An Outside Panel Will Probe Whether the PPD's Numbers on Kidnappings Were Cooked | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


An Outside Panel Will Probe Whether the PPD's Numbers on Kidnappings Were Cooked

Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos wants to rebuild public trust in the wake of allegations that police officials inflated border-related-kidnapping statistics to secure about $2.45 million in federal funding. Cavazos' strategy has involved stripping Phoenix Public Safety Manager Jack Harris of his duties as police chief and assembling a panel...
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Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos wants to rebuild public trust in the wake of allegations that police officials inflated border-related-kidnapping statistics to secure about $2.45 million in federal funding.

Cavazos' strategy has involved stripping Phoenix Public Safety Manager Jack Harris of his duties as police chief and assembling a panel of experts to review statistics that earned Phoenix its reputation as the country's kidnapping capital.

The city manager has pledged transparency as the committee investigates why police officials vigorously defended the faulty kidnapping count for months.

Assistant City Manager Ed Zuercher tells New Times that committee members include Karen Thoreson, president of Alliance for Innovation, who will serve as chairwoman; retired FBI Agent Larry McCormick; retired Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Cecil Patterson; retired Arizona Supreme Court Judge Michael D. Ryan; and Michael White, an associate professor at ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Meanwhile, Harris has been moved to an office at Sky Harbor International Airport and will oversee security of municipal buildings, including City Hall, and citywide homeland security matters. He continues to draw his $193,377 annual salary. Harris' number-two, Executive Assistant Police Chief Joe Yahner, will serve as acting chief for the 3,000 rank-and-file cops in the Phoenix Police Department.

With the city-imposed gag order on Harris, it remains unclear why he so confidently defended the kidnapping statistics. Who was he relying on to provide him information about the police figures? Did he know the figures were inaccurate and continue to defend them because doing otherwise would have given credibility to his staunchest critics at the police union?

Union president Mark Spencer has been dogging Harris for years, primarily because Harris doesn't support Spencer's view that local cops should enforce federal immigration laws.

The police department released a list of 358 cases that were supposed to correlate to kidnappings handled by a squad of specialized police detectives.

New Times, the first media outlet to analyze police reports associated with the 2008 kidnapping statistics, revealed that only one in four reports were actually linked to the brutal style of kidnapping that involves human- and drug-smugglers moving across the U.S.-Mexico border ("Kidnapping Capital," February 17). The rest of the reports documented other crimes, including robberies, carjackings, or assaults.

Members of the union, the Police Law Enforcement Association, already had arrived at the same conclusion. And federal investigators with the Department of Justice collected copies of kidnapping police reports in January and are conducting their own review.

"It was unfortunate for me to learn . . . that some of the kidnapping statistics were mislabeled," Cavazos said during a press conference on March 3, when he announced Harris' reassignment and introduced Yahner as acting chief.

The admission that there were, indeed, problems with the kidnapping statistics came after more than six months of Cavazos and police brass' repeatedly telling elected officials, local news media, and the public that the figures had been thoroughly vetted and found valid.

Until that point, city officials dismissed critics — mostly members of the police union — who claimed that the city-reported statistics were intentionally exaggerated to win federal grant money.

Union president Spencer has said there was no need to inflate kidnapping numbers to prove there was a crisis in the Valley. Indeed, New Times reported on the brutal world of border-related kidnappings ("Seized," August 12) as part of Village Voice Media's "Amongst U.S." series.

Assistant City Manager Zuercher, who's overseeing the review process, says he doesn't believe fraud was involved in the reporting of faulty stats. City officials say they think the problems probably stemmed from mistakes or sloppy record keeping.

The statistics were first reviewed in August 2010 after police Sergeant Phil Roberts wrote a memo to the city's Integrity Committee saying the stats were inflated. This committee includes the city auditor, the city attorney, and a deputy city manager.

At that time, the PPD's Professional Standards Bureau said Roberts created his own definition for kidnapping rather than following that established by state law.

Though many of the 2008 reports labeled kidnappings by Phoenix police might fit the legal definition of kidnapping (knowingly restraining another person while committing a crime), it's important to note that city officials repeatedly said that nearly all the 358 abduction cases were connected to border-related crime.

That was the message from Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Harris when they testified before federal lawmakers about Phoenix's need for grant money.

Some hail Roberts as a hero for exposing the bad stats, but city records show that he had a problem with the stats only after he was transferred out of the police unit that handled kidnappings.

In fact, in April 2008, Roberts told the media there were 359 kidnappings in that year. In an April 12, 2010 memo, Roberts wrote that there were about 300 kidnapping and 50 home-invasion investigations a year.

Then, after he was transferred, he started criticizing police officials over the allegedly fraudulent kidnapping figures. This came after he wanted to return to the kidnapping unit, and the unit's commander refused to let him back in.

Roberts, who's under investigation for alleged false allegations against the PPD, some of which involve his statements about the abduction stats, isn't allowed to discuss the case.

Harris, too, has been silenced by city management, but before that happened, he defiantly continued to defend the amount of border-related kidnapping and home-invasion cases handled by his agency. He said a preliminary review already had revealed at least 200 kidnapping cases and that other cases, about 100, not originally counted among the kidnapping cases, had been discovered.

Harris defended himself. Referring to the stars pinned to his uniform, he announced that if anyone wanted to take them, they would have to come and get them. He angrily added that he wasn't just going to hand over the stars.

The following day, City Manager Cavazos did just that — effectively stripping Harris of his rank.

"Harris had assured management on many occasions that strict guidelines were followed to gather statistics and that the statistics were correct," Cavazos said. "We are taking this matter very seriously, and that is why we are conducting a thorough review with independent, private-sector individuals."

Cavazos said it was his responsibility to make sure that all pertinent facts get gathered so the city can "learn exactly what happened in this situation."

Despite ongoing criticism of the kidnapping stats, Cavazos didn't ask for an independent review or even call for a review outside the police department, until February 28 — when Harris finally told city officials that the numbers weren't entirely accurate.

But after local media started running with details about the actual police reports labeled kidnapping, it became apparent that the statistics published by the PPD — and congressional testimony delivered by Harris and Mayor Gordon regarding the figures — were inaccurate.

After blindly trusting Harris for months, Cavazos and other city officials quickly started to distance themselves from Harris' administration, which has been grappling with a series of unrelated scandals.

Consider that in March 2010, Phoenix police Officer Brian Authement wrestled Councilman Michael Johnson to the ground at the scene of a house fire near Johnson's home, keeping him there for 10 minutes in handcuffs after Johnson had tried to check on his neighbor.

Community leaders immediately joined Johnson in raising concerns about police brutality in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

Phoenix police Officer Richard Chrisman was indicted in October on second-degree murder charges for an alleged unjustified shooting of a domestic-violence suspect and his dog.

That same month, Phoenix police Sergeant Sean Drenth was found shot to death near the state Capitol. Drenth, whose death remains unsolved, was linked to a scam in which police officers allegedly collected thousands of dollars from businesses for off-duty work they didn't actually perform.

In November, the Attorney General's Office announced that three Phoenix police officers and one former cop had been indicted in that off-duty scandal, which involved falsified invoices.

Despite it all, it was the faulty statistics that led to Harris' removal from his post.

The stats scandal prompted council members Peggy Neely, Sal DiCiccio, and Thelda Williams to say they had no confidence in Harris as a police chief.

"There needs to be real accountability for this," Williams said. "There were many opportunities to explain those numbers were incorrect. You don't cover it up."

Councilman Johnson, however, cautioned against a rush to judgment, urging that the city await a federal review of the statistics.

It was a curious position by Johnson, considering there was little pause between the time he was wrestled to the ground by the Phoenix cop and a press conference where he raised concerns about police brutality in minority neighborhoods.

And Councilman DiCiccio, who has all but called for Harris' removal, seems to have forgotten that he sternly criticized a fellow councilman a couple of years ago for going after Harris' scalp.

In May 2009, DiCiccio accused Councilman Michael Nowakowski of violating the Phoenix City Charter by pressuring the City Manager's Office to get rid of Harris. DiCiccio then pointed out that Nowakowski could be removed from office for the alleged charter violation.

Mayor Gordon seems unsure where he stands on Statsgate, first issuing a statement March 1 about his deep disappointment over getting misled about the kidnapping numbers:

"My colleagues and I have been assured by city management that our numbers are accurate . . . To discover now, long after the fact, that these numbers may be wrong is absolutely unacceptable."

But just a day or two later, Gordon tweeted that he's "very disappointed in the Jack Harris [removal] decision. When the audit is complete, the public will see the truth."

Gordon also tweeted that he had "faith" in Harris and "strong support" for the ousted chief.

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