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Under Mark Spencer's Leadership, the Phoenix Police Union Has Become an Anti-Immigrant Juggernaut, to the Detriment of Its Members

Mark Spencer, president of PLEA

Nobody would accuse Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, of having a commanding presence.

Pudgy and bespectacled, with spiked hair and a voice described by one of his allies as akin to Porky Pig's, sans stutter, he hardly looks or sounds like a cop. His frumpy garb does not out him as a badge-bearer, either, much less the leader of a powerful cops' union that counts more than 2,000 Phoenix Police Department officers as members.

Still, Spencer was a headliner at Tempe Diablo Stadium for a pro-Senate Bill 1070 "Stand with Arizona" rally held in late May 2010, two months before Arizona's controversial immigration law was scheduled to go into effect.

Organized by the Dallas Tea Party to counter the "boycott" of Arizona by various groups and municipalities following 1070's passage a month earlier, the event drew a crowd of several thousand mostly middle-aged white men and women with far right-wing views.

There were alter kockers in white socks, shorts, and fanny-packs mixed with Minutemen in cowboy hats, flag-waving hausfraus outfitted in red, white and blue, and even a small contingent of storm troopers from the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.

They all parked themselves on bleachers to listen to anti-immigrant stalwarts — such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio (accompanied by actor/muscleman Lou Ferrigno), MCSO Deputy Sean Pearce, son of now-state Senate President Russell Pearce (the primary pusher of 1070) — and assorted others preach the anti-illegal gospel to the converted.

The crux of the speech Spencer read to the Tea Partiers he had read elsewhere — before committees at the Arizona Legislature, for instance. It began with a list of six fallen and six injured Phoenix police officers, each somehow harmed or killed by illegal aliens. The list dated to 1982.

"PLEA members have directly experienced the blunt end of illegal immigration," Spencer stated, before recounting names of these fallen and wounded.

This macabre roll call did not mention the other 20 Phoenix police officers who had died in the line of duty during the same time period. Their deaths were not caused by illegal aliens.

Nor did he explain certain complicating details concerning two of the officers mentioned: Jason Schechterle and Nick Erfle.

Schechterle nearly was incinerated alive in 2001 when a taxicab careened into his Crown Victoria police cruiser, causing an explosion. The driver was an illegal immigrant.

But in testament to how times have changed, the media's focus then was on Ford's defective Crown Vics, unregulated taxis, and the suspect's epileptic attack before the crash.

When the defendant was convicted and sentenced to 12 years, the fact that he was undocumented was mentioned mainly in passing.

In 2007, Erfle was gunned down by an ex-con with an outstanding warrant after Erfle stopped the man for jaywalking. The ex-con, who had been deported before and boasted a rap sheet, had been raised in this country, brought here when he was a kid.

After killing Erfle, the man fled, took a hostage, and ultimately was brought down by a PPD marksman's bullet.

Unlike Spencer and others who made ideological hay out of Erfle's death, his widow, Julie Erfle, eschewed hatred, studied the immigration issue, and stuck to a moderate course. She opposed SB 1070 and backed comprehensive immigration reform. She also supported the revision of a PPD operations order in 2008 that required immigration inquiries of all arrestees.

Erfle describes herself as a "supporter of PLEA," to which her husband belonged, but she acknowledges that she and Spencer are poles apart on immigration.

Regarding comprehensive immigration reform, dismissed by some as "amnesty," she maintains that it's not "a.k.a. amnesty" but "a.k.a. big picture."

Erfle tells New Times, "[It's] not a simple, not a Band-Aid, approach." It's not something, she says, that can be summed up in "a 30-second sound bite."

Julie Erfle's stance is well known, but it hasn't kept Spencer from using her late husband's name to inflame the PLEA president's fellow nativists.

This combination of crassness, extremism, and political hardball has been PLEA's modus operandi since Spencer and the current Board of Trustees were elected to head the union in 2007. Yet the union's obsession with immigration, its penchant for bashing PPD management (particularly former Public Safety Manager and Police Chief Jack Harris), and its alliances with anti-immigration pols who also happen to be anti-union, have come with a price.

The number of dues-paying members has declined dramatically over the past couple of years. In July 2009, PLEA could boast 2,494 members, or 90 percent participation by the police department's rank and file. By January 2011, the numbers had fallen to 2,120 dues-payers, or 80 percent of the Phoenix cops on the beat.

Some of those disgruntled with PLEA have joined the ranks of competing organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, which may make a bid this year to replace PLEA as the officially sanctioned union of PPD line officers. Many ship-jumpers say PLEA's rancor has turned them away.

 

They refer to rhetoric like Spencer's at Diablo Stadium, where the union boss complained of those distinguishing between a "harmless illegal alien" and a "dangerous illegal alien."

He wondered, "What crimes are going to be tolerated next? Harmless drunk drivers? Harmless prostitutes? Harmless drug dealers? Harmless thieves?"

The bleacher-warmers ate it up. Spencer neglected to repeat a line he had used on another occasion, when he compared illegal immigrants to "child molesters" during a press conference with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas in May 2010.


