A Cop on the Beat

Info:Correction Date: August 15, 1996
A Cop on the Beat
Assaults on his girlfriend and a litany of other conduct violations got Fred Santos fired from the Phoenix police force. Why he's back in uniform, responding to domestic violence calls, is a mystery.

By Amy Silverman
On March 1, the Phoenix Police Department fired Officer Fred Santos. Police Chief Dennis Garrett had his reasons.

Over a two-year period, Santos had stalked, assaulted, threatened and harassed his girlfriend, Gina Arrieta. Ultimately, he was arrested by Mesa police for domestic violence and disorderly conduct.

Santos also had threatened Arrieta by displaying his department-issued Glock 9mm pistol.

He had used a police computer to gain access to information about Arrieta and her ex-husband, and had given the information to Arrieta.

Santos allowed Arrieta to drive his personal vehicle, although he knew she did not have a valid driver's license.

He failed to notify his supervisor in the wake of an incident in which he called the Mesa Police Department to intervene during a fight with Arrieta. Then he withheld information from the Phoenix Police Department during the course of its internal investigation into his conduct.

Any one of these infractions--documented in hundreds of pages of internal reports and interview transcripts compiled during a nine-month investigation, and obtained from the police department by New Times--should have resulted in disciplinary action. Together, they should have provided more than enough cause to get Santos booted off the force.

But Fred Santos fought the law, and--contrary to the musician's complaint--he won.

Today, Phoenix police officer Santos is back in uniform and back on the street, assigned to the Desert Horizon precinct in north Phoenix.

Anne O'Dell, a retired detective with the San Diego Police Department who now works as an international consultant on domestic violence, is troubled by cases like Fred Santos'.

But she's not surprised.
She says a few police departments have adopted detailed domestic violence policies, including guidelines for dealing with police officers who are batterers. However, most departments--including Phoenix--have no such written policy.

"Until it gets really serious--and even after it gets really serious--police departments do not generally look at criminal actions that occur within the context of intimate relationships as being any big thing," O'Dell says. "And they don't see the big picture of, 'Wait a minute, this is the same police officer we expect to send out in response to a domestic violence call and expect unbiased, professional conduct.'

". . . When someone is doing that kind of stuff in their personal life, you are not going to get unbiased professional conduct when they respond to domestic violence calls."

In 1995, Phoenix police responded to 65,361 calls involving domestic violence--more calls than the department received in any other crime category.

Something strange happened to Fred Santos on the way to the unemployment line: The Phoenix Civil Service Board determined that he had violated numerous rules of conduct, but it voted to reinstate him anyway.

It's impossible to report with certainty why the board did this. Santos is a public employee--paid with public dollars, issued a gun in the name of protecting the public--yet the Civil Service Board doesn't have to explain why Santos was reinstated.

However, enough information is available to conclude that although the Phoenix Police Department seemed to have ample cause to fire Santos, the board believed the department erred by dragging out its internal investigation of Santos for nine months--all the while leaving him on the street.

That decision--to let Santos continue his job in spite of his litany of conduct violations--is probably why he remains a cop today.

The Phoenix Police Department--which has been slammed in the past for hastily firing officers and denying them due process--considered Santos to be qualified for his job until the internal investigation showed otherwise. He was innocent until proved guilty.

But the Civil Service Board--five citizens appointed by the Phoenix City Council to review contested disciplinary actions against city employees--apparently agreed with the hearing officer in Santos' appeal.

The hearing officer, Janet Feltz, concluded that since Santos' superiors didn't consider him enough of a threat to suspend or reassign him while he was being investigated, they shouldn't fire him--even though many of the allegations against him were substantiated.

In June, the Civil Service Board ruled in a 4-1 decision that although Santos was indeed guilty of most of the serious code violations noted by the Phoenix Police Department, the punishment handed down was too harsh. The board accepted hearing officer Feltz's recommendation that Santos be returned to his job with an unpaid suspension of 120 hours, or three weeks.

Santos returned to the streets three months after he had been fired, fully vested and awarded nine weeks' back pay.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.

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