The police lieutenant played golf every Tuesday afternoon, and his buddies were always welcome to join him.
Sergeant Chuck Mount, a decorated veteran who helped supervise the Phoenix Police Department's bomb squad, often took the lieutenant up on the open invitation. The cops hit the links dozens of times on their off-hours, but sometimes Mount was naughty. On a few occasions, he admits to New Times, he violated the department's policy and drove his bomb squad truck to the club.
All was fine until February 12 of this year, the day a thief broke into the bomb squad truck and plundered it. What happened next, according to critics, was a perfect example of how Phoenix police supervisors take care of their own even as they mete out tough punishments for rank-and-file officers.
Double standards in discipline have become routine at the Phoenix PD, says Mark Spencer, a police officer who was recently elected president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a labor union that represents cops.
"They whack officers and shake their fingers at supervisors," he says, "and I don't think that's fair."
Mount's boss, Lieutenant Michael DeBenedetto, was put in charge of investigating Mount for a policy violation. Yet he was the lieutenant who had invited Mount and possibly knew his subordinate was skirting the rules. The potential for shenanigans with that kind of conflict of interest is clear.
After a brief investigation, DeBenedetto requested and received an exception to the punishment normally given for Mount's violation, a written reprimand.
New Times learned of the incident from union sources claiming, like Spencer, that disciplinary double standards are a type of low-level corruption that, if left unchecked, could lead to malfeasance.
Spencer pointed to another incident that New Times wrote about ("Anger Mismanagement," The Bird, Stephen Lemons, March 15, 2007), in which Assistant Police Chief M.L. "Andy" Anderson was involved in an off-hours road-rage incident. Anderson, head of the department's internal affairs unit, had ordered his teenage daughter whom he was teaching to drive to follow a pickup truck as Anderson and the pickup's driver screamed obscenities at each other. Spencer asserts that an average person, or average officer, would have been charged with the crime of disorderly conduct for the same behavior.
Anderson was given supervisory counseling, which is little more than a gentle scolding. Mount received the same punishment for his infraction.
Indeed, a career cop like Mount probably shouldn't have been treated harshly for such a minor offense. In a policy-obsessed bureaucracy like the police department, it's only human to break a rule or two in more than a quarter-century of service.
Spencer says he's not pushing for tougher punishment for Mount, he just thinks regular officers ought to be shown the same kindness as sergeants, lieutenants, and assistant chiefs.
Whether a trend of double standards really exists, the way police administrators handled Mount's indiscretion was, in and of itself, unusual. Police seemed reluctant to share details of the case, taking months to fulfill requests by New Times for public records concerning the incident. Some documents, such as an e-mail between supervisors about DeBenedetto's possible conflict of interest, still have not been released.
It's not as if Mount's a troublemaker. Until last spring, he hadn't been disciplined in his 27-year career. He misused the vehicle, in part, because of oppressive work demands and pressure most people never experience. He has to be ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to respond to the most fearsome threats imaginable (though, fortunately, actual bomb attacks are extremely rare in the Valley).
His supervisor, the lieutenant, hadn't seemed worried about possible policy violations and, reportedly, never asked where Mount had been parking the truck, a hard-to-miss, behemoth Ford F-350 pickup, for the golf games. Mount was a hard-working cop and figured he deserved a bit of golf with his friends, even if the only way he had time to play was to fudge the rules.
He says he found out belatedly that El Caro Golf Club, a short-but-tough golf course near Northern Avenue and Interstate 17, is in a relatively high-crime area. Mount lives in the East Valley, 20 miles from Phoenix's border. He's supposed to be able to jet out to any spot in Phoenix, with his gear, in one hour, and that's why he can take his work truck home.
In a memo to DeBenedetto, his supervisor, Mount wrote that he worked from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on February 12, then drove to El Caro around 1:25, where he met DeBenedetto and firefighter Tom Skowronski for their game. The lieutenant arrived about a half-hour later, reportedly oblivious to the big truck in the parking lot.
After playing a quick nine holes, Mount, his lieutenant, and Skowronski walked out to the parking lot and saw a window busted out of Mount's F-350. The vehicle alarm, which had no sensors on the windows, never sounded.
Mount saw immediately he'd been robbed. The thief took his protective vest, laptop computer, flashlights, handcuffs, magazines for his .45-caliber Glock, and other items. Most painful for Mount was the loss of a Phoenix police sergeant's badge from the 1960s, which had been handed down to a select group of sergeants over the years and was etched on the back with each officer's serial number.
In the incident report, DeBenedetto states he told Mount the next day that, as Mount's supervisor, he'd launch an investigation into the vehicle's misuse.
But the investigation didn't begin until March 27, a few days after the arrest of a suspect in the burglary and the recovery of some of Mount's equipment. DeBenedetto's supervisor, Commander Jeff Halstead, says one reason for the delay was that he had to resolve the matter of DeBenedetto's possible conflict of interest.
"I thought Mike had to have knowledge of this incident [and] therefore, he is guilty of violating policy and guilty of misconduct as well," Halstead says. "Once I confirmed that Mike did not have any advance knowledge that Chuck Mount did this, then he could conduct the investigation."
Halstead's alleged confirmation, however, leaves much to be desired.
"I did ask the lieutenant, 'At any time in the past, have you noticed Chuck showing up in a city vehicle?' and he said, 'No, he always brings his personal car,'" Halstead says.
Halstead discussed the issue with his boss, Assistant Chief William Louis, who agreed with Halstead that DeBenedetto should be allowed to investigate Mount.
Yet, as Mount confirms, Mount didn't always bring his personal car. Sometimes he brought the F-350.
DeBenedetto did not return phone calls for this story.
During his talk with DeBenedetto, Halstead says, the lieutenant told him it was made clear to the would-be golfers years ago, before the first game, that department vehicles were not to be parked at the course.
Mount says he could have parked the truck at a nearby city facility and had someone shuttle him over. But he didn't do that. Even less convenient was taking the truck back home and switching to his personal car, which would have left too little time to play golf.
DeBenedetto must have, at least, wondered how Mount managed to always find time for the games. Putting DeBenedetto in charge of investigating Mount ensured DeBenedetto would face no hard questions about his own behavior.
Perhaps because Mount was taking one for the team, DeBenedetto asked his bosses to forget about the standard punishment in the case. Mount was a valued, longtime employee who had never gotten in trouble before. Everyone agreed Mount could skate.
The punishment dictated for misuse of a vehicle by the department's ominous-sounding "discipline matrix" is a written reprimand, which hangs over an employee's head for three years. During that time, any further violations however minor are punished more severely. Mount got a less-serious supervisor's counseling, which only stays in his file one year.
Halstead says this punishment was in line with two recent cases of misused vehicles in which the offenders received supervisory counseling. But his point is lost because the punishments were an accident. Halstead admits the two officers should have received written reprimands, but didn't, only because of bureaucratic bungling.
But Halstead recalled that a detective who was caught using his vehicle off-duty in 2005 received the written reprimand.
Spencer, the union representative, says he was recently rebuffed by Phoenix PD management while trying to help a fellow officer. Officer Grant Razon had left a suspect's cell phone and wallet on the hood of his squad car, then drove the suspect to jail and forgot the items. The wallet was lost, the cell phone crushed. Spencer wrote a letter to police higher-ups in November asking them to give Razon counseling instead of a written reprimand. Razon, a two-year employee at the time with no discipline on his record, got the written reprimand.
The disparate treatment is chafing some members of the union, which saw a regime change earlier this summer when Spencer booted out a former union president who had been accused of being too chummy with the police department's upper management. However, if the Mount case is a major example of double standards at Phoenix PD, perhaps the union needs to re-evaluate its definition of corruption.
As for Mount, he seems to have learned his lesson.
"If I want to golf when I get off work, I have to make arrangements to make someone pick me up in their personal vehicle," he says. "So us going out on Tuesdays doesn't happen anymore."
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