ONE BRUTAL NIGHT IN WEST PHOENIX
A Phoenix cop since 1983, Hardin had been a sergeant for only three months when Rodriquez stole the Chevy and presented him with one of his first major tests as a supervisor.
Hardin interviewed Rodriquez a few hours after the clash. He focused on the guy who smashed into the pickup truck I was driving," Rodriquez says, referring to Perez. He didn't want to hear about the other guys."
A tape of the interview confirms Rodriquez's account. Hardin ends by asking Rodriquez if he wants to file an excessive-force complaint. Rodriquez says he does, hoping the police investigation will include all of the cops who beat on me, not just the guy [Perez] whose car got wrecked."
Hardin assures him it will. But Joe Perez unwittingly had attracted the heat to himself by being the only cop to admit any wrongdoing.
I'm not gonna lie to you," Perez told Hardin on tape that night. I hit him, I kicked him, I was angry at him. Do what you gotta do. Honestly, I just went off on him. I said, `Get down,' and he wouldn't get down. I have no excuses for what I did."
In mid-January 1991, Hardin officially accused Perez of having used excessive force. The sergeant forwarded his findings to the department's Disciplinary Review Board (DRB), which scheduled a hearing in late March 1991.
During this time, Perez-who was still working his normal shift-began to hear troubling things from his peers: Everybody at the station was telling me, `You're the scapegoat in this one, pal. You're the one going down for everything.'"
The police union-PLEA-assigned officer Francesca Anatra to represent Perez before the DRB. But Perez then dropped a bombshell at an official meeting with Sergeant Hardin and Anatra.
²Perez contended that other officers at the arrest scene also had punched and beaten Rodriquez. He also claimed Hardin had looked on passively, which Mauricio Rodriquez and at least two cops confirmed. Such a charge is a serious one to levy against a supervisor present during a volatile arrest.
Hardin insisted he had yelled at Perez to stop hitting and kicking Rodriquez, but that the police helicopter had drowned him out. He also denied seeing any officers but Perez use excessive force on the suspect.
Fran Anatra expressed shock and anger at Perez's attack of Hardin. She later apologized to Hardin and asked PLEA to take her off the case, saying Perez hadn't previously told her anything about other officers being involved.
Perez's allegations caused the department's Internal Affairs unit to start an investigation. It also prompted the department's General Investigations unitÏwhich looks into possible criminal wrongdoing-to assign a detective to the case. Perez's long-awaited DRB hearing was postponed until the parallel investigations were completed.
Mauricio Rodriquez hadn't heard from the police in months, since a grand jury indicted him on felony charges for stealing and crashing the Chevy pickup. But just two days after Perez's stormy meeting with Sergeant Hardin and the PLEA representative, police investigators visited Rodriquez at the Madison Street Jail.
During that interview, Rodriquez changed his story. He said the cop who crashed into the Chevy had bent his arm back until his wrist snapped. Anyone familiar with the case knew that wasn't true, because Perez had been led away before other officers grabbed Rodriquez. On April 4, 1991, Superior Court Judge Colin Campbell dismissedÏat the request of prosecutorsÏall charges stemming from the car theft and subsequent crash. The dismissal came during a hearing in which Rodriquez was sentenced to four months in the state's Shock Incarceration program on an unrelated 1990 resisting-arrest charge. Prosecutors insist that Rodriquez's cooperation with police in the excessive-force case against Perez had nothing to do with the charges against him being dropped. ²The Phoenix police investigations of Perez-criminal and Internal Affairs-continued for weeks. During that time, officers Kevin Sanchez and Robert Zimmerman passed lie-detector tests questioning whether they had used excessive force on Rodriquez.
Officer Robert Walsh, however, showed deception," a police report said, when the polygraph operator asked him if he had deliberately hit Rodriquez with a fist.
Phoenix police later reprimanded Walsh for using excessive force." But the department didn't suspend him, and prosecutors showed no interest in seeking an indictment against him.
