types of things that are the current problem for the Marana officers," said former MPD Chief Lynn Radcliffe. "It's the chief."

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

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