These are just some of the cases of law enforcement misconduct now under investigation by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. The board meets monthly and serves as the state's law enforcement watchdog.
AZPOST has reviewed 17 new cases in 2023, according to records obtained by Phoenix New Times. The cases are a glimpse into the misconduct and internal investigations at police agencies that are often not made public.
When the board determines that officers violated AZPOST rules — in cases of dishonesty or excessive force, for instance — it can revoke or suspend their ability to work in law enforcement in Arizona. Yet the cases heard by the board represent just a sliver of law enforcement misconduct in the state.
Agencies are only required to report misconduct to AZPOST when an officer is terminated. So, most misconduct allegations that do not result in an officer being fired do not come to AZPOST's attention. The rare exception is when the wrongdoing makes media headlines or the board receives an independent complaint.
Still, the board has plenty of cases on its hands this year.
AZPOST met most recently on March 15 in Phoenix. It was staffed with some new board members, including Attorney General Kris Mayes, who took office in January, and Ryan Thornell, who was appointed director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry on January 17.
TikToks and DUIs
One new AZPOST investigation involved Justin Flores, a former Department of Public Safety trooper, and his TikTok account.
In a summary of the case presented by AZPOST during a January 18 meeting, investigator Arlene Heckel showed clips from Flores' account after DPS received complaints about his social media use.
When the board reviewed his TikTok account, they found dozens of problematic videos, including one that contained footage of a traffic stop, which Flores said had been staged. In another video, Flores claimed that he became a cop because he "was going to beat the shit out of a trooper one night" but instead decided to become a trooper.
Flores' social media posts also led investigators to discover that he had not disclosed a past arrest in Texas. Additionally, Flores posted videos about working as a commercial truck driver — a side job he didn't tell DPS about, Heckel said.
AZPOST is now deliberating on what action it will take against Flores' law enforcement license. New Times was not able to reach Flores for comment.
Most of the new cases under investigation by AZPOST, however, involved either excessive force or driving problems. So far in 2023, four cases involved excessive force, two cases involved DUIs, and three cases centered around other reckless driving incidents. An additional two cases involved domestic violence.
Other misconduct cases included allegations of dishonesty and an officer with the Tucson Airport Authority Police Department who was in possession of hundreds of dollars of counterfeit currency and 13 cell phones.
One of the DUIs — often one of the most common offenses that bring officers before AZPOST — involved Keith Thompson, the chief of the Miami Police Department in Gila County. Thompson served as the police chief of the small town since 2019 and resigned quietly in October, about a month after the incident. AZPOST suspended his law enforcement license for 12 months — until October 2023.
The board also opened an investigation into David Rodriguez, a Phoenix cop who failed to impound evidence and kept drugs and security camera footage in a bag in his closet at home. Rodriguez was fired and now works as a detention officer, investigators said.
Sgt. Brian Bower, a Phoenix Police Department spokesperson, declined to discuss Rodriguez's case and referred questions to AZPOST.
Board Considers High-Profile Use of Force Cases
AZPOST declined to take action in two high-profile use-of-force cases.
In July 2021, two Avondale Police Department officers encountered a disoriented man, James Holland, wandering in the middle of the road near Van Buren Street and 110th Avenue. An AZPOST investigation found that as the officers attempted to restrain Holland, he was tased seven times by Officer Dulce Maeda.
Holland died at the scene. Investigators later determined he had methamphetamine in his system, which may have contributed to the lethal effects of being tased multiple times. Axon, the taser gun manufacturer, clearly warns about “repeated, continuous, and simultaneous exposure" in their safety documents. The company also cautions against deploying taser shocks on individuals in states of psychosis or excited delirium.
After Holland died, attorneys for his family alleged that he was "tased and asphyxiated to death." A lawsuit over his wrongful death was settled for $2 million. An internal investigation by Avondale police concluded that Maeda "violated Avondale Police Department policy," although the Maricopa County Attorney's Office declined to charge her with a crime. She was suspended for a week and a half without pay.
Maeda did not respond to inquiries from New Times. According to AZPOST investigators, she said in an internal interview that she "was scared for her safety" at the time of the incident.
The board voted to take no further action against Maeda or her police officer certification. She remains employed by Avondale police.
"I think those officers involved were faced with a very immediate threat," said Mohave County Sheriff Doug Schuster, an AZPOST board member, when explaining his decision. "I commend them for taking the action they did. With the exception, of course, of any policy violations."
The board also considered the bizarre case of a Tucson officer who wrestled two women to the ground in a parking lot. He was off duty at the time and claimed that one of the women "chest bumped" him, according to AZPOST investigator Cathy Hawse.
Cell phone video from the incident doesn't show the initial encounter between Officer Robert Szelewski, and the three women who confronted him about his reckless driving. But it does show Szelewski pinning two of the women to the ground as a third woman screamed at him to let her go. At the time, the women did not know he was an off-duty police officer.
The video caused an outcry and the Tucson Police Department suspended Szelewski for 20 hours. The AZPOST board again declined to take any action, despite a recommendation by AZPOST investigators that it do so.