It's not the only time Spencer has used a creepy child-molester analogy to make a point.

In reply to a critical, widely circulated e-mail to Spencer from veteran PPD Officer Nick Wubker, Spencer used the comparison in relation to Public Safety Manager Harris and Harris' so-called "double-dipping."

In 2007, Harris officially retired as PPD chief, only to be hired back by the city of Phoenix as Public Safety Manager. The move, which allowed Harris to remain as police chief, was approved by the Phoenix Police Pension Board and the Phoenix City Council. City lawyers deemed the rehire legal.

Still, the rehire rankled Harris' critics. Spencer used the fact that Harris was collecting his pension under the state retirement system, while pulling an annual salary of $184,350, as a riding crop with which to whip Harris mercilessly.

In addition, PLEA has cooperated with the far-right, anti-immigrant-advocacy group Judicial Watch in suing Harris, the Phoenix police pension board, and other city officials over the supposed double-dip.

Though PLEA is not officially a party to the lawsuit, PLEA's counsel, Michael Napier, acts as the Arizona attorney for the plaintiffs, who include current PLEA board member William Buividas and former PLEA vice-president Danny Boyd. The now-retired Boyd also happens to be Spencer's brother-in-law.

Wubker announced in his e-mail that he was ending his PLEA membership after belonging to the organization for 21 years. He cited the personalized "Spencer vs. Harris battle," saying PLEA shouldn't be involved in the issue of Harris' rehire.

He pointed out that Spencer himself benefits from a brand of legalized double-dipping for police officers, firefighters, and public servants called the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP. The benefit allows cops and others to stay on for up to five years past their 20-year retirement mark. Their pension is paid into a special account, which they can access after they leave their jobs. Participants pull their regular salaries during the stint.

Spencer is part of DROP, which means he must retire in February 2012. Current PLEA vice president Dave Kothe also is a DROP participant.

Wubker pointed out that when former PLEA board chairman Levi Bolton retired from the police force, PLEA turned around and rehired Bolton as a civilian lobbyist.

"How is this different from the Harris position?" Wubker asked. "Levi and Harris did their time, risked their lives for this city, and now deserve their money. What is wrong with that?"

Stung by Wubker's remarks, Spencer — who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story — penned an eight-page rebuttal and mailed it to Phoenix police officers in October.

Spencer defended himself and PLEA against Wubker's complaints about issues such as pursuing a personal agenda on immigration by so vocally supporting SB 1070. Then he dropped the child-molester bomb.

"But not calling attention to wrongdoing," Spencer wrote, "is like the mother who tells the young child, 'Don't tell anyone where Uncle Fester touches you. If you do, they'll take him away, and it will shame the family. It will make us all look bad.'

"Does the shame and trouble originate with the child reporting the abuse or the adult who caused the abuse in the first place?" he asked.

It was classic Spencer and what many have come to expect of PLEA under Spencer's stewardship. It's also what's helped drive members away.

Indeed, in a follow-up e-mail, Wubker used the Uncle Fester reference as an illustration of his original point, calling Spencer's rhetoric "unprofessional" and "childish."

Critics and PLEA defectors often cite the locker-room, hate-management mentality displayed regularly in the PLEA newsletter, RECAP, and on PLEA's website (azplea.com) as a source of discontent.

One particularly egregious example is an animated cartoon PLEA made and posted to its site in 2010 as a YouTube video. The video depicts Harris in an office getting grilled by a woman who spouts the PLEA line. The language turns salty at several points.

"Are you a puppet for PLEA or something?" the Harris figure asks the woman. "I'm getting ready to kick your ass."

Later he tells her that his management style is, "Kiss my ring or kiss my ass. That's what works for me."

 

When his female foil wonders when someone will have the "testicular fortitude" to blow the whistle on Harris' alleged corruption, the Harris stand-in states: "That will happen as soon as a monkey flies out of my butt."

The video remains embedded on PLEA's website and has so far garnered more than 1,900 views.

Department of Public Safety Sergeant John Ortolano, president of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, echoed sentiments of other leaders of local law enforcement associations.

"That is the most infantile thing they could do," he said of PLEA's video. "To make cartoons about the chief like that — that's a whole new level of stupid."

Granted, FOP is a competitor. PLEA has fought off past FOP attempts to become the official bargaining representative for the PPD's cops, though FOP may force a vote of the rank and file this fall, if the organization presents the city with a petition signed by 10 percent of cops.

Meanwhile, FOP and other organizations, such as the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, offer similar benefits to disgruntled PLEA members, such as legal representation, training, and legislative lobbyists.

Yet under Phoenix's municipal code and its official Memorandum of Understanding, only PLEA can enter into negotiations with the city over pay and other benefits.

Nevertheless, even if a police officer is not a member of PLEA, the union is obligated to bargain on his or her behalf and potentially be present at administrative interviews and hearings, if the cop wants a PLEA rep there. This is because PLEA is recognized by the city essentially as the "union" for Phoenix cops.

So if a cop opts not to join PLEA, he or she can join a different association and receive legal insurance and other benefits through the alternative group yet still be represented by PLEA in negotiations and internal affairs investigations. There's nothing that requires cops to pay dues to PLEA, though most opt to do so.

Lou Manganiello, president of Phoenix FOP Lodge 2, says FOP's enrollment is up about 300 members from a couple of years ago. He partly credits PLEA's acrimonious ways for nudging those cops into his fold.

"We get applications in here every day," he says. "Mark Spencer is our best friend. We hope he [doesn't] leave."

Actually, Spencer may exit his post in July, after board elections are scheduled to take place.

Or he could run again and turn over the union's presidency to his vice president, once Spencer's DROP is up in February 2012. Kothe's DROP is up in June 2012, which would make for a short-lived tenure for Kothe.

Either way, some fear the constant war with the Fourth Floor — shorthand for PPD management, on the fourth level of police headquarters at 620 West Washington Street — will continue if one of Spencer's cronies assumes control of PLEA.

"When you can't communicate with upper management, you're not getting anything done," says one veteran cop who recently left PLEA for FOP. "It's not doing any good to the officers out here."

Like other PLEA defectors who agreed to speak with New Times, this officer wished to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation from PLEA. Particularly since PLEA is known for planting stories in the local media smearing those who oppose its line.

"Most officers don't want to get involved," said another cop. "They're out there in the street every day, and they don't want the additional stress."

One younger cop, who claimed a lack of support from PLEA over a personnel issue, said newbie officers feel pressured to join PLEA when they're still in the police academy.

"Members younger than me don't know there's something else out there," he said.

He, too, recently joined FOP.


PLEA changed radically in 2007 after the election of Spencer to his first two-year term. Before that, the union enjoyed a relatively genteel relationship with PPD management. And PLEA's newsletter, RECAP, reflected this with a generally staid, non-confrontational tone.

Jake Jacobsen, PLEA president from 2000 to 2007, got along well with Harris, and the men were able to discuss issues in one-on-one meetings. He says he feels he achieved more through cooperation with the Fourth Floor. He characterizes Chief Harris as having welcomed suggestions and notes that Harris had been a liaison to PLEA under former Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

"You've got to work with management to solve your problems, as opposed to fighting management at every turn," Jacobsen says.

In this spirit, Jacobsen claims he was able to partner with the PPD on several issues that improved the job of the average officer, everything from lowering the maximum amount of discipline to 40 hours' suspension from 240 (one of Harris' ideas) to allowing many cops to take their vehicles home (a benefit that's since been lost) to letting officers purchase their own shotguns to discontinuing the use of Crown Vics after the Schechterle incident.

 

The change in discipline from a maximum of 240 hours to 40 hours without pay was particularly welcome to the rank and file and to PLEA. At the time, Jacobsen hailed it as the equivalent of FDR's New Deal, writing in the October 2006 RECAP, "Discipline as we know it now will become a thing of the past."

Though critics of the PPD's recent scandals may see this change as lax, it was obviously a boon to the average cop, who no longer had to worry about the possibility of a two-week suspension on one charge.

On another issue, PLEA regularly boasts winning a 13.7 percent pay increase for Phoenix cops in 2008. (Note: The city negotiated a 3.2 percent pay cut from city cops in 2010.) Jacobsen and others say the drive for the increase began during Jacobsen's tenure.

"I'm not going to trash Spencer because he took credit for that," Jacobsen says. "The contract was signed under his watch. Did I start the ball rolling? Did I put a lot of work into it? Yeah."

To some degree, PLEA members knew what they were getting when they voted in Spencer over Jacobsen, who was perceived as too close to management. In his RECAP editorials, Jacobsen would mention his frequent meetings and coffee klatches with Harris. And Jacobsen and Harris were friends, having come up through the ranks together. Spencer had been a full-time PLEA officer — meaning the PPD paid for him to be a PLEA trustee — beginning in 2001, according to his personnel record. Spencer promised to take a more aggressive stance toward management.

But Spencer's "wins" have had more to do with promoting SB 1070, changing the PPD operations order dealing with illegal immigrants, attacking Harris and upper management over exaggerated border-related kidnapping stats ("Phoenix Cops May Have Inflated Kidnapping Stats," February 17), and taking issue with Harris' pension.

Jacobsen and others say PLEA's ideological shift under Spencer and its preoccupation with immigration has turned the organization into a sort of anti-union union, one that acts contrary to the needs of officers and supports politicians known to be hostile to union activity.

Take PLEA's support for Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Spencer has consistently backed Arpaio's anti-immigration dragnets in Hispanic communities and the sheriff's raids of businesses seeking undocumented workers.

PLEA endorsed Arpaio in 2008, donated to Arpaio's massive re-election fund, and has held joint press conferences with the Sheriff's Office over immigration-related matters.

Dan Saban, Arpaio's ill-fated electoral foe in 2008, went through PLEA's interview process, vying for the union's endorsement.

"Spencer was all about immigration, but I wasn't that guy," Saban says. "I wasn't willing to compromise a whole for a piece and commit all those resources to [busting immigrants]."

Saban says PLEA perceived him as soft on immigration because he wanted to focus on "the organized crime/human-smuggling aspect of the illegal-immigration issue."

PLEA's endorsement of Arpaio is ironic, considering that Arpaio would never countenance an outspoken, PLEA-style union for his deputies.

When deputies' groups, such as the Maricopa County Deputies Association and the Deputies Law Enforcement Association, had leaders critical of Arpaio — leaders who sought bargaining rights for deputies — the sheriff responded with retaliation.

Such leaders found themselves fired, investigated, or reassigned to dead-end duties.

Take Chris Gerberry, once head of the MCDA and a vocal critic of Sheriff Joe.

Former New Times reporter John Dougherty wrote in a cover story almost seven years ago that Gerberry was one of Arpaio's deputies until 1999. But when Gerberry "released information to county supervisors and the press documenting how severe understaffing of detention officers had increased the risk of violence against prisoners and jail guards," the MCSO axed him ("In the Crosshairs," June 24, 2004).

Concerning those police and deputies associations that opposed Arpaio, now fired MCSO Deputy Chief Larry Black had this to say to Dougherty:

"We don't recognize any of them. We are not going to negotiate with them. We are not going to deal with them. We are not going to have any of this kind of stuff. And they don't like it. It pisses them off."

Deputies who backed Saban in his 2004 GOP primary run against Arpaio, before Saban converted to the Democratic Party for his 2008 general election challenge, were reassigned in retaliation. After the 2004 general election, Dougherty wrote that more than 150 deputies and detention officers were "shuffled" to reward the loyal and punish the disloyal.

MCSO Deputy Chief Frank Munnell's leaked 2010 memo outlining alleged abuses of power in the Sheriff's Office even has a section detailing how the MCSO infiltrated a campaign event for Arpaio's 2000 primary rival, Jerry Robertson, at a Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Phoenix ("Joe Arpaio's Watergate," September 16, 2010).

 

Munnell writes that in "an attempt to identify sheriff's employees who supported Robertson," MCSO operatives videotaped everyone entering and leaving the hall. One of those inside was an MCSO plant, ordered there by recently fired Chief Deputy David Hendershott.

Criticism of Arpaio from deputies' associations is rare these days. Currently, the president of the Deputies Law Enforcement Association is MCSO deputy Sean Pearce, son of Russell Pearce, now an ally of both Spencer's and the sheriff's. Also, DLEA is represented by PLEA lawyer Mike Napier, and, according to DLEA's website, DLEA meetings are held at the PLEA office at 1102 West Adams Street.

Though Spencer has it in for Harris over the "double-dipping" issue, PLEA turns a blind eye to top MCSO employees who simultaneously pull a pension and a paycheck.

A recent Arizona Republic item noted that six former and current MCSO muck-a-mucks, including acting Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan and Deputy Chief Black, are big-time double-dippers.

The news item failed to mention the MCSO's king of double-dippers, Chief Deputy Hendershott, who resigned one day in 1999 and was rehired the next day by Arpaio as a civilian to do the same job.

And yet PLEA never chides the MCSO, and Washington, D.C.-based Judicial Watch never has sought to sue the MCSO, Arpaio, or its deputies, as it has Harris. That's because the stridently anti-immigrant Judicial Watch is allied with Arpaio. Harris, on the other hand, usually bucked the nativist line, thereby earning Judicial Watch's wrath.

And Judicial Watch's wrath is considerable, considering it's funded by über-conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who poured millions into efforts to slime President Bill Clinton in the 1990s ("Ideologically Motivated Lawsuits," December 23, 2010).

PLEA's endorsements of, partnerships with, and donations to other right-wing Republicans also have placed its membership's pension benefits at risk and even imperiled the DROP program around which so many cops plan their finances. That's because GOP conservatives, who are overwhelmingly anti-immigrant, also tend to be enemies of public benefits of any kind.

Though PLEA did endorse a few Dems in 2010 and has given money to the Arizona Democratic Party in the past, it has mostly endorsed Republicans, many of them right-wing ideologues with an inherent hatred of unions and public benefits.

For instance, PLEA has endorsed and donated to both state Senate President Pearce and House Speaker Kirk Adams, though each has supported proposals to cut pension benefits. Adams even sponsored a House bill during this session that would have eliminated DROP altogether.

The DROP-killing bill is now dead, but Senate Bill 1609 has passed both houses and awaits Governor Jan Brewer's signature. It would increase the contributions public employees must make into the state retirement system. (It also axes DROP for future police hires.) PLEA opposed the bill, though PLEA itself is tightly associated with one of the bill's primary sponsors, Russell Pearce.

PLEA even has suggested on its website that it may sue if the measure is signed into law by Brewer, who, ironically, also received PLEA's endorsement in 2010.

Cops are sometimes referred to as "Republicans with Democratic needs," and certainly other local and state police associations have backed Republicans in recent elections. But in the GOP pool, Spencer's PLEA usually has opted for more conservative, even more radical, Republicans.

In 2010, this meant endorsing Bill Montgomery for Maricopa County Attorney over fellow Republican Rick Romley, as well as donating to Montgomery's campaign. Wing-nut radio host and ex-Congressman J.D. Hayworth earned PLEA's pick in his primary effort against U.S. Senator John McCain. Hayworth also scored a $5,000 contribution from PLEA, which Spencer, a frequent guest on Hayworth's KFYI radio show, handed to him personally.

In addition to all this, PLEA doesn't always play well with other unions and police associations.

The Arizona Police Association is designed to be an umbrella organization representing a number of groups statewide, but it is widely considered an instrument of PLEA's. In fact, wags refer to APA, which shares offices with PLEA, as the "Arizona PLEA Association."

In 2009, PLEA engineered the ouster of one of its rivals, the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, from APA's ranks, further cementing PLEA's hold on the organization.

PLEA kvetched about the PPSLA's bar complaints against Mike Napier, attorney for PLEA and several other law enforcement associations. PPSLA president Mark Hafkey believes PLEA used the PPSLA's problems with Napier to get the other associations to vote against the sergeants and lieutenants union.

Hafkey further contends that PLEA egged on Napier to drop PPSLA as a client. Napier was representing both PLEA and PPSLA, Hafkey says, but in 2009, Napier "fired" PPSLA as a client.

Napier's conflict of interest resulted in his receiving an "informal" reprimand by the State Bar of Arizona. PPSLA is suing Napier to win back the money the union says it paid him to stay on retainer.

 

So it's no surprise that there's little love lost between PPSLA and PLEA.

"In my opinion, Mark Spencer lacks ethics," Hafkey says.

Hafkey also complains that APA violated its own bylaws in kicking out his organization. But he says PPSLA decided not to pursue a lawsuit to regain its membership.

Union politics are known for being rough and unforgiving. But unions also are known to band together for common interests. PLEA rejects this route, even when it would be in the best interests of its members.

"The APA and PLEA will not work with us on legislative issues," noted Arizona FOP President Ortolano. "They're very immature in dealing with other people."


Aside from immaturity, there's also the issue of hypocrisy, cry PLEA critics.

For instance, Spencer and PLEA have used the controversy over the Phoenix Police Department's faulty kidnapping statistics as a battering ram against Harris.

But PLEA no longer has Harris to use as its pincushion. On April 15, Harris resigned his post as Public Safety Manager, effectively ending his nearly 40-year career with the PPD.

During his seven-year reign as police chief, and later Public Safety Manager, Phoenix saw a dramatic decline in crime, part of a nationwide trend in crime stats.

Personable and deliberate, Harris was popular with politicos and citizens during much of his tenure. But the controversy over Phoenix's apparently inflated kidnapping numbers ultimately forced Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos to remove Harris as police chief (only one of his functions as Public Safety Manager), pending the outcome of an investigation into the kidnapping numbers.

Both Harris and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon testified about those stats before Congress. And the charge from PLEA and other critics is that the PPD bumped up the numbers to score $1.7 million in grant money from the feds.

Harris had vigorously defended the integrity of the city's kidnapping statistics, and did so in January when New Times spoke with him.

"We can back up our numbers with the reports," he said at the time. "Anybody that wants to come in and pull the real reports and see them and see where those numbers come from are welcome . . . Our numbers are valid."

Yet a review of 264 of 358 of those reports by New Times reporter Monica Alonzo revealed that only about one in four of the incidents in question were border-related kidnappings.

PLEA had questioned the stats, suggesting corruption at the highest levels of the PPD.

But when Harris resigned over the scandal, PLEA's website curiously was quiet. Neither Spencer nor other PLEA flunkies were online crowing about having Harris' scalp. In fact, with Harris' departure, leaving Harris loyalist Assistant Chief Joe Yahner as acting chief, one-half of PLEA's raison d'être has been eliminated. Now PLEA has only the tired old nag of immigration to beat.

Unless PLEA goes after Yahner or the new police chief with equal fervor.

Mayor Gordon, long a Harris ally, intimated that PLEA was responsible for Harris' downfall.

"Jack Harris, like the Phoenix Police Department, has been stained and smeared by a vindictive few in pursuit of their own political and personal gain," he told the press after Harris' exit.

There is some truth to that. PLEA was relentless in its criticism of Harris over the kidnapping stats. On the other hand, there were problems with the PPD's numbers.

Ironically, though, PLEA itself has been guilty of the same sin committed by Harris and the Phoenix political establishment: taking the numbers at face value and using them to further an agenda.

At one point, both Spencer and PLEA were more than content to use Phoenix's supposed status as the "kidnapping capital of the country" to beat the anti-immigrant drum.

Spencer mentioned this dubious distinction during his 2010 Diablo Stadium speech.