ONLY ONE COP told Internal Affairs investigators that anyone other than Joe Perez had beaten Mauricio Rodriquez. Even Perez couldn't specify who had been doing the hitting after him, other than to describe it as a shark frenzy."
But Patricia Boyd, a cop since 1988, said she had seen Kevin Sanchez, Robert Zimmerman and another officer she couldn't name strike Rodriquez with their fists. Although the events repelled Boyd, she tried to put it into perspective.
My feeling about the whole thing was the guys were pumped up," Boyd told IA investigators in a taped interview. This guy had pissed them off. He caused an accident... . I don't know if we've had situations like they had in L.A., but I've seen officers really punch someone and probably not necessarily. But there was nothing here that inflicted major pain or physical injuries from what I saw."
IA investigators grilled Boyd about why her original memo had mentioned only Perez's use of excessive force. Like Mauricio Rodriquez, Boyd explained she simply had followed Sergeant Hardin's cue.
[Hardin] asked me specifically about Perez kicking someone," Boyd said. ÔHe asked me if I had seen that and I said I had. `That is what you need to put in your memo.' If I had known this was gonna be some big deal, maybe I would have thought to detail everything that had happened out there."
Boyd added she had advised Perez not to push matters with his supervisors. I told Joe, `A lot of times you have to take your medicine and get it over with. History tells you if you go to PLEA or try to seek assistance, you'll probably be put on a blacklist.' It's the truth. Let's be honest."
One of the investigators replied: I think Perez was honest in his memo and I think he's honest in his presentation to us."
But honesty didn't help Perez save his job. By this timeÏthe spring of 1991-the stress had all but consumed him. In early May, Perez met for the fourth and final time with Phoenix police psychologist Stephen Carson.
Carson wrote after the session, Officer Perez is psychologically incapable of working in any capacity as a police officer at this time." Carson also said Perez was extremely paranoid, delusional, emotionally disturbed and his judgment impaired."
The Phoenix Police Department quickly placed Perez on administrative leave with pay. He remained in limbo for months, as the investigations against him continued.
I still thought I might get suspended for a month or something," he says. With counseling, I thought they'd give me another chance. I was dreaming."
Perez didn't consider that he might be facing felony charges. But late last July, the Phoenix police forwarded the Perez criminal investigation to the County Attorney's Office.
Bill Moore, a veteran deputy county attorney who is prosecuting Perez, says his office evaluated the potential case as it would any other.
We weren't on a witch hunt here because of Rodney King or anything of the sort," says Moore, a supervisor. We take cases as they come, and we take no pleasure in prosecuting cops or anyone else. We looked at the facts and decided it was proper to take it to a grand jury."
Moore says he doesn't know why none of the other 64 Phoenix cops disciplined for using excessive force since 1985 was indicted. The City of Phoenix paid $118,000 from 1985 to 1991 to 17 victims of police brutality. Again, however, no one at the County Attorney's Office can explain why none of those cases led to indictments.
Last September 4, prosecutor Moore asked a county grand jury to indict Officer Joe Perez for assaulting Mauricio Rodriquez. Phoenix police detective Don Newcomer was the sole witness against Perez.
Newcomer described how Perez had kicked and punched an unresisting Rodriquez. He then went on to detail Rodriquez's bloody nose, several abrasions and a broken wrist." Newcomer did not offer that the wrist hadn't been broken by Joe Perez.
The grand jury indicted Perez on one count of aggravated assault, a felony that may call for a sentence ranging from probation to almost two years in prison.
A month later, last October 17, Perez appeared before the Disciplinary Review Board, which recommended Perez's termination. Chief Dennis Garrett then signed a paper that ended Perez's career with the Phoenix Police Department.
JOE PEREZ SOON decided to appeal his firing to the city's Civil Service Board. I wanted to think I had a chance," he says, because of my good record and all the other stuff involved in the case."
Perez knew he would have a better shot at success if the police union-PLEA-supplied him with its expert labor-law attorney, Mike Napier. But a PLEA committee voted against doing that, in part because of Perez's previous troubles with PLEA representative Fran Anatra.
Of all the twists in this sad case, Joe Perez lists his rejection by PLEA as among the most devastating.
PLEA president Mike Petchel concedes the union hasn't turned down many similar requests by dues-paying officers. Our representatives felt that Joe used excessive force," says Petchel. They felt the discipline was appropriate. That was it."
Petchel stops for a moment, perhaps realizing he sounds more like management than union. In his next breath, Petchel defends Perez: If the Rodney King incident had never happened, I think this may not have been viewed as critically or with such sensitivity by the department. But to compare it with a Rodney King certainly is very unfair to Joe. I don't think anybody feels good about the Joe Perez case."
PLEA didn't turn down Chief Garrett's stepson, Craig Scott, after the department fired Scott last year for police brutality. And in that case, attorney Napier raised enough doubts about Scott's culpability that a city hearing officer recommended reinstatement-a conclusion with which the board agreed.
EX-PHOENIX COP Ron Cherry drove to downtown Phoenix one morning in late March after working all-night security at a west-side hotel. His task was to convince city hearing officer J.W. Parker that Joe Perez's firing by the Phoenix Police Department had been too severe.
Cherry heard about Perez's case through the cop grapevine, and he volunteered to help him. He had his own share of run-ins with the Phoenix Police Department during his 20-year cop career, and Cherry says he sympathized with Perez's plight.
I didn't know Joe from dirt," says Cherry, now a high-ranking official with the NAACP, but I learned that he and his family have suffered more mental and economic damage than most criminals ever do."
Cherry-a black man who previously has accused the Phoenix Police Department of racism-bristles when asked if he would be so adamant if Perez had been white. I'm looking at Perez as a human being, not as a Hispanic," Cherry says. I'm not trying to glorify what he did, but if you've never been there, you haven't been doing your job."
Perez was in a tough spot: What he said before the Civil Service Board could be used against him at his pending criminal trial. But he had to raise a defense if he had any chance of regaining his job.
Prosecutor Bill Moore sat in the rear of the fifth-floor hearing room and scribbled pages of notes. For Moore it was a wonderful opportunity to see and hear how his witnesses in the criminal case came across in a kind of courtroom setting.
Alan Simpson, Perez's court-appointed attorney in the criminal case, wasn't present.
Perez decided to testify without invoking his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Man, I've been telling the same story since the minute this happened," he says. What's the big deal?"
Ron Cherry did his best, but he was outgunned by assistant city attorney Nancy Kesteloot, who fights these kinds of appeals for a living.
On April 6, hearing officer Parker concluded in a nine-page decision: Perez is too much of a liability to himself, his peers, the public and the City to be allowed to function as a police officer."
Last week, the Civil Service Board agreed and unanimously upheld Perez's firing.
Perez says prosecutor Moore offered him a plea bargain through his attorney: If Perez pleaded guilty to assaulting Mauricio Rodriquez, Moore would ask a judge to reduce the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. (Moore won't discuss the plea negotiations.)
But Perez says he'll take his chances with a jury, especially after the shocking recent verdict in the Rodney King case.
Even Mauricio Rodriquez says he isn't sure if he wants Perez to be the scapegoat for everything that happened that night. What about everybody else-the other guys, the sergeant?"
Perez's wife, Cynthia, wants to move back to their native Florida after this is all over, whether they sell their home or not. It saddens her to watch her husband mope around the house daily, wracked with guilt and bitterness.
We need to make a fresh start real bad," she says. I want Joe to be like he was, before that night. I want him to be happy. I want him to be Joe again."part 2 of 2
TEXAS RIBBER ROBERT EARL KEEN JR.'S SONG... v5-13-92
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.