Got'em

GITEM, the state's $12 million antigang task force, storms Casa Grande and shoots a smalltime scofflaw in the back

It's a balmy night in June 1995. Petty felon Thomas Glen Campbell slouches in the cab of a borrowed pickup truck north of Casa Grande. As he puffs on a cigarette, a helicopter drones low overhead.

He gets spooked. He has no driver's license, there's a warrant out for his arrest and he's buzzed on methamphetamine. So he tries to escape by driving down a washboard road. When a car gives chase, he knows it's a cop. He isn't about to get locked up again, so he jumps out of the truck and bolts into the desert. He's not far from home, and he knows the terrain well.

But Campbell is no match for the forces arrayed against him. The helicopter is equipped with infrared and night-vision technology, rendering the dark desert useless as a hiding place. It also carries a less exotic piece of equipment, a VCR that will record a two-mile, stop-and-go footrace with police.

The videotape of Campbell's foolish flight is eerie. Filmed through night-vision equipment, the cool desert shows up as a pale moonscape. The warm human bodies are rendered as blurred, dark shapes reminiscent of grainy home movies of Sasquatch.

Campbell pulls out his pocketknife and occasionally waves it in the direction of the cops, who, in turn, periodically try to neutralize him with pepper spray. He jumps fences and gullies as the lawmen struggle to keep up.

It's hardly a hair-parting chase scene favored in Hollywood. It's almost comical to see the men, time and again, slow to a trot, then to a chest-heaving trudge, before Campbell discovers another burst of stamina and continues his flight.

But the comedy ends abruptly, with Campbell on the ground, shot in the back, begging to be shot again. Above him stands a squad of men in black fatigue pants, combat boots and black tee shirts. The name of the unit is emblazoned across the men's chests: "GITEM."

Although probes by two different police agencies will conclude that the shooting was justified, no investigative report can dispel a stark impression created by the video--that Campbell was needlessly shot in the back.

The officers say they shot Campbell because he lunged at them with the knife. But the video clearly shows Campbell is walking away from officers--he appears to be at least ten feet in front of them--when state Department of Public Safety Officer Jo Dean Freese fired his .45.* Not surprisingly, Campbell is suing the police agencies involved.

Ironically, the video that appears to depict a senseless shooting is the very evidence that sent Campbell to prison for seven years. Because he brandished the knife, he had the choice of pleading guilty to aggravated assault on the officers or go to trial and risk a sentence of up to 105 years. He copped a plea.

Today, the 27-year-old Campbell sits in the state prison in Florence. With a slew of prior arrests and a documented fondness for methamphetamine, he is hardly a sympathetic character.

Yet his shooting by members of GITEM--a state antigang task force--raises questions about the wisdom of sending a swarm of shock troops into a rural community, about spending $12 million on a task force that gets little oversight, about the ability of one police agency to investigate another, about the targeting of people of color under the rubric of "zero tolerance."

Shooting Glen Campbell--who, incidentally, had no known gang affiliations--might have been the most unfortunate thing GITEM did in Casa Grande.

But it wasn't the only thing.

Governor J. Fife Symington III declared war in February 1994. Violent crime among the state's juveniles had reached all-time highs and, by some accounts, the number of gangs had doubled under Symington's watch. The phrase "drive-by shooting" had become prominent in the Arizona criminal vernacular.

Gangs had begun to infiltrate Indian reservations and small towns, which had long been considered safe from such urban ills. Many politicians, chief among them then-Phoenix mayor Thelda Williams, clamored for Symington to do something. With an election looming, it was a challenge he could ill afford to ignore.

He asked the Legislature for $7 million to fund an elite gang-fighting unit, the likes of which the state had never seen. The Gang Intelligence and Team Enforcement Mission, GITEM, would compile a database of all known gangs and gang members throughout the state.

Its officers, made up of volunteers from any of the roughly 80 police and sheriff's departments throughout Arizona, would complete a month of intensive training and serve yearlong stints before rotating back home, taking their newfound gang expertise with them. While with GITEM, they would drive unmarked cars, wear distinctive black uniforms and receive air support from Army National Guard helicopters.

The Legislature granted Symington's wish.
In an August 30, 1994, guest column in the Arizona Republic, Symington promised readers that GITEM's 80 officers were "about to launch the most fierce attack on street gangs and urban violence in the history of Arizona."

GITEM was a public relations coup. A May 13, 1994, Republic editorial proclaimed that "Arizona is in a war and the good guys intend to be the victors." The article decried skeptics such as Symington rival Terry Goddard, who had dismissed GITEM as political opportunism in an election year. The editorial echoed Symington's battle cry, stating that GITEM officers "will serve as shock troops to swoop down and make arrests."

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