Arizona Troopers' Union Engaged in Turf War With ADOT Cops

ADOT director John Halikowski goes on a ride-along with an agency enforcement officer.
ADOT director John Halikowski goes on a ride-along with an agency enforcement officer. Arizona Department of Transportation
Policing probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Arizona Department of Transportation.

But ADOT, the state agency responsible for building and maintaining highways, employs about 200 cops. Most of them are tasked with inspecting commercial trucks at ports of entry, from the international border to interstate lines.

Arizona state troopers, though, say ADOT police have encroached on their jurisdiction, conducting stops and checks far away from borders.

The Arizona State Troopers Association, a union representing Department of Public Safety officers, contends that much of ADOT's police activity encroaches on DPS jurisdiction.

"We feel they’re working outside the scope of their duties," said Jeff Hawkins, president of the troopers' association. "It’s just gotten bigger, bigger, and bigger. I don’t even know the scope of what they’re doing."

ADOT maintains that all of its law enforcement activities fall within agency mandates. And elected officials from border towns say it's the troopers trying to step on ADOT's toes — not the other way around.

After brewing for about a decade, the interagency turf war came into public view this month at the Arizona Legislature.

State representatives voted on Monday to pass a bill (HB 2030) restricting ADOT officers from enforcing motor vehicle laws to within five miles of ports of entries and one mile of the Arizona-Mexico border. The vote fell along party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing.

The bill, which now awaits action in the state Senate, would also initiate a study of ADOT's current police duties and whether they make more sense under DPS jurisdiction.

An original version of HB 2030 would have transferred jurisdiction of ports of entry entirely to DPS. A strike-through amendment, a change replacing the entire text of the bill, then limited ADOT's enforcement jurisdiction to Arizona's border ports.

Despite the amendment, elected officials from border towns still see the bill as an attempt to transfer authority of ports of entry from ADOT to DPS.

Officials say they've spent a long time building trust with ADOT to conduct commercial vehicle enforcement. Prior to the establishment of ADOT's official enforcement unit by Director John Halikowski in 2010, some of its duties belonged to the agency's motor vehicle division. In addition, federal authorities with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also policed trucks at ports of entry.

According to Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, the feds were overly aggressive in their enforcement, inspecting vehicles for "almost no rhyme or reason." So county governments and ADOT worked it out with the feds to give the state agency more authority over ports.

Bracker said HB 2030 could jeopardize that relationship. He pointed to a provision in the bill that would block Halikowski from hiring "non-specialty officers," or officers who would have authority to handle criminal matters.

If the bill passed and an ADOT officer saw a bag of pot in a truck, he'd have to call a different law enforcement agency to handle it. That would make things so inefficient that DPS or another agency would eventually take over the border ports, Bracker said.

He added that jurisdictional issues should be handled by the agencies involved, not the Legislature.

"You have two state agencies. Both serve at the pleasure of the governor. If there is an issue, why isn't Frank Milstead saying he has a problem with Director Halikowski?" Bracker said.

The bill's sponsor, Republican State Representative John Fillmore, said one of the incidents that led him to push this bill was a police shooting in Chandler in January 2019 involving an ADOT officer who fired shots at a woman while executing an arrest warrant for suspected fraud.

"Why is ADOT in Chandler?" Fillmore said. "Don’t they build roads? What do they have a police for?"

ADOT's Compliance and Enforcement Division is composed of cops responsible for inspecting commercial vehicles at ports of entry. Typically, that includes making sure truckers have the required permits and that their vehicles don't surpass the federal weight limit of 80,000 pounds.

The department also employs about 40 detectives in its Office of the Inspector General, which investigates motor vehicle fraud on things like vehicle titles, registration, dealerships, and driver licenses. ADOT detectives were involved in the Chandler shooting, for instance.

The Arizona Troopers Association's Hawkins said duties carried out by ADOT's Office of the Inspector General are more related to criminal enterprises than road safety and should fall under the DPS mission.

"You guys were hired originally, and it’s always been your role to check vehicles coming into the state," Hawkins said. "If your police department has gotten so big now, maybe the state police needs to take you over."

Joining state troopers, some truckers say they have seen ADOT officers conducting traffic stops far away from ports of entry.

Tony Bradley, president of the Arizona Trucking Association, said a member driver just recently saw an ADOT officer pull over a landscape truck near Buckeye. And Bradley himself said he has seen ADOT police pull over trucks hundreds of miles inland.

"It is our belief ADOT has been diverting resources from our ports of entry, which in fact are our first line of defense to ensure safe vehicles are entering our safe," Bradley said.

Bracker, the Santa Cruz County supervisor, said both Bradley and the troopers' union motives for supporting this bill are suspect.

"You have a union advocating for it. What's their ulterior motive? Additional members," Bracker said. "You have Tony Bradley advocating for it. What's his ulterior motive? Either he hates ADOT or he's against road safety."

DPS and the Arizona Trucking Association have a history. Back in 2011, DPS officials were caught accepting free sports tickets from the trucking group.

ADOT maintains that much of its police activity away from ports of entry took place at "virtual ports," or rest stops where the agency has equipment to weigh trucks and conduct inspections. The rest of their enforcement happened when local jurisdictions called them for help.

"We sometimes conduct mobile inspection operations along highways around the state at the request of the local jurisdictions when they have valid concerns about possible out-of-compliance trucks driving along their roads," said ADOT spokesperson Timothy Tait.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh