Phoenix police reported 358 kidnapping calls during 2008, and they said a majority of them were linked to drug and human smuggling across the Arizona-Mexico border.
While Phoenix police union leaders raised questions about the veracity of the statistics, the city's top officials — City Manager David Cavazos, Police Chief Jack Harris, and Mayor Phil Gordon — dismissed concerns that kidnapping statistics are inaccurate or intentionally inflated.
A New Times analysis of 264 of the 358 reported kidnappings shows that only about one of every four incidents labeled as kidnappings in 2008 appeared connected to border-related crimes.
New Times news short
Chief Harris agreed to discuss the kidnapping statistics with New Times, but a police spokesman later said that Harris decided to pass on the interview because the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General is auditing kidnapping figures.
There is absolutely no doubt that individuals in Phoenix with ties to drug and human smuggling have been held for ransom, threatened with death, beaten, tortured, and sometimes murdered. There is no doubt that their friends and family members have been extorted for money, cars, weapons, and drugs in exchange for the safe release of loved ones.
New Times detailed the stories of kidnapping victims in "Seized" (August 12). We spoke directly with victims, pored over local and federal court and police records, and spent time with detectives investigating the crimes, rescuing victims, and arresting predators.
Phoenix officials released the kidnapping statistics to media outlets across the country, shared them with federal lawmakers, and cited them in grant applications to depict the rising levels of border-related violence Phoenix police grappled with daily.
However, of the 264 available police reports reviewed by New Times, 64 had discernible ties to human smuggling and kidnapping. This means that Phoenix was dealing with Mexican-style kidnap-for-ransom cases an average of once a week, not daily.
"One a week still indicates a crisis. Those figures didn't need to be inflated," said Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. "Either the police management team was . . . disingenuous or grossly incompetent. We don't think that taxpayers deserve either."
Gordon painted an exaggerated picture for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science in March 2009.
"Almost every night, Phoenix police will get one or more calls" about an immigrant smuggled into the country being held for ransom and tortured. And for each one of the calls, Gordon said, the police department has to divert "as many as 60 officers to find, rescue, and protect those kidnap victims."
The other 200 police reports reviewed by New Times don't support the claims.
On May 13, 2008, a 20-year-old man attacked his ex-girlfriend after she drove to his apartment complex to pick up money he owed her. When she arrived, he got into her truck, and they spoke for a few minutes.
He asked her for a kiss, and she said no. He attacked her, grabbed a fistful of her hair, and forced her and her baby to stay inside the car for more than a half-hour. She eventually escaped and reported the crime to police, who drove to his apartment. He admitted the attack on his ex and was arrested.
The single-day investigation did not require intensive resources and the nonstop involvement of 60 specially trained police officers and detectives, but it is among the 358 kidnapping cases purportedly assigned to specially trained investigators.
Another report, this one dated March 21, 2008, notes an early-morning call from the Blessed Sacrament Church to Phoenix police. A priest told police he received an e-mail from someone threatening to kill him if he didn't pay $15,000. He said he had no idea who sent it.
Cops went to the church, picked up the e-mail and logged the incident in a five-sentence departmental report as "extortion."
The single-page report from 2008 makes no mention of any harm coming to the priest, or of anyone kidnapped. Nevertheless, it ended up on the list of kidnappings in that year.
It shouldn't have, according to an August 2010 memo written by Chief Harris to City Manager Cavazos.
Harris' memo notes that reported kidnapping figures had included only finalized incidents and excluded reports where "the crime was later determined to be unfounded."
He wrote that the kidnapping statistics did not include "information only" incidents — reports with insufficient evidence to determine whether a crime actually had occurred. Kidnappings that were sexually motivated or tied to domestic violence were reported separately, Harris wrote.
Evidently, this wasn't the case.
A list generated and released by the Phoenix Police Department shows that all 358 reports are titled "kidnapping."
Of the 264 New Times reviewed, at least 53 do not have the same label — 24 were labeled "armed robbery" or "extortion," seven were labeled "aggravated assault," and eight were classified as possible violations of federal immigration laws. Labels on 14 others included "suspicious person" and "robbery without a weapon."
There are also at least 59 "information only" reports lumped in with the 358 kidnapping incidents Phoenix law enforcement officials logged in 2008.
One of the reports was created on January 12 of that year after a man at a gas station told police he saw what appeared to be a kidnapping and "coyote situation."
There also are dozens of reports of men trying to snatch young girls or women off the streets, of people getting robbed, of drivers being carjacked at gunpoint, forced into the back seat of their own cars and later released. None included a connection to border-related crimes.
Police have said the cases are correctly classified based on Arizona's kidnapping laws, which define kidnapping as restraining someone during the commission of a felony. But why aren't all the robberies, carjackings, or aggravated assaults that took place in Phoenix in 2008 also on the kidnapping list?
Police officials refuse to make themselves available to clarify.
Some of the kidnapping incidents were counted more than once. Other reports were created because police impounded vehicles, but those, too, were labeled kidnappings and placed on the 2008 list.
In some cases, even when police noted that the victim was not truthful, the incidents still were logged as kidnappings.
Consider a police report about Kenneth, a 17-year-old missing for three days. When he turned up, he told police he was attacked by a guy he argued with at a party. He said his attackers beat him, shoved him into a black Chevy Suburban, and forced him to perform sexual acts during the three days they held him captive.
He later admitted to police that he made up the story and was really out with a friend doing cocaine. The incident report remained on the official list of reported kidnappings.
Spencer and others from the union hall believe the police department hyped the kidnapping situation to get federal dollars funneled to Phoenix.
Like Gordon, Chief Harris also testified before a panel of federal lawmakers in 2009 and emphasized that a majority of the 368 reported kidnappings in Phoenix during 2008 stemmed from drug and human smuggling.
(Phoenix reported conflicting totals, both 368 and 358, for kidnapping incidents. Their finalized list shows 358.)
"This problem has garnered the attention of the world," Harris told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in April 2009. "But saving these lives is tremendously resource-intensive."
And just as Gordon did when he spoke to members of the House subcommittee, Harris pleaded for federal funding.
Not long after Harris and Gordon's testimonies, the Phoenix Police Department applied for and received $2.45 million in federal grants, in part to combat the kidnappings.
"Project Eagle Eye" was funded to the tune of nearly $750,000. In the city's application, police officials said a majority of the kidnappings were "directly connected to border issues of drugs and human smuggling."
To get $1.7 million in grant money for "Operation Home Defense," police officials told the feds the police department was seeing an average of more than one kidnapping a day, and they noted that "these numbers demonstrate a significant crime issue unique to Phoenix."
Some of the cases may be unique to Phoenix because it is a popular smuggling route and distribution hub for drugs and immigrants. But it is a stretch to say that a majority are linked to border-related crime.
Consider another kidnapping report labeled "aggravated assault" from December 16, 2010, about a man named Levy who told police he was attacked and sexually assaulted by several suspects, including a dancer who "inserted a spoon into [his] rectum."
Levy said they beat him, shoved a knife into his foot, and forced him to steal items to repay a debt his sister allegedly owed them, but wouldn't give further details about the attack. A witness later told police that the alleged victim owed the woman money for dancing for him and that she and her boyfriend were trying to collect it.
Whether Levy really had a sister who owed a debt to his attackers or had stiffed a private dancer, the case is neither border-related nor "unique to Phoenix."
Casting further doubt on Phoenix's kidnapping figures is that the Levy case was counted twice. There are two reports, one labeled "kidnapping," the other labeled "aggravated assault."
Are these oversights or clerical errors? It seems unlikely.
When Phoenix television station KPHO also raised questions about the city's kidnapping statistics, City Manager Cavazos wrote to the station's general manager last December 15:
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"It is important to state clearly that we have verified several times the accuracy of the kidnapping statistics generated by the Phoenix Police Department."
Cavazos added later that the statistics also were "thoroughly reviewed and vetted."
Cavazos told New Times that police officials have assured him repeatedly that the cases were correctly classified as kidnappings. He said the city is now awaiting the outcome of the federal review.
"I have to trust what the experts are telling me," he said.