And in the June 2008 issue of RECAP, Ken Crane, a PLEA trustee, authored an article titled "Phoenix, AZ, Kidnap Capital U.S.A." In it, he reported on a seminar given in part by none other than Phoenix police Sergeant Phil Roberts.

Crane reported that Roberts and another sergeant informed attendees: "In the past year, there were 359 kidnappings that occurred in Phoenix, and every one of them was tied to illegal immigration in one way or another."

Roberts is the same police sergeant whom PLEA and its media bullhorn, KPHO (Channel 5), have hailed as a "whistleblower" for questioning the very same stats Roberts was pimping in 2008.

In his piece, Crane used the Roberts numbers to back up PLEA's call for a more proactive stance regarding illegal immigration by the PPD, writing, "We either pay for [illegal immigration] on the front end or pay for it on the back end."

 

Indeed, the kidnapping stats have served PLEA well — first, as a way to bolster its immigration stance and, later, as a way to blast Harris and paint him as corrupt.

The other issue Spencer and PLEA display hypocrisy on is the issue of Harris' "double-dip."

For instance, Spencer has been fond of deriding the more than "$5,000 a week" former Public Safety Manager Harris took home from the combination of his salary and his pension.

But Spencer and the PLEA board receive pay perks, as well. PLEA's Memorandum of Understanding with the city allows the union six "full-time release positions," meaning that six PLEA board members essentially are paid to be union reps.

These include Spencer, treasurer Joe Clure, vice president David Kothe, trustee Jerry Gannon, secretary Crane, and trustee Will Buividas. These six men each receive an hourly rate of $34.47, or $71,697 per year per man.

Each of the six is granted 160 hours of overtime per year at time-and-a-half. According to Phoenix labor-relations administrator Lori Steward, it's standard that the paid union officers receive all this overtime. This would come to about $8,272 per man, or a total of around $50,000 for all six.

PLEA's budgets also suggest that union board members receive additional payments, apparently drawn from union dues. Spencer received $12,700 in 2010, and the 10 other members received at least $10,300 each for a total of $115,700.

Former PLEA president Jacobsen says that, in the past, such compensation was meant to offset funds trustees may lose by not taking off-duty gigs because they have to do union work instead.

During Jacobsen's final year in office, he received $10,800 in compensation. The other trustees, officers, and representatives were given anywhere from $700 to $8,400 apiece in 2007. The total came to $86,700 for 14 people.

By contrast, the 2010 total of $115,700 under Spencer represents a 33.4 percent leap. And it may be even higher, as there are columns marked with such headers as "other" and "food" that show possibly more compensation, payouts that Steward and other city employees could not explain, noting that PLEA's budgets belong to PLEA alone and are submitted to the city only to comply with federal law.

"Do they really need six guys to run PLEA?" asked one former PLEA member of positions paid by the city. "With the economy the way it is, maybe they should offer up a couple of them to go back on patrol."

Calls to treasurer Clure to discuss PLEA's budget were not returned. And when New Times spotted Clure at a recent event and began to query him, he brusquely declined to be interviewed.


Mark Spencer, by all accounts a devout Christian, once wrote an op-ed for the Arizona Republic arguing that illegal aliens would have nothing to fear if they simply obeyed biblical instruction and followed the letter of the law.

Similarly, Spencer and PLEA's most damning allegations against Harris have been that his rehire violated the law and that he's guilty of corruption, because of the inflated kidnapping stats.

And yet Spencer and PLEA have had no problem skirting the law themselves, appealing to hysteria with hyperbole, or acting in an un-Christian manner.

That is, Spencer and his PLEA cohorts are not the type to turn the other cheek.

When Spencer was a beat cop, he was found guilty of a handful of department violations for rash behavior. The worst occurred in 1993, when he rode up on a felony stop instituted by other cops and took over, "pulling a John Wayne," in the words of one critic.

His reprimand noted the following:

"You grabbed [the suspects] by the hair, pulled them from their vehicle, and continued to pull them as they crawled on their hands and knees to a patrol car. You also told one of the prisoners to 'crawl like a dog.'"

For this, Spencer received a 24-hour suspension without pay.

Spencer again engaged in questionable antics when, as newly elected president of PLEA in 2008, he offered Bill Scheel, then a deputy chief of staff for Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a couple of donations from PLEA for the mayor's Phoenix Parks and Preserves Initiative.

During a meeting, according to Scheel's account on file with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, Spencer and PLEA trustee Crane gave Scheel one check for $500 that was signed.

Spencer then showed Scheel an unsigned check for $4,500 and told Scheel the PLEA board would not authorize its signing until a couple of pet peeves were resolved.

One was Spencer's demand that officers be allowed to don knit caps to protect their heads from the cold in the winter. A department uniform committee rejected the idea, saying officers had other options for headgear. Some higher-ups regarded the knit caps as looking unprofessional and too similar to something a gang-banger might wear.

 

Harris refused to override the committee, and as picayune as it may sound, many observers suggest that this was when the Harris-Spencer feud began.

Scheel told the mayor that he didn't think the offer was a bribe, just that PLEA was ham-handedly attempting to show "political muscle." Ultimately, the $500 check was returned to Spencer and the matter referred to the Attorney General.

