As Ex-Officer Awaits Murder Trial, Mesa Strives for '21st Century' Police Force

The Mesa Police Department has released findings from a months-long project on community engagement, just in time to buoy public confidence in the agency. 

With one of its officers facing trial for the January 18 killing of an unarmed man, the agency is looking ahead.

On Tuesday, in a conference room at police headquarters packed with local residents and police officers, city leaders announced the release of the final report (see PDF below) on compliance with the goals of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The Task Force itself was created by an executive order from President Obama in December 2014 following riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot dead by a white officer. 

The Mesa PD's new report compiles what it gleaned from community workshops and internal analysis. The department found that it already meets most of the goals. But the 116-page report is filled with suggestions that could help to reduce both crime and the type of heavy-handed policing that has resulted in anger across the nation. The department is embracing the ideas of holding itself and its officers accountable for their actions and giving the public more information about what police do.

Police Chief John Meza launched the project in November, weeks before Officer Philip Brailsford fatally shot 26-year-old Daniel Shaver in a hotel hallway.

The first recommendations in the report's "Building Trust and Legitimacy" chapter include training that encourages officers to defuse and de-escalate confrontations with suspects in a way that avoids violence. The report encourages acknowledgement of past problems with racism and bias, and notes that Mesa now trains officers in "cultural competency."

One of the suggestions that was approved recently is the use of "soft uniforms" when appropriate during responses to mass demonstrations, in order not to present a militaristic appearance that might undermine the public's trust. The continued use of body cams to record interactions between police and citizens was also given high importance. Mesa PD began using body cams in a 2014 test program; now, most officers are equipped with them.

Video was a key factor for prosecutors in deciding that Brailsford should be charged.

Other issues addressed in the report include the desire to create a search-and-seizure policy tailored to the needs of the LGBT community and more training regarding how to deal with people who are mentally ill. The report notes that this past April, Meza created a Mental Health Advisory Board that brings officers and representatives of the mental-health community together for bimonthly meetings.

Meza touted the increase in minority hiring rates, noting that nearly half of the department's latest recruits were minorities and women.

Mesa Mayor John Giles told officers and residents on Tuesday that he endorses the chief's goal of complying with Obama's task-force plan.

"I hope the entire country embraces it as Chief Meza has," Giles said. "Every police department has to look at itself in the mirror and ask, 'How do we do business?'"

The report identifies several areas for improvement. Giles said the analysis shows that Mesa does its job "very well," but that a department with 1,500 sworn officers is bound to run into problems.

Former Mesa Police Chief George Gascón sees some of his legacy in the project. That's only natural, given that Meza was Gascón's second-in-command. 

Transparency and accountability were buzzwords when Gascón, a proponent of "community policing," was at the helm from 2006 until 2009. But to Gascón, a lawyer and Cuban immigrant, it wasn't merely about words. He created policies, plans, and perceptions that are nearly the stuff of legend.

Now in his second full term as San Francisco's district attorney, Gascón famously went toe to toe with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on discriminatory immigration policies, beating the sheriff at the publicity game and ultimately being proved right by history, given the verdict in the landmark civil-rights suit Melendres v. Arpaio.

Gascón implemented an internal system in which officers met to review and prioritize criminal cases and trends. His policies weren't necessarily popular, but crime rates dropped under his three-year tenure.

Since Meza was appointed police chief in February, the department has returned to an emphasis on engagement with community members, and especially the minority groups that have long been disenfranchised in the city.

Meza replaced Frank Milstead, who took over from Gascón's and served until Gov. Doug Ducey selected him to head the Arizona Department of Public Safety. 

"I think Johnny [Meza] has been doing a great job," Gascón tells New Times. "He's really re-energized community policing and re-energized the department."

Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo, a member of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens who participated in workshops with other Mesa residents for the project, said she's never seen as much community engagement by police as she sees now. Asked about Gascón's impact on community relations, she said, "It has certainly continued now under Chief Meza."

Yet Villanueva-Saucedo, like Gascón, didn't want to speak ill of Milstead.

"I wouldn't say the ball was dropped under Milstead," she said. "Community forums continued."

Meza, though, brings a lot of energy and focus to the work, she said. This year, he created a Community Engagement Bureau and put an assistant chief in charge, which speaks volumes to the commitment to a "genuine" plan.

Gascón said he believes Meza, and the department as a whole, is taking what he did to the next level. He was especially impressed with Meza's "proactive" stance on Philip Brailsford's fatal shooting of Shaver in January.

Although a local attorney claims Meza initially told him the shooting appeared to be justified, the chief fired Brailsford in March, stating that he had "significant concerns" about Shaver's death. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office charged Brailsford, 25, with second-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty and is on supervised released pending the outcome of the case, which is scheduled to go to trial next spring.

Read the Mesa Police Department's "21st Century" Report:

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern