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Nobody would accuse Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, of having a commanding presence.
Pudgy and bespectacled, with spiked hair and a voice described by one of his allies as akin to Porky Pig's, sans stutter, he hardly looks or sounds like a cop. His frumpy garb does not out him as a badge-bearer, either, much less the leader of a powerful cops' union that counts more than 2,000 Phoenix Police Department officers as members.
Still, Spencer was a headliner at Tempe Diablo Stadium for a pro-Senate Bill 1070 "Stand with Arizona" rally held in late May 2010, two months before Arizona's controversial immigration law was scheduled to go into effect.
Organized by the Dallas Tea Party to counter the "boycott" of Arizona by various groups and municipalities following 1070's passage a month earlier, the event drew a crowd of several thousand mostly middle-aged white men and women with far right-wing views.
There were alter kockers in white socks, shorts, and fanny-packs mixed with Minutemen in cowboy hats, flag-waving hausfraus outfitted in red, white and blue, and even a small contingent of storm troopers from the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.
They all parked themselves on bleachers to listen to anti-immigrant stalwarts — such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio (accompanied by actor/muscleman Lou Ferrigno), MCSO Deputy Sean Pearce, son of now-state Senate President Russell Pearce (the primary pusher of 1070) — and assorted others preach the anti-illegal gospel to the converted.
The crux of the speech Spencer read to the Tea Partiers he had read elsewhere — before committees at the Arizona Legislature, for instance. It began with a list of six fallen and six injured Phoenix police officers, each somehow harmed or killed by illegal aliens. The list dated to 1982.
"PLEA members have directly experienced the blunt end of illegal immigration," Spencer stated, before recounting names of these fallen and wounded.
This macabre roll call did not mention the other 20 Phoenix police officers who had died in the line of duty during the same time period. Their deaths were not caused by illegal aliens.
Nor did he explain certain complicating details concerning two of the officers mentioned: Jason Schechterle and Nick Erfle.
Schechterle nearly was incinerated alive in 2001 when a taxicab careened into his Crown Victoria police cruiser, causing an explosion. The driver was an illegal immigrant.
But in testament to how times have changed, the media's focus then was on Ford's defective Crown Vics, unregulated taxis, and the suspect's epileptic attack before the crash.
When the defendant was convicted and sentenced to 12 years, the fact that he was undocumented was mentioned mainly in passing.
In 2007, Erfle was gunned down by an ex-con with an outstanding warrant after Erfle stopped the man for jaywalking. The ex-con, who had been deported before and boasted a rap sheet, had been raised in this country, brought here when he was a kid.
After killing Erfle, the man fled, took a hostage, and ultimately was brought down by a PPD marksman's bullet.
Unlike Spencer and others who made ideological hay out of Erfle's death, his widow, Julie Erfle, eschewed hatred, studied the immigration issue, and stuck to a moderate course. She opposed SB 1070 and backed comprehensive immigration reform. She also supported the revision of a PPD operations order in 2008 that required immigration inquiries of all arrestees.
Erfle describes herself as a "supporter of PLEA," to which her husband belonged, but she acknowledges that she and Spencer are poles apart on immigration.
Regarding comprehensive immigration reform, dismissed by some as "amnesty," she maintains that it's not "a.k.a. amnesty" but "a.k.a. big picture."
Erfle tells New Times, "[It's] not a simple, not a Band-Aid, approach." It's not something, she says, that can be summed up in "a 30-second sound bite."
Julie Erfle's stance is well known, but it hasn't kept Spencer from using her late husband's name to inflame the PLEA president's fellow nativists.
This combination of crassness, extremism, and political hardball has been PLEA's modus operandi since Spencer and the current Board of Trustees were elected to head the union in 2007. Yet the union's obsession with immigration, its penchant for bashing PPD management (particularly former Public Safety Manager and Police Chief Jack Harris), and its alliances with anti-immigration pols who also happen to be anti-union, have come with a price.
The number of dues-paying members has declined dramatically over the past couple of years. In July 2009, PLEA could boast 2,494 members, or 90 percent participation by the police department's rank and file. By January 2011, the numbers had fallen to 2,120 dues-payers, or 80 percent of the Phoenix cops on the beat.
Some of those disgruntled with PLEA have joined the ranks of competing organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, which may make a bid this year to replace PLEA as the officially sanctioned union of PPD line officers. Many ship-jumpers say PLEA's rancor has turned them away.
They refer to rhetoric like Spencer's at Diablo Stadium, where the union boss complained of those distinguishing between a "harmless illegal alien" and a "dangerous illegal alien."
He wondered, "What crimes are going to be tolerated next? Harmless drunk drivers? Harmless prostitutes? Harmless drug dealers? Harmless thieves?"