AG investigators concluded that they did not have substantial evidence that Spencer or anyone at PLEA had "corrupt intent," as required by the state's bribery statute.

In a letter to Phoenix City Attorney Gary Verburg, Assistant Attorney General E.G. Noyes noted that the AG's decision to close the matter "is not an approval of the PLEA conduct that led to the referral and the investigation."

Then there was the tussle over the PPD's operations order regarding how it deals with those suspected of being in the country without proper documentation.

Harris initially opposed any change to the PPD's policy of not inquiring into the immigration status of arrestees, buckling only after Mayor Gordon withdrew his support for the policy and appointed a blue-ribbon panel to change it.

Gordon caved partly because of the ongoing threat of violence in 2007 at Pruitt's Furniture, where nativists and pro-immigrant demonstrators faced off, and partly because of lawsuit and recall threats issued by Spencer's pals at Judicial Watch.

The result was a new operations order that had beat cops asking about the residency status of all arrestees, with an exception for crime victims and witnesses. Patrol officers were allowed to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about a subject with the permission of a supervisor. Spencer criticized the change as not going far enough. He told the press he wanted cops to be able to make the call to ICE at their own discretion.

In 2009, Spencer decided to test the limits of the revised rule. He did a ride-along with two patrol officers who were part of the day-laborer beat that polices a parking lot shared by a Walmart and a Home Depot near Thomas Road and 36th Street.

Walmart allows day laborers to congregate on its side of the parking lot. Home Depot does not. When jornaleros ventured to the Home Depot side of the property, the PPD's policy was to warn the workers, take photos of them, and enter their names into a logbook. If a day laborer violated the warning, he was arrested for trespassing.

When Spencer and his fellow cops came across day laborer Alvaro Grijalva, Grijalva admitted he was in the country illegally. Spencer called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on his cell phone and let an ICE agent interview Grijalva. ICE determined Grijalva was subject to deportation. Spencer offered to take Grijalva to ICE's Phoenix offices.

Only after contacting ICE did Spencer call a supervisor, as required, asking for permission to drive Grijalva to ICE.

The other officers informed Spencer of the process of warning possible trespassers but deferred to Spencer's decision to take the man to ICE and not book him for trespassing.

The PLEA president quickly went on J.D. Hayworth's KFYI show to boast of the arrest. After learning about what had occurred, Phoenix civil rights leader Salvador Reza filed a formal complaint with the PPD.

Reza's complaint sparked an internal investigation. Under questioning, Spencer denied going out with the express consent of violating the operations order. However, his police report for the incident reads like a political manifesto. Harris, when asked about the incident in an interview for this story, agreed that Spencer had gone afoul intentionally.

"It's interesting that he went out to ride with an officer, and there's a city of 510 square miles, and where does he go?" Harris asked, rhetorically. "36th Street and Thomas."

Spencer even filed the report improperly, but investigators said there was "insufficient evidence" to prove that any violations of policy were intentional. Spencer was cut some major slack, and investigators tamely tagged the alleged violations as "performance issues" to be dealt with in a "non-disciplinary way."

The PLEA president had demonstrated how the operations order could be skirted with little or no ramifications for the average officer.

Harris complained during the same interview (long before he was forced out) that Spencer "wants me to allow officers to chase day laborers."

"I won't do it," he insisted.

And yet that's exactly what the PPD allowed Spencer to do in this instance. After Grijalva was deported, Reza said he heard through his network of sources that Grijalva had slipped back over the border, was taken hostage, and held for ransom by human smugglers. Neither Grijalva's family nor his friends could afford the $3,000 asked of them by the kidnappers. Reza says he doesn't know whether Grijalva is dead or alive.

 

Asked whether he blamed Spencer for Grijalva's fate, Reza demurred.

"I blame the whole U.S. immigration policy," he said. "Spencer, he's just another right-wing ideologue."


More recently, PLEA became the target of an inquiry into alleged witness tampering and obstruction of justice over the so-called Chrisman shooting.

Last year, Phoenix Officer Richard Chrisman killed an unarmed South Phoenix man and his dog after responding to a 911 call from the victim's mother alleging domestic violence.

Sergio Virgillo, the other officer present that day, insisted that the killing of both the dog and its master were unnecessary. Neither was a serious threat to the officers, Virgillo said.

Chrisman now faces charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and animal cruelty.

PLEA quickly sided with Chrisman, a PLEA member, over Virgillo, a non-PLEA member. PLEA took the unusual step of bailing out Chrisman. PLEA's attorneys scored a temporary injunction halting the PPD from firing Chrisman.

The Arizona Court of Appeals refused to stay the lifting of the injunction, and Chrisman subsequently was canned. The next day, PLEA announced on its website that it would hold a barbecue fundraiser for Chrisman. Though the event was well attended, it also was protested by dozens of pro-Latino activists who berated BBQ-goers as they walked to and from the event. Local news shows covered the demonstration, further adding to PLEA's reputation as a fomenter of ethnic and racial tension in Phoenix.

