By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
@body:Although he was a scrapper on the streets, Ruben Ortega spent little of his 31-year Phoenix career in the grind of daily police work. Promoted to sergeant in 1967, seven years after joining the force, the ambitious officer began working his way up the department ladder, moving ever farther from the rank and file.
The bulk of Ortega's career was spent in community relations, acting as the department's spokesman and emissary, mingling with elected officials, civic leaders and the press, trying to cast the police, and himself, in the best public light.
"I never heard of Ortega [at the time]," says Gordon Lange, who was president of the police union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, when Ortega was named chief in 1980. Lange would become one of the new chief's first targets. "I don't remember him as ever doing any type of field supervisory work. In fact, when I was president and they were thinking of making Ortega chief, I had to ask around to see who he was."
Lange and the police union would soon know all too well who Ortega was. The movers and shakers of Phoenix already did, observers say.
Ortega had spent years ingratiating himself with the Phoenix 40, Chamber of Commerce, leading business people and civic leaders, say many who watched Ortega's star rise.
When then-chief Larry Wetzel stepped down in 1980, Ortega was one of nine finalists for the top post. He ascended just as the balance of power in Phoenix was teetering between the old guard and a new order. Labor unions--for police, firefighters and other city workers--had won the power of collective bargaining.
The decades-old system of electing city councilmembers at large--a system effectively ensuring that a small group of business people controlled City Hall--was under attack. The growing influence of the firefighters and police unions would soon play a key role in replacing the at-large council system with single-member district elections. The blossoming populism threatened the very roots of the power tree Ortega was climbing.
The first showdown between the new chief and the unions came in early 1982, in the aftermath of what by now is the Phoenix Police Department's most storied going-away party.
Early on February 27, 1982, six police officers, two sergeants and one civilian tagalong gathered under the Seventh Avenue bridge near downtown--just seven blocks from where Ruben Ortega had punched a roofer 20 years before--to hoist a few beers and toast the impending transfer of Sergeant Jerry Giffin to a new post. The party's lubricants--beer and a bottle of Scotch--had been purchased after hours from a liquor store owner who would sell to cops after legal closing time.
As the party progressed, some of the officers threw their empty beer bottles into the nearby vacant lots and urinated under the bridge. At least two of the officers noticed a transient sleeping in the back seat of his car nearby. The two officers tried to convince the transient to leave, testimony would show. They harassed the man, spraying Mace on his car, letting the air out of his tires and eventually prompting him to flee and call the police for help, according to records of the case.
Ortega's reaction to the party would come to define his years of combat with critics and his own officers.
By late the next afternoon, without waiting for his internal affairs department to finish its investigation, Ortega had ordered that separation papers be drawn up for seven of the officers. Ortega publicly branded the men, who became known as the Seventh Avenue Seven, as a band of drunken thugs unfit to serve on the force.
The problem, later testimony would reveal, was that not all of the officers had participated in, or even been aware of, what was being done to the transient. After-hours liquor purchases, though illegal, were not uncommon within the department, nor were early morning parties in abandoned sections of town.
Three years later, after appeals and court cases, Ortega's decision to fire the seven men was reversed by the city's Civil Service Board, which reviews appeals by city employees of disciplinary action. All of the officers were reinstated, after the board found that Ortega's firing decision had been arbitrary.
But the seven officers paid a heavy price for enraging the chief. "It brought my career to a screeching halt," says Giffin, who retired from the force in 1991 still a sergeant. "Prior to that, I had a good shot at a career path within the department. I would have made some more rank. And my personal reputation went down the drain with that incident. Regardless of how much vindication you get, once the headlines declare such and such, that's the image a whole lot of people are going to keep."
In addition to getting their jobs back, Giffin and fellow Sergeant Murl King won an $800,000 judgment against the city after suing Ortega for slander.
Giffin, who now works for the sheriff's department, says Ortega "overreacted . . . One theory is that, in the interest of grabbing headlines, he decided to make a statement at seven cops' expense."
The Seventh Avenue Seven case won Ortega headlines. It also plunged the chief into a vicious battle against the police and firefighters unions, which sprang to the defense of the fired officers.