On Friday, the Mesa Police Union announced it was initiating a "no confidence" vote against Police Chief Ramon Batista. In the coming weeks, Mesa police officers will vote on whether they want to remove Batista as chief, then bring the results of the vote to the mayor and city council.
The vote follows a survey of MPD employees initiated by the Mesa Police Association. The survey, conducted by Strategy 360 and shared with Phoenix New Times, features dozens of shocking comments from Mesa police officers who criticized Batista for trying to reform the troubled department.
"The chief is a liberal snowflake who cares more about public image than his officers," wrote one officer.
"The chief is not interested in what's best for officers or those he leads nearly as much as he is interested in satisfying the public, and notably, the small pockets of the anti-PD public," wrote another.
Batista has made several decisions the officers didn't like: bringing in independent investigators to review the department's practices, condemning a video that depicts Mesa police officers punching one man in the head repeatedly and another video that shows officers assaulting a handcuffed 15-year-old, and instituting implicit bias and de-escalation training. These decisions "have caused criminals to take over the community," a survey member griped.
The survey was taken by 533 Mesa police employees (there were 1,208 Mesa police employees in 2017). The comments portion of the survey is anonymous, but both the Mesa Police Association and Strategy 360 confirmed the document's authenticity with New Times. The Mesa police union's move to oust Batista and the scathing remarks from dozens of officers show what happens to police chiefs who try to change toxic departmental culture.
Last June, Batista brought in Rick Romley, a former Maricopa County Attorney, to oversee the department while MPD conducted internal investigations into officers' use of excessive force, some of which was captured in video recordings.
Romley told New Times he learned that a former police chief had instituted a practice of purging police records relating to use-of-force violations.
"The chief under a prior administration had a policy that under certain circumstances, use-of-force allegations against police officers were purged from the file. You could not even view the past history of an officer's use of force," Romley said. "That's outrageous. You need to be able to see if there's a pattern with these officers. And Chief Batista made a policy decision that that should not occur."
Another source with knowledge of the probe, who asked to stay anonymous, told New Times that it was under Frank Milstead, now director for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, that officers were instructed to remove any excessive force complaints from their internal affairs files if it was more than three years old. A video obtained by 12News shows Milstead instructing officers to "purge your files" and "make sure the things you don't want in there aren't in there."
In the survey comments, dozens of Mesa police employees expressed that they felt the chief "didn't have their back," that the recent and more thorough internal affairs investigations are a "witch hunt."
Others attributed recent scrutiny of the department's two high-profile excessive force cases to the fact that Batista released the body-cam footage and told the public during a June 2018 news conference, "I'm angry and I'm deeply disappointed by what I saw in those videos. It's unacceptable and it needs to stop immediately."
In the comments section of the survey, scores of Mesa police officers scorn Batista's efforts to prioritize the community he serves, instead condemning the chief for attempting to improve public perception of the department by increasing transparency, improving community relations, and strengthening internal affairs investigations.
Survey comments included:
"I can't wait for the day he leaves this department so we can get someone in charge who has our back."
"The department's leadership now gives a citizen making a complaint more credibility than they do the officer."
"Perhaps the leadership would do better if they were not so worried about the small percentage of the population that hates the police anyway."
"The professional standards section [internal affairs] has gone out of control."
"The ill-effects caused by the chief's 'agenda' have jeopardized the safety of our cops! Mesa PD has been infiltrated by a self-supporting 'change agent' who egregiously mimics the 'Gasconian' methodology of transparency in policing."
"Having outside agencies AND privately hired review boards and consultants review use of force cases is beyond words."
"Yes the chief has placed any emphasis on training but worthless training. Icat and the unbiased training. When PERF came they even said we were doing things right but it still costs the department $120,000, which happens to be the ammo budget."
"The ammunition thing is also a joke and limiting our ammunition use to 50 rounds a quarter goes to show further proof this chief wants us to give hugs to everyone even when they are trying to hurt us or potentially put us a in a life or death situation."
"Officers are just walking away when suspects become hostile towards them when the original contact was a civil violation."
Other comments seem to indicate that officers had stopped responding to calls or showing up to work because they disagreed with the chief:
"I believe because of this officers are not going to certain calls because they know it will generate a complaint and they will get in trouble for it."
"The chain of command gets a disproportionate amount of the blame for staffing problems. At the patrol level we know it's an issue, yet we seemingly refuse to acknowledge our impact on staffing. We (patrol officers and sgts) can share a lot of the blame when we start the day way below CSL because people call out sick or comp out. I understand the purpose of sick/comp time, but its contributing to the staffing problem."
The Mesa Police Association stated that members only want "a stellar Police Department that serves our city well." The group portrayed the survey as an attempt to "assess our current scenario and identify gaps that could be remedied."
But by and large, the survey results show an utter contempt among many Mesa police officers for the chief's attempts to reform the troubled department. At least 27 comments mentioned the chief not "having their back." Others called de-escalation and implicit bias training "irrelevant" and expressed dismay over efforts to scale back officers' use of force.
To Romley and others, the changes made by the chief were badly needed.
"I am a firm believer that the chief is making positive changes. There were significant problems within the department when I came in. Problems that I saw existed for a number of years," Romley said.
Romley cites Batista's de-escalation efforts as one demonstrably positive change for the department.
"There used to be huge injuries to officers for using a fist to the head. Many officers were sent to the hospital for hand fractures," Romley said. "But since Batista made the policy change, very few officers have been injured like this. And police shootings are down since the chief made these changes."
Not every officer disagrees with Batista's changes:
"I feel the Chief is in a no-win situation. Under the previous admin our moral compass went sideways. We had an A/C [assistant chief] that emphasized kicking ass and scaring the public, and a Chief who turned a blind eye to everything. Our academy went from training guardians to training 'Spartans.' Our detectives became lazy and civilian staff became bitter. The line-level officers were happy because we had someone 'speaking for us...' but in the end neither Milstead nor Silbert really cared about anyone but themselves."
"Now...we face federal criminal probes, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries. All of this because [former Mesa Assistant Chief Heston] Silbert wanted to 'kick ass.' In comes Batista who should not have been selected by the City, especially because they knew about all of the brewing issues. He comes in to a mess and is now in charge of dealing with it. He has to make decisive moves to keep the City happy, the public trust, and keep the DOJ off our backs. I don't like some of the things he does or says, but then again, I never agreed 100% with any Chief. I don't think he is trying to 'screw the department' I don't see him as some 'libtard' as he's been called. He was served a floating dumpster fire and told to deal with it...The MPA and FOP are screwing us by convincing officers Batista is the bad guy and throwing around phrases like "vote of no confidence."
For his part, Batista reaffirmed his commitment to his choice to reform the department.
"I’m committed to leading this department and I stand by my officers as they carry out their duties to protect and serve this city," Batista said in a statement emailed to New Times. "The support from our community could not have been made clearer as they passed a public safety sales tax to ensure we have the staffing and equipment to keep them safe."
This is a breaking story and this post may be updated as the situation develop. This story was updated at 8:40 a.m. on May 4, 2019, to include additional officer comments from the survey and a link to a video of Frank Milstead instructing officers to purge their files.