Mesa Police Chief George Gascón stares down Sheriff Joe Arpaio
The police chief had stolen the spotlight, and the sheriff was furious.
It was a scorching hot day in late June, and dozens of demonstrators had turned up at a Maricopa County services complex in Mesa to protest the sheriff's immigration-enforcement tactics. Dozens more Mesa police officers monitored the situation, with most exploiting the shade of a nearby parking garage.
For Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed tough guy seeking his fifth term in office, it was supposed to be a banner day. For two months, Arpaio had threatened that he would ram one of his so-called "crime-suppression sweeps" down the throat of Mesa Police Chief George Gascón, the sheriff's most high-profile critic in law enforcement.
Gascón had publicly insisted that Arpaio give him notice of any such incursion, and on Tuesday, June 24, the Sheriff's Office delivered a letter to the Mesa PD saying a raid would take place two days later.
To refer to what Arpaio and his deputies have been doing as "sweeps" to prevent crime is far from the truth.
The sheriff's enforcement efforts in Phoenix, Guadalupe, his hometown of Fountain Hills, and Mesa have been little more than roundups of Mexicans and anybody who looks Mexican. Arpaio's deputies have used a special arrangement with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency like no other local police force in the country.
His ICE-trained deputies focus on dilapidated vehicles and the most minor traffic violations in the hope of stopping — and ultimately getting deported — people who are in the country illegally. The heavy-handed tactics have brought accusations of racial profiling from civil rights leaders and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
A politician who at first steered clear of the immigration debate, Arpaio has tried to tap into the frustration over illegal immigration that has caused voters over the past four years to deny certain rights and public benefits to undocumented residents.
Gascón, a Cuban immigrant and a former assistant chief at the Los Angeles Police Department, had already bumped heads with the sheriff over a November roundup in Mesa, ordering a spokesman to slam Arpaio for his high-handed tactics. Gascón continued to egg Arpaio in the press, sniping that the sheriff "can't keep his jails open, yet he can arrest cooks and gardeners."
When Arpaio, and the news media, tipped off Gascón to his upcoming plan for another sweep in Mesa, the chief was ready.
The sheriff had planned initially to make an appearance at the operation's field headquarters, a county office near Baseline Road and U.S. 60. But Gascón swamped the area with 132 Mesa police officers. They worked in shifts because of the extreme heat, most on foot and some on bicycles, in cars and on building rooftops.
Whether it was Gascón's intention or not, the show of force made the Sheriff's Office look like the puny kid on the block — a wimp who needed George Gascón's protection.
The chief told the news media that he had meant only to provide security for both sheriff's deputies and demonstrators, mindful of the civil unrest that had brewed in recent months during similar protests in central Phoenix and Guadalupe.
"While they were in Guadalupe, the sheriff himself stated publicly he had moved his command post the second night because he felt that their safety was in jeopardy," Gascón told New Times in an interview after the Mesa sweep. "We wanted to make sure that their safety in the city of Mesa was going to get protected."
As deputies in patrol cars fanned out across the city looking for illegal immigrants, demonstrators at the corner of Lewis and Javelina Avenue chanted "Si se puede," held signs that likened Arpaio's deputies to Nazis, and rallied with the help of a portable stage provided by Radio Campesina.
The event pulled in far fewer demonstrators than the 400 expected by Mesa police, but it was attended by pro-immigrant, anti-Arpaio heavy hitters, from activist Salvador Reza to Democratic candidate for sheriff Dan Saban.
About 4:30, Gascón emerged from his portable command trailer to check on his troops. Tall and lean in his dark-blue uniform, wearing stylish sunglasses beneath his crop of silver hair, he strolled across the street followed by the news media. The crowd of protesters on the corner hooted and cheered when they caught sight of him. Suddenly a celebrity, Gascón smiled.
Apparently not wanting to be upstaged at his own operation, Arpaio chose to bluster to news reporters from the security of his headquarters in downtown Phoenix's Wells Fargo Center — 20 miles away from the action. Before TV cameras, he appeared crazed with anger at the surprisingly more media-savvy Gascón. He had been beaten at his own game.
The sheriff has been ticked off a lot lately.
He was livid in May when Governor Janet Napolitano took away more than $1 million in state funding for his immigration operations, and he was spitting mad at the mayor of Guadalupe who, after his operation there, got in his face, firmly telling him his sweeps are not welcome in her heavily Latino town.
But getting trumped by Gascón, a Hispanic immigrant, put him over the edge.
One local newspaper described Arpaio as "red-faced" with anger that night at his downtown offices. He lashed out at the chief for "leaking" to the public when the roundup was to commence.
Yet the publicity-obsessed sheriff had never asked Mesa to keep the raid secret.
In fact, rumors of the Thursday sweep had been spreading since the previous Sunday, but, according to Mesa PD spokeswoman Diana Tapia, the MCSO had denied that any raid was planned.
Gascón and Tapia tell New Times that the letter that was hand-delivered Tuesday by a sheriff's deputy came within minutes of calls by reporters who knew about the written warning.
If there was a leak, then, it seems to have sprung from Arpaio's office — which is typically how the sheriff operates, to maximize his face time in front of cameras.
Nonetheless, Arpaio played the role of martyr, claiming Gascón had screwed up his operation by talking "garbage" and swarming the area with city cops. He told a radio station that Mesa police did not want him in their town, did not want him "lockin' up illegals," and that he would not give any notice the next time his forces went there.
The reason he did not show up in Mesa, Arpaio said straight-faced, was that he had been playing a "game" with protesters.
In truth, the game had been between him and Gascón.
And Gascón had won.
It was yet another example of Gascón's leadership, the same attribute that got him hired as chief of police in the first place.
He has encountered just one big problem since his arrival in Mesa: He has led the city in a direction that a lot of its citizens do not want it to go.
It is a safe bet, according to Mayor Scott Smith, that most Mesa residents support Arpaio's position, not Gascón's, on how law officers should deal with illegal immigrants. After all, Mesa is home to Russell Pearce, the state lawmaker behind tough legislation targeting illegal immigrants, including two proposed statutes (dead, for now) that would force police to become immigration agents.
Gascón's opponents are numerous and vocal.
And to get at Gascón, they are not afraid to make it personal.
Gascón tells New Times a "really interesting letter" was mailed to his Mesa home a few weeks ago.
"There's some wackos out there. There really are," Gascón says. "Some people have an interest in tracking me down."
The anonymous note was not a threat, exactly, he says. It was a simple message:
"We know where you live."
Mesa did not set out to hire an immigrant rights activist as its police chief.
In fact, Gascón's talents — what got him hired — are getting overshadowed by the boisterous, seemingly unending debate over immigration. Of course, he has thrown plenty of gas on that fire, and scores of e-mails and phone calls have poured into City Hall from people who do not like the chief because of his outspoken opinions.
Despite his public sparring with the sheriff and the bad feelings many Mesa residents have about him, city leaders (new Mayor Smith, particularly) have stood behind the chief.
The reason is, Mesa desperately needed an exceptional police chief, and the city believes it has found one in Gascón.
Mesa can be a rough town, belying its stereotype as a bedroom community filled with peaceful Mormons. Violent crime and meth use plague its older neighborhoods. Armed robberies are a near-daily occurrence. Economic woes contribute to the crime problem.
The town has more than 460,000 people and no property tax. It has spent the past few years trying to cope with decreasing sales tax revenues and a lack of new job-creating businesses. With severe budget shortfalls have come slashed city jobs and cuts in services. Whatever the concern over crime, the police department has been told not to hire more officers until further notice.
Then there are the Mesa PD's internal problems, which were out of control before Gascón was hired in 2006.
One former officer says the department before Gascón was defined by a culture of corruption that too often went unchecked by superiors. In the worst cases, the former officer says, there were internal allegations of theft and drug use, and even officers having sex with informants. A "good ol' boy" network at the top of the chain of command was resistant to change, which allowed problems to fester.
The two chiefs preceding Gascón, Jan Strauss and Dennis Donna, who had come up through the ranks, presided over the scandals — including a slew of discrimination complaints and a debacle in which one out of every five of the department's 1,300 employees was disciplined for sending inappropriate e-mails.
The city conducted a nationwide search and found Gascón, a 28-year veteran of the LAPD. He had an impressive résumé, and it was Mesa's good fortune that Gascón had been passed over for the police chief's job in the nation's second-largest city.
The LAPD has 10 times the number of sworn officers as the Mesa department, and Gascón had been in charge of field operations. That meant he commanded 8,000 of the big-city force's 9,500 sworn officers — more cops than in all the Valley's police departments put together.
He did stellar work at the LAPD. Because of Gascón's efforts on an innovative crime-fighting system called CompStat, current L.A. Police Chief William Bratton credits him with helping reduce the rate of violent crime in Los Angeles.
To better entice Gascón, Mesa upped the annual salary of police chief from $144,000 to $170,000.
The added expenditure seems to be paying off. As of July 1, crime had dropped 15 percent in the East Valley City since Gascón's arrival, while arrests for violent crime went up by 38 percent.
Yet, though it appears Mesa is lucky to have Gascón, many residents are highly critical of him.
Online comments and talk show call-ins have flowed in from people who think Gascón is too liberal for his new municipality.
Arguably, Gascón would have a tough time if he were to run for sheriff of right-leaning Maricopa County, but even some conservatives respect him. Indeed, Arpaio has been his only high-profile critic.
"He's very professional, even when he's been caught in the middle of this Sheriff Arpaio thing," says Rich Crandall, a Republican state representative from Mesa. "He's not [openly critical on] the level of Phil Gordon. The statements [Gascón] has made, I agree with more."
Next to Arpaio, a populist former DEA agent who uses publicity stunts and harsh talk to garner public support, Gascón is a highly educated, intellectual cop, reminiscent of a character in a smart detective show ("good po-lice," as the righteous cops called each other in The Wire).
He is not against controlling illegal immigration; he is just against the tactics Arpaio has employed.
The reality is, Gascón is bringing about changes that make it easier for Mesa police to initiate the deportation process against illegal aliens.
On July 2, the city announced new police policies that put it more in line with its larger neighbor to the west, Phoenix.
Mesa cops still will not be allowed to inquire about the immigration status of people stopped for civil traffic violations, much less target immigrants for cracked windshields and tail lights (as Arpaio has done). But anytime Mesa police arrest people on misdemeanor or felony charges, officers can now question them about their immigration status. If police believe somebody is in the country illegally, they must notify ICE. That means some suspected illegal immigrants, who previously might have been booked for misdemeanors and released, will face longer detention and possible deportation.
George Gascón may be liberal by police standards, but he is still a cop.
And because new policies and laws are making it tougher to be an illegal immigrant in Arizona, Gascón and his department will enforce the new order professionally.
The biggest difference between him and Arpaio is, he will be extremely careful to avoid any appearance that his officers are stopping people for driving while brown. Because, from his point of view, everything starts with constitutional rights.
Gascón stepped into the ring with Arpaio before he even got to Mesa.
While he was still working for the LAPD, the Washington Post interviewed him for an article published May 20, 2006, about Arpaio's efforts to arrest as many illegal immigrants as possible. Gascón provided an opposite viewpoint to the sheriff's. Victims and witnesses, he explained, would be less likely to report crime if they believed talking to local police would result in deportation.
Gascón took a direct shot at Arpaio, stating that most "professional" law officers, as opposed to politicians like Arpaio, know the value of policies that prohibit police from becoming immigration enforcers.
After that, as local news reports continued to mention that Gascón's name was on the short list of candidates for Mesa police chief that year, a miffed Arpaio attempted to exact revenge. One source describes how the sheriff "sent his goons out to different police departments, and the [East Valley] Tribune and the [Arizona] Republic, to talk about how Gascón was this illegal alien-lover."
Publicly, Arpaio griped that Gascón had "badmouthed" him.
Which was certainly true.
Gascón, in interviews with New Times, says there is nothing personal in the feud between him and Arpaio. He insisted that it made him uncomfortable when the anti-Arpaio crowd of demonstrators cheered him.
"That's not what this is all about," he says.
But when he explains what this is all about, his cool, lawyerly analysis belies an air of righteousness.
"I never came with a sense of mission — I've been thrust into a situation, a mission, of higher order," he says. "People don't seem to grasp that there are some serious social and constitutional issues here that are at stake. If we allow one group of people to be treated with less than the full rights [within] our constitutional framework, then we all lose."
People send him e-mails saying illegal immigrants have no rights. Yet the courts have ruled that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law applies also to people who have come to the United States illegally. Gascón finds it "extremely concerning" that some citizens want to trash the Constitution when it comes to groups or messages they do not like.
The anti-illegal-immigrant crowd feeds into what Gascón calls the "three-ring circus" of unreasoned debate and publicity stunts at the expense of undocumented workers. The sheriff, he says, is the "ringmaster."
Gascón continues to state emphatically about Arpaio, "He's not a professional law enforcement officer."
During the sheriff's two-day Mesa operation, Gascón felt it was his responsibility to ensure, "at least in the areas that we control, that policing here is done in a lawful manner."
However, he did not go so far as ordering his officers to tail the sheriff's deputies as they hunted illegals, and he never actively monitored deputies' behavior. Moreover, Gascón has never uttered the words "racial profiling" in regard to the sheriff's sweeps in his city, or elsewhere.
But he does question how it could be that nearly half of the people arrested by deputies on June 26 were illegal immigrants.
"If you follow all the rules, it's difficult to reach those results," Gascón says.
There are many who say Arpaio has crossed legal lines. The highest-profile among them, Mayor Phil Gordon, called on the FBI in June to investigate the Sheriff's Office for what he called a pattern of "discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests." A Justice Department official went to Mesa to observe the sheriff's operation there.
It should be noted that ICE and County Attorney Andrew Thomas have signed off on Arpaio's sweeps, saying they are within legal limits.
But Gascón is more than worried about them. He talks of how police exist in the United States to protect, not to oppress — especially to protect the rights of minority groups from abuse by the majority.
In the context of Arpaio's sweeps, it is apparent that Gascón views Arpaio and some of his supporters as a significant danger, though he chooses his words carefully.
"There have been tremendous abuses of power by one group or another over the years," he says. "Many times, the police have been the instrument of that abuse. That's my concern in this whole dialogue."
It is obvious where Gascón got his passion for civil rights and his zest for supporting immigrants — he and his family are refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba, one of the last bastions of communism.
Gascón was born in 1954 into a blue-collar, lower-middle-class family, living most of his young life in a suburb of Havana and dreaming of one day flying jet fighters. His mechanically inclined father helped keep the assembly line moving at a local brewery until he was fired soon after an arrest for alleged subversive activity. Gascón's family members were "strong anti-communists," he says, and his uncle was a political prisoner for more than 20 years.
"My parents made it very clear we were not part of that system," Gascón says.
When he was 13, the family of six fled the country in one of the hundreds of "freedom flights," a program Castro employed from 1965 to 1971 to fly out nearly 250,000 political opponents. Gascón's family settled with relatives who had earlier fled to Los Angeles.
Culture shock set in quickly for Gascón, who spoke only Spanish. He had been an excellent student in Cuba, recognized in national scholastic competitions for his language skills. In L.A., Gascón flunked numerous classes at Bell High School, but not physical education. He soon took up surfing.
He recalls that he said so little during his first three months in science class that the teacher once screamed that he must be on LSD.
"I asked the girl next to me to tell him I didn't speak English," Gascón says. "[The teacher] was very apologetic."
Gascón says he has never tried illegal drugs, and was never much interested in getting drunk, unlike many of his peers.
"I like being in control all of the time," he says. Plus, drinking has never been a novelty to him. In his family, children could drink wine at an early age (standard practice in Cuba).
"At age 11, we mixed wine with water," he says with a laugh.
He dropped out of Bell High during his senior year and joined the Army, where he served three years and obtained a high school diploma. One of his best friends, Sergio Diaz, had joined the LAPD in 1977, and Gascón followed him into the department a year later.
Ambitious and now proficient in English, as well as in Spanish, Gascón left the force after a few years, got a job as a sales manager at a local Ford dealership and earned a bachelor's degree. He returned to the LAPD in 1987 after getting his law degree from Western State University in Fullerton, California. That is when his career really took off.
If there is anything that sums up Gascón's past decade of police work, it is his obsession with training. Not the kind that involves pop-up bad guys on a shooting range, but the type of deep-down, macro-scale training that prepares cops for tough, ethically challenging scenarios and sharpens an entire department's ability to tackle crime.
A 2002 LA Weekly article, titled "Rewriting the Book," described Gascón and Diaz as key players in an attempt to change police culture in L.A. The department had become, in Gascón's words at the time, "very arrogant" both to outsiders and to rank-and-file officers. This was in 2000, after the infamous police misconduct scandal involving the department's Rampart division. Gascón and Diaz started teaching officers ethics and critical thinking, and they examined past mistakes of L.A. cops to guide them in how to proceed further.
Perhaps his biggest contribution to the LAPD was his improvement of CompStat, a system championed by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who became chief of police in LA in 2002.
But Bratton's becoming chief was a missed opportunity for Gascón. Ranked a commander at the time, he had been one of 50 candidates to apply for the job vacated by Bernard Parks, who lost a bid for a second five-year term in the aftermath of the Rampart scandal. (Parks went on to become councilman of L.A.'s 8th District).
Two police associations, one black and the other Hispanic, backed Gascón to become the first Latino police chief in L.A.
"I had no intention, initially, to compete," Gascón says. "I was asked to compete by a lot of people."
But the mayor picked Bratton, whose experience was far more extensive. Gascón says he would have picked Bratton, too.
"There was no way I would've been able to deliver what he did," Gascón says.
Bratton made Gascón one of his three assistant chiefs. Over the next three years, crime in L.A. plummeted, as it had under Bratton's leadership in New York. Critics doubted that the drop was solely because of the police force, but Gascón and Bratton linked it to their system that sets hard goals and holds police supervisors accountable for less-than-stellar service.
Then, in late 2005, Bratton announced that he intended to seek another term as chief in 2007. He had the support of L.A.'s new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.
That meant Gascón would not be chief anytime soon. He was bent on running a police department somewhere, and Bratton, by then his mentor, helped him find a place where he could do that.
"Mesa wasn't living up to its potential," Bratton says. "It was deemed to be an organization that needed some assistance."
One of Gascón's biggest requirements, though, was that he could not be too far from his family in California. He is divorced, but his adult children still live there. Mesa seemed perfect — it had its own crime lab and big-city challenges, even if it was tiny compared to Los Angeles.
Asked whether Gascón might be trying to prove himself in Mesa so he could return to L.A. in a few years as chief, Bratton predicted that helming the Mesa department "is not going to be his last police job."
Gascón says he does not know what the future holds, but he came out to Mesa to make a difference. And he already has.
Besides holding supervisors accountable (classic CompStat), he has ordered more detectives and officers to work late nights or weekends to focus resources when the most crime occurs — a move, he says, that has saved $1 million in overtime costs.
Within his first year, the pressures of the new environment caused 10 of 14 top supervisors to retire. Whether he thinks it improved his department to remake the command staff is a sensitive topic.
"I don't want to cast aspersions," he says. "There's no question there were some early on who were not a fit, and they recognized it, and that doesn't necessarily make them bad.
"They're not incompetent, bad people — it's just, you know, things evolve."
One of the assistant chiefs who retired under Gascón, Dave Zielonka, says he has nothing but high praise for the chief. Yet it was not always easy to work for him.
"He's probably the most challenging boss in the world to work for," Zielonka says. "He's very driven. His standards are extremely high, and he expects his command staff to live their jobs as their lifestyle."
After 28 years on the force, Zielonka figured it was a good time to take his pension.
On the morning of Joe Arpaio's latest Mesa immigration sweep, uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives pack a community meeting room at Mesa's Utilities Department. As if at a sales meeting, they sit around a u-shaped array of folding tables. Police staff members, officers from other police departments, and a few members of the public sit in nearby rows of folding chairs. Projection screens at one end of the room display computer spreadsheets with crime statistics and a picture of Commander Andy Alonzo, who oversees the Dobson Precinct.
A detective in the precinct stands at a lectern, getting grilled by Assistant Chief Mike Dvorak about the recent unsolved rape of a 17-year-old in Mesa.
The detective says he is waiting for DNA results on the suspect to come back from the crime lab.
"Where is it on the priority system?" Dvorak demands.
"Last I heard was, 'Don't call the lab and say hurry,'" the detective replies.
Dvorak tells him firmly to check with the lab.
"Yeah, I could call the lab," the detective admits.
Over the course of several hours, police supervisors and employees discuss crimes in detail, examine response times and clearance rates, plan the flow of communication among various police divisions, and analyze statistics.
Bratton, who brought CompStat from New York to L.A. before Gascón brought it to Mesa, believes firmly in its power to affect crime. While in New York, he bantered publicly with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani as to who was more responsible for that city's decrease in crime rate in the 1990s.
Basically, CompStat is a holistic approach to crime fighting that uses computer statistics (thus the name) to analyze crimes and arrests. Top managers set priorities for reducing the crime rate and hold lower-level employees responsible for achieving the goals. At the semi-monthly CompStat meetings, supervisors look at problems in depth to determine the best use of resources. It is like corporate culture applied to police work, not much different from McDonald's analyzing how many hamburgers it sold today to determine how many it will need tomorrow.
"What CompStat is all about is putting emphasis on a particular problem," Bratton says.
Gascón is a true believer in the system.
"There's no question that police can, in fact, have an impact on crime and reduce crime," he says. "I'd like to think we've actually proven that in Mesa."
Numbers, however, can be tricky to interpret. Though overall crime in Mesa has fallen 15 percent since Gascón has been in town, FBI statistics released in May show that aggravated assaults and robberies have continued to rise. Even though the number of homicides and rapes fell slightly in 2007, Mesa's rate of violent crime, as a whole, went up, even as the crime rate declined in most other Valley cities.
Assistant Chief John Meza, Gascón's second-in-command, says the department has set a hard goal of bringing overall crime numbers down 10 percent by the end of the year. He knows it will be difficult — a lot of the robberies of late have been random "street jumps" that are impossible to predict. One recent bulletin by Mesa police described how a woman, walking to her car at 5:30 one May morning, was jacked by three men who jumped out of a pickup truck, pointing shotguns and demanding money.
Meza touts the fact that arrests for robberies are up 72 percent over last year. The reason, he says, is the improved communication, questioning, and accountability instituted by Gascón. It is not about punishing people — just "holding them to task," Meza says. He talks at length with commanders about where robberies are occurring and changes plans accordingly. The system Gascón instituted breeds a "we're all in this together" spirit, he says, that makes it easier to pull in squads from traffic or other police units.
Not that CompStat has worked well everywhere. A 2003 report on how it worked at the Lowell Police Department in Massachusetts describes how "scarce resources and a veiled sense of competition made commanders reluctant to share resources with sectors that were hardest hit by crime."
In Lowell, the report says, some commanders were less likely to try new ideas out of fear of a public whipping at the CompStat meeting if they did not work out.
Reducing crime rates is a common goal with CompStat. But crime rates are driven by a long list of causes — not to mention that they are subject to statistical manipulation. In 2005, a Los Angeles Times article calls out Bratton and Gascón for publishing figures that included a 28 percent drop in violent crime for the previous year, even though they knew a change in the way domestic-violence crimes were counted made that figure bogus.
However, once the reporting changes were taken into account, the number of violent crimes still went down substantially, according to the article.
Mesa may yet see a dramatic decline in crime over the next few years because of Gascón's programs. But there is a snag: The resources needed to keep the department effective are being slashed.
Gascón's "State of the Department" report in August 2007 concluded with the idea that Mesa needed to invest more in its police force to keep up with the city's growth. He suggested that Mesa build new police substations and boost the number of officers He called the current 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents "insufficient."
In January, though, city officials (hit with budget problems similar to what other local governments are experiencing) told Gascón to look for more than $7 million in budget cuts. For now, at least, the chief must figure out how to make CompStat work on the cheap.
Though Gascón says he has been a workaholic his whole life, he does take time off now and then. He dines out with his girlfriend, jogs to keep fit, and drives Arizona's backcountry in his off-road vehicle.
And, sometimes, he uses his free time to annoy his ideological opponents.
Last October, Gascón penned an opinion column to counter the propaganda of extremists. The article, which appeared in the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune, focused on his belief that illegal immigrants do not commit crime out of proportion to their overall presence in society.
Claims about the crime among immigrants ring personal to Gascón, the Cuban exile.
"I take issue when people go after immigrants as a source of crime," Gascón tells New Times.
Of course, the opinion piece did not go over well with right-wing extremists, some of whom continue to believe undocumented residents are behind a vast crime wave in Mesa and the rest of the country. Gascón wrote that he had heard it said that 90 percent of serious crime in Mesa is committed by illegal immigrants.
The extremists are wrong.
Statistics obtained by New Times clearly show that illegal immigrants make up a small minority of those arrested in Mesa.
The figures show that Gascón could be wrong, too — but just barely.
Gascón's essay hinged on the fact that about a quarter of Mesa is Hispanic, and about a quarter of the people Mesa police arrested last year were Hispanic. Therefore, illegal immigrants, who make up only a part of the Hispanic community, cannot be committing crimes at a rate higher than Hispanics, in general.