PLEA's help for Chrisman has gone way beyond normal bounds. PLEA engaged in a media campaign intent on calling Virgillo's veracity into question. Stories have been planted with local media outlets, notably KPHO, a news organization so friendly to PLEA in its reporting that it's known to some cops as "PLEA TV."

Before leaving office, interim County Attorney Rick Romley announced that PLEA was under investigation by his office. This year, County Attorney Montgomery, whom Romley ran against in the GOP primary and PLEA supported, declared at a news conference that he was closing the investigation. The evidence wasn't there to indict anyone in PLEA for wrongdoing, he said.

When asked on a separate occasion whether PLEA had attempted to use its influence with him to affect the Chrisman case or had contacted anyone in his office about it, Montgomery said no.

However, County Attorney's Office reports and interviews related to the investigation into PLEA revealed that Spencer and Levi Bolton both raised the issue of the Chrisman shooting with Montgomery's law enforcement liaison, Keith Manning, before Montgomery took office.

Manning, a County Attorney's Office employee for many years, told county attorney's investigators that Bolton and Spencer expressed concern about a press conference given by Romley and Harris announcing Chrisman's indictment for second-degree murder.

Manning also stated that the pair were "a little concerned that a decision was made so quickly" and that the County Attorney's Office had lent its authority.

Bolton also called Manning about the Chrisman affair, and Spencer forwarded internal Phoenix police e-mails to Manning concerning the slaying. Manning forwarded the e-mails to lawyers working the Chrisman case.

These e-mails discussed phone calls made by city councilmen Michael Nowakowski and Mike Johnson to Virgillo after the shooting. As part of its investigation, the MCAO found no wrongdoing by Johnson or Nowakowski.

This, long after PLEA had posted those same e-mails to its website.

Manning said he told Bolton and Spencer, during their meeting, that Montgomery would have no comment on the Chrisman affair until after he was sworn in as county attorney.

The County Attorney's Office investigation also revealed that 48 hours after the Chrisman shooting, Spencer contacted Ron Gomez, a detective in the Drug Enforcement Bureau, seeking information about Virgillo, who had once been assigned to the DEB.

They discussed the fact that Virgillo's wife had been convicted for her involvement in a drug-trafficking ring and sentenced to probation. Wiretaps revealed that Virgillo knew nothing of his wife's activities, though they remained married after her conviction.

Spencer had the dirt he needed.

Soon, Channel 5 was dogging Virgillo about his wife's criminal history. The story Channel 5 aired stated that the incident called into question Virgillo's integrity.

Gomez told investigators that he had been a PLEA member for 21 years but had recently left the organization. He also had once been a supporter of Spencer's, endorsing his run for PLEA president.

"Since that time, I've had a change in opinion," he said.

The County Attorney's Office sought to interview Spencer concerning his involvement in these shenanigans. But Spencer lawyered up and refused to talk to County Attorney's Office detectives.

Just before Spencer was re-elected in 2009, the Republic ran a piece painting Spencer as a self-appointed watchdog who taught Sunday school with a gun strapped to his ankle.

 

Spencer ran unopposed and won re-election. But only about 10 percent of PLEA's membership bothered to cast a ballot. PLEA's own faxed "news flash" on the election announced that Spencer had received precisely 268 votes.

At the time PLEA was riding high, with 2,494 members.

It's often speculated that the camera-loving Spencer is grooming himself for life after PLEA. Some believe he's interested in a run for the county Board of Supervisors. Others think he might offer himself up for county sheriff, should Arpaio not seek re-election in 2012.

Certainly, Spencer would find encouragement in Republican circles. His bashing of illegals fits right into the state GOP's right-wing agenda.

Once, he appeared on J.D. Hayworth's radio show to say the Mexican military was operating in Phoenix, a claim that proved false. On another occasion, PLEA played up allegations that illegal immigrants were selling hand grenades on Phoenix streets. The hand grenades turned out to be shells, minus the explosives.

When a new drop in Phoenix crime rates was announced with the release of annual FBI statistics in 2010, Spencer gave the credit to SB 1070, even though the stats were from 2009, long before 1070 was signed into law by Jan Brewer, with Spencer close by her side.

In fact, as mentioned, violent crime rates in Arizona and Phoenix have trended downward for several years.

Such misleading spin concerning immigration is common in Arizona and has played well with the electorate. Combined with Spencer's media savvy, his ability to manipulate local outlets KFYI radio and KPHO TV, and his penchant for political knife-fighting, his Pinocchio-esque claims about immigrants may well hold him in good stead with a majority of voters.

But these same tactics have left PLEA with a declining membership, a tarnished image, and a reputation for causing division with inflammatory rhetoric and underhanded machinations.

Moreover, if PLEA loses an anticipated challenge this fall from the Fraternal Order of Police, Mark Spencer's legacy as union president will be that of a spoiler, a destroyer, a one-man wrecking crew.

A leader whose antics negatively affected the very organization he was elected to represent.


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