Why are public records called public records? Because they belong to the public. And if you think that's an obvious answer, you haven't had to deal with the Scottsdale Police Department.
My last two columns have reported cases of intimidation and brutality by the SPD. The first story told how Scottsdale officers had barged into the home of Shawn Casey and John Power and beaten them so badly that Power called 911 and asked that someone come rescue them from the police. The second story was an account of a farcical scenario in which a cop fell over and hurt himself while chasing a frightened young man named Steve Faulkner, and then tried to have Faulkner--who had never touched him--charged with assault. All the trumped-up charges against the citizens were dismissed.
But, as I looked into these cases, it became clear that the SPD's problem is more than just the feral thugs it employs. This supposed law enforcement agency is a law unto itself.
When I investigated the abuses inflicted upon Shawn Casey and John Power, I found that the SPD had conducted an internal investigation, and that one of the allegations against the cops had been sustained. I called Sergeant Mike Anderson, the SPD's PR flack, and asked to see the records of the investigation, and every other investigation that stemmed from a complaint against the SPD. Any member of the public has a right to see these records.
Instead, Anderson gave me a list of all claims made against the entire City of Scottsdale in the past two years. These records provided almost no information, although it seems fitting that one of the claims included a payment to a citizen who sued over the city's failure to release public records.
In any case, most complaints never are committed to writing, let alone get to the stage where a claim is filed; a claim is a prelude to a lawsuit. An analysis of complaints lodged by citizens will give us an idea of the types of problems citizens are having with the Scottsdale police.
Of course, the Scottsdale Police Department doesn't want me--or you--to have this information.
I called Anderson again and asked for the records I'd requested: all complaints made by citizens during the past two years, as well as the investigative report into the Casey/Power case. I didn't get them. New Times' lawyer contacted Anderson, who panicked and called me with a sob story about how the SPD was understaffed but he was doing his best to get me the records. He suggested I call Chris Bingham or Babs Furr in the department's Internal Affairs office, and gave me their numbers. Bingham turned out to be out of town, and Furr didn't return my call.
My editor called Anderson to ask when the records would be made available. It was then that things became surreal. Anderson denied that I'd ever made the request. I asked him, "Why did you give me Chris Bingham's and Babs Furr's numbers, then?" He said he hadn't. "Well, how come I have the numbers? Am I psychic or something? How did I get them, and how did I know they worked in Internal Affairs?" Anderson said he didn't know. He said he'd respond to New Times' public-records request "in a timely manner."
We followed up with a more detailed request for records. A week later, Anderson wrote back to say that parts of our request were unreasonably broad. It seems the Scottsdale PD is completely stumped by the mind-boggling task of rounding up complaints filed against it, or making officers' personnel files available for review.
"Public servant" Anderson, a man well-paid to see that the public has access to information the public owns, then wrote that he would no longer answer our phone calls--in other words, he intended to stop doing his job.
I don't know what Anderson considers to be timely. I do know that, three weeks later, we haven't seen any of the pertinent records.
But at least the SPD accepted and acknowledged our written request. That's more than the department did for Shawn Casey.
Casey wanted to see the report of the internal investigation into his case--a document I've also been trying to get my hands on. He delivered his written records request to the SPD in person--and the department refused to take it from him! "The officer said, 'You can take my name, you can take my badge number, but I will not accept that letter,'" Casey told me.
Steve Faulkner and his girlfriend, Whittni Grubaugh, who were harassed by the SPD, tried repeatedly to lodge a complaint. They found contacting anyone in Internal Affairs to be about as easy as getting Elvis on the phone. They wonder if Sergeant Chris Bingham even exists.
Last week, a public defender, Katie Carty, called to ask if I might be able to get some records the SPD was refusing to let her see, even though these records are essential to a case she's handling.
In Scottsdale, the police are so arrogant, so above the law, that a public defender is driven to call a reporter to ask for help in seeing public records.
Of course, I couldn't help. I told her I had a feeling I was going to have to sue to get access to the records. She has reached a similar conclusion. "I have an investigator on it. . . . And I plan to do a motion to compel the release of these records," she says.
This means that the taxpayers of Scottsdale will end up paying attorneys who will fight to keep the public from seeing records the public owns. And those taxpayers may well end up paying legal fees for the people who sue them as well.
Does this sound like the "Most Livable City"?
I called Mayor Sam Campana to ask if she knew what was going on. She didn't return my call, but Patrick Dodds, city officer for communications and public affairs, did. He thought I was calling about Club Tribeca, which had been denied access to public records in a lawsuit alleging that black patrons were harassed by the SPD.
"We've reached some sort of settlement with them," Dodds says. "They'd requested some specific records, and we turned over what we thought they'd requested, and then there's been some give-and-take about what they believe we have and what we supplied. It really is a matter of interpretation."
Sounds like he went to the same PR school as Mike Anderson.
Richard Spector, lawyer for Club Tribeca, tells a different story. "We're in a pitched battle with the SPD," he says. Spector asked to see the records of police dispatches to the club. The SPD refused. "So Mike Anderson's telling the media that Club Tribeca is the worst club in Scottsdale, but won't produce the records to prove it. They just say no--and that's breaking the law. They're making up their own law.
"The only way you'll get what you want from the City of Scottsdale is to file suit. The SPD is good at calling people liars, and good at beating people up. Well, some of us are good at filing lawsuits."
When I told Scottsdale PR man Dodds that even a public defender couldn't get at the records, he said, "I've heard of instances before when members of the legal profession request public records and are not allowed to have them. I don't think that's unprecedented."
He didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with that. And when I pointed out that lawyers, being members of the public, are entitled to see public records, he said, "Yeah. But it all depends on what is the definition of a public record."
But definitions aren't flexible. You just look it up in the statute book, which says these records are to be available for inspection during regular business hours. The SPD is flouting the law.
It's not the only one. That's pretty much how it's done all over Arizona. Godless civil libertarians and Bible-thumping patriots alike should be alarmed at this secrecy.
The problem with the SPD is not that it has a few bad cops. Any police department does. In a large barrel, there will always be a few bad apples. But a responsible police department responds to revelations of its mistakes by rectifying them, by throwing out the bad apples, and by giving the public confidence that any mistakes will be rectified, any wrongs put right.
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The SPD doesn't operate that way. Its behavior shows it to be corrupt. When caught in wrongdoing, the SPD doesn't acknowledge a problem and try to do better. Even after a court ordered a former SPD officer $100,000 in damages--effectively finding the SPD guilty of racism--the department claimed to have been vindicated. And, with its hiding of public records, the SPD is sending out a message to the public: It has something to hide. It has done things it refuses to answer for.
And it doesn't want you to know.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: email@example.com