A better way to figure out what is going on is to check the percentage of suspected illegal immigrants actually being arrested by Mesa officers. Since about the first of the year, the department has been asking crime suspects about their immigration status. In response to a New Times public-records request, Mesa police counted all the times arrestees confessed to being in the country illegally over a three-month period.
From February to April of this year, 201 suspects out of 2,555 admitted to being here illegally. That works out to just under 8 percent, and the estimated population of illegal immigrants in Arizona is 8 percent.
So far, Gascón's theory is holding up.
But, on a month-by-month basis, the picture looks different.
Breaking the numbers out shows the percentage of admitted illegal immigrants who were arrested rose from 6 percent in February to 10.7 percent in April. By extension, if Gascón is correct, these figures roughly match Mesa's population of undocumented residents in those months.
But it seems unlikely that the population of undocumented residents in Mesa nearly doubled in three months. It is also a stretch to think that, in any month this year, illegal immigrants made up nearly half of the 25 percent of Hispanics in Mesa.
Using some of the same evidence as Gascón did in his essay, it would make sense that illegals commit crime slightly out of proportion to their numbers. In his article, he states that "undocumented immigrants are disproportionately poor, young, and male: statistically, the group most prone to be involved in crime."
In fact, the actual number of undocumented people arrested in Mesa is likely even higher than the "self-reported" number, acknowledges Assistant Chief Meza. After all, suspects often lie about their immigration status.
Before the city changed its policy this month, many illegal immigrants probably knew that if they just kept their mouth shut, they might be cited and released for a misdemeanor rather than be turned over to ICE.
Tapia, the Mesa police spokeswoman, says the department does not update its records after suspects are booked into Maricopa County jails, which verify all inmates' immigration status in coordination with ICE. In other words, Mesa does not double-check to see how often arrestees are lying about their status.
Phoenix does check, however. In an April column in the Republic, Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris discusses, among other things, how many suspects Phoenix police booked into jail turn out to be illegal immigrants. His numbers show that more than 13 percent of Phoenix arrestees are undocumented.
Daily inmate figures from the MCSO routinely show upward of 20 percent of the jail population is undocumented. But many of those inmates are awaiting trial (and have not yet been convicted of a crime), and illegal immigrants do not make bail as often as citizens, which makes their numbers increase over time.
At the Arizona Department of Corrections, more than 14 percent of inmates were foreign nationals as of June 1. Nolberto Machiche, the DOC's media spokesman, emphasizes that a notable portion of these inmates were in the country legally when arrested, though he says he does not know how many. His records do show that ICE currently plans to deport 2,600 inmates, or about 6.7 percent of the total.
If numbers provided by the Mesa PD and the DOC prove anything, it is that the overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by U.S. citizens.
Statistics aside, it would be naive to say illegal immigrants, especially those in the smuggling trade, do not cause special problems for police.
The question is, what to do about it.
Gascón's approach is to keep everything in perspective, based on the most current data.
"If you put anything more than 10 percent of your resources on the problem, you're not able to focus on other problems," he says.
Mesa Mayor Smith agrees that police should take a measured approach to illegal immigrants, not a wasteful one based on the emotional outcry of certain community members.
And certainly not one that views the illegal immigrant as Public Enemy Number One.
"We need to enforce the law, but in America we have rights," Smith says. "We don't want to sacrifice our rights to achieve a short-term solution."
Gascón says he has no problem with Mesa's new immigration policy for police. He believes it will give officers another tool to catch the worst criminals, though he will be monitoring the situation to avoid any racial profiling by his officers. All officers will be trained in the new policy over the next four months, before it will go into effect.
But even as Mesa begins treating illegal immigrants differently from other suspects, Gascón is resolute in his opposition to those who "dehumanize" a portion of the population with harsh rhetoric. He compares the propaganda spread about illegal immigrants to how Nazis made Jews scapegoats for Germany's problems before World War II.
And he is not afraid to call Christians who treat illegals poorly "hypocrites."
Gascón knows his opinions do not please many Mesa residents.
"Somebody sometimes has to make a stand, even if it's unpopular," he says.
Gascón may not be able to change the minds of anti-immigration zealots in his city, but his sophisticated policing methods may yet change Mesa for the better.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.