Ex-Police Chief John Pickens' Cushy ASU Job Provides Security — for Pickens

Former Arizona State University Police Chief John Pickens has been in his new job as director of University Security Initiatives for more than a year now, but it's unclear what he and the mysterious department he heads have accomplished.

In a time of extreme budget cuts among Arizona universities, ASU could not answer basic questions about what Pickens has been doing to earn his publicly funded annual salary of $155,000.

A popular and well-respected chief at ASU for 14 years, Pickens transferred jobs during a time when his department and ASU endured a firestorm of criticism following the release of a video that showed one of his white officers slamming a black ASU professor to the ground during a questionable arrest. The officer, Stewart Ferrin, ultimately resigned following a trumped-up investigation against him that reversed several previous findings that he'd done nothing wrong and ignored similar behavior by other ASU officers.

"I'm not sitting around on my butt doing nothing." — Former ASU Police Chief John Pickens, when asked about what he's accomplished in his first year as director of University Security Initiatives.

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At the time, ASU said Pickens' departure had nothing to do with Ore's May 20 arrest, which may or may not be accurate.

The university said in an article on June 10, 2014, that Pickens would leave his post for the security director job as soon as a national search for a new chief was completed.

The dash-cam video of Ferrin arresting Ore first was aired by Channel 3 (KTVK-TV) in late June and was seen widely across the country in the news and on the Internet, subjecting ASU and its police department to accusations of racism at a time when President Michael Crow was trying to promote the university's online programs.

Before the national search had been completed, Pickens left his position as chief suddenly in early July. ASU paid a consulting company about $53,000 to find quality candidates nationally for the job of chief but chose to hire Michael Thompson, an ASU assistant police chief who'd served as acting chief since Pickens' departure from the job.

Pickens assumed his new post on July 11, 2014. As director of University Security Initiatives, ASU records state, he's supposed to plan for the expansion of ASU's video-camera system, "assist appropriate staff" to make sure ASU is prepared for emergencies, and "collaborate" with staff to review design plans for surveillance cameras in the renovated Sun Devil Stadium, among other things. He works directly under ASU Chief Financial Officer Morgan Olsen.

Neither ASU nor Pickens could provide documentation that he's accomplished anything during his first year in the new job.

The video-camera expansion project hasn't yet been sent out for bids to private companies that will actually do the work.  When asked for the budget of University Security Initiatives and for documents showing anyone else other than Pickens working for the department, ASU officials said there were no such records. No record of any such department exists on ASU's extensive website, except for documents that refer to Pickens' getting the job to direct it.

New Times called Pickens twice in the past few weeks to ask him questions about his job. Each time, a receptionist said he was too busy to talk.

On Thursday, New Times visited Pickens without an appointment at the small office provided for him at ASU's University Building Services at 1551 South Rural Road. He was looking at a document on his computer and had paperwork on his desk.

"I'm not sitting around on my butt doing nothing," he insisted to New Times.

Pickens said he's 66 years old and decided to take the security job because he needed a change. He's working on "a number of things," he said, adding that the security goals "are a work in progress."

ASU declined to provide any timetable for any of the security initiatives.

Pressed for comment on the lack of detail provided, ASU spokesman Gerardo Gonzales said, "The efforts of the University Security Initiatives section, a component of Risk Management, occur in concert with various other departments within the university so there is not a segregated budget item for those efforts. Further, those efforts involve what the name suggests: security. Publicizing details of improvements made in this area would provide criminals with a road map to avoid detection."

He did not address whether publicizing details of improvements made in security at ASU might make its students feel safer.

Though, as Gonzales suggests, ASU may have a great super-secret security system in the works, the university so far seems intent on providing security for Pickens.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.