On the heels of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's establishing a task force aimed at easing racial tensions between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, the attorneys for a pair of former Florence Police Department detectives are renewing their call that Florence and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office be among the agencies scrutinized.
That task force is known as the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, and its multi-layered approach is listed as "a substantial investment in training, evidence-based strategies, policy development and research to combat distrust and hostility between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
Lynne Bernabei, attorney for Walt "Hondo" Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson, says, "I think this is all timely, and it's exactly what we proposed they do in taking a look at Florence Police Department. This issue with the police department and their stormy relationship with the community has to be looked at, and I think Florence is a good place to start."
Hunter, who is white, and Varnrobinson Vonzombie, who is Black, filed a civil rights suit against the Florence PD and the Town of Florence for harassing and terminating them for blowing the whistle on the police corruption and racism they say is rampant in the department.
New Times has written about Florence Mayor Tom Rankin's explosive racist outbursts and his use of racial epithets while he was the police chief, and how that permeated the police department during the present day.
The pair of cops described various instances in which a suspect or victim's race was an issue during a police investigations.
They offer as examples, a white police lieutenant obstructing a criminal investigation of an alleged rape of a Hispanic high school female and that same lieutenant criticizing Varnrobinson for confiscating a weapon from a suspect, also white. The lieutenant prematurely returned the weapon to the suspect -- allegedly a friend of his -- told the then-detective that he "couldn't go around taking guns from every white boy in town."
They also allege that the lieutenant called the agency's one African-American detective at the time as a "dirty n*****."
They also point to a history of racial problems with Florence Police Chief Dan Hughes, who was accused of racial discrimination by another cop -- Renatta Frazier -- when he worked in Springfield, Illinois. Frazier ended up with more than $800,000 in damages, plus attorney's fees, for her ordeal.
And, as if that wasn't enough, the also note that Hughes was accused of making improper comments about Hispanics in 2010 while he was the Surprise Police Chief.
Bernabei initially wrote in a letter to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice that investigates police abuse: "We urge the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Florence Police Department and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office before there is a shooting or violent incident against minority communities that leads to the uprisings we see in Ferguson or Staten Island."
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She added that there is a "well documented pattern of police corruption, abuse of power, racism, and retaliation against peace officers who speak out against this corruption."
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