Block Botch

Rudy Mendoza says he believes in working through the system.
So when he found a racially charged statement by a Phoenix cop in his neighborhood's Block Watch newsletter, he went to his city councilman. Then he met with the head of the Block Watch, the police department, the mayor's office and city officials to discuss the problem. He expected to hear that the city would find a solution.

That was almost two months ago, and Mendoza is tired of waiting for action. Despite the racial tension that often crisscrosses Phoenix like power lines in disputes between the police and minorities, Mendoza says city officials aren't taking his complaint seriously.

"I keep getting told: The city is not responsible, this is something the Block Watch did," Mendoza said. "Well, the city is responsible, because this is the city's Block Watch, they're trained by the city, the Block Watch gets taxpayer money, and a city police officer said it."

Mendoza objects to a statement from a Phoenix police officer quoted in the January issue of the Constitution Neighbors at Work newsletter. The CNAW Block Watch receives an $80,000 Fight Back grant from the city's Neighborhood Services division for its activities in Mendoza's northwest Phoenix neighborhood. City officials deny there was any malicious intent behind either the comment or the printing of it.

The newsletter stated: "Talked to an officer at 19th & Bell Rd. Was told that our Hispanic population isn't aware of the no shooting guns in the air on New Year's Eve, or any other time for that matter."

Outraged, Mendoza went to his councilman, Tom Milton.
Mendoza is not just another of Milton's constituents. He ran for Phoenix City Council two years ago in the Republican primary, then supported Milton, the eventual winner, in the general election. Today, Mendoza also serves as a citizen member of a police use-of-force board.

Milton set up a meeting between Mendoza, Robin Mofford, the head of the CNAW, Director Gerald Richard of the Phoenix Police Department, an aide to Mayor Skip Rimsza and several other city officials on February 1.

According to minutes taken of that meeting, Mendoza was told that Block Watch newsletters usually go through a screening process if the city is going to reimburse the group for its costs. But in this case, the Block Watch paid for the newsletter itself.

Richard explained that the officer--who was never named-- was "misinterpreted" and "it was not what it implied."

Mofford also apologized for the statement and asked Mendoza how they could get more Hispanics involved in the Block Watch, which is primarily an Anglo group.

More recently, she told New Times: "We're amateurs. My concern is if we made an error, we do the best we can to fix it and go forward."

That's not what Mendoza wanted to hear. "I wanted to know for a fact that an officer didn't say this," Mendoza says. "You can imagine my reaction when they told me an officer did say it."

The meeting closed with promises on all sides to communicate more in the future. But Mendoza says he was shut out again when the Block Watch planned an anticrime march in the neighborhood in February. Mendoza and some of his neighbors didn't want the rally--Mendoza says crime is not that big a problem there--but CNAW went ahead with it, and Milton endorsed it.

Today, Mendoza says he can't get his phone calls returned from any city officials. He contends, "it was like pulling teeth," to get a copy of the city's expenditures for the Block Watch. He's never been told what action, if any, was taken against the police officer who made the comment.

Similar comments have gotten a much bigger reaction in other states. The head of New Jersey's state police was fired after he said minority groups were more likely to be involved in drugs. In New York, a DJ was forced to resign after a joke about the dragging murder of a black man in Texas. And in Tennessee, a coach was suspended after he pulled a chain out of his pickup truck and asked a black student if he wanted a ride, another reference to the Texas murder.

Milton defends the way he and other city officials handled Mendoza's complaint. "Right away, there was an admission that this was a racially insensitive comment," he says. "The problem with the comment was, it was isolated to one specific group, and it should not have been."

Milton attributes Mendoza's anger to the dispute over the march. "I know they marched on Rudy's street, but that was not why they chose that street," Milton says. The councilman also criticizes Mendoza for not being more involved in the Block Watch. "Rudy has not participated with them in any way," he says.

The city has taken steps to deal with the issue, Milton says. As a result of the meeting, he says, CNAW printed an apology and Block Watches will receive diversity training. And, he points out, the city did not pay for the offensive newsletter.

But Milton never thought to ask what happened to the officer who actually made the statement. "Should I have raised it? Maybe. . . . But the focus [of the meeting] was never on it."

Director Richard, who is the officer's superior, refuses to name the person who made the comment. "I don't see the need at this time to bring any more discredit on them," Richard says.

Richard says he "counseled" the officer and made certain that the comment was a mistake. The cop meant to say that in Mexico, some people celebrate by firing guns into the air, and some people in Mendoza's neighborhood don't know that's illegal here, Richard says.

"The officer never said anything about the Mexican culture," Richard insists. "[The comment] was just too inclusive."

Although Mayor Rimsza had a representative at the meeting with Mendoza, he refuses to comment on the dispute.

Richard's "counseling" and a memo in the officer's file will be the extent of the department's discipline.

Mendoza doesn't think that's enough. "I think the officer should be disciplined in a way that shows the city has standards," he says. "This can't go on in the police department in the sixth-largest city in the nation. It just can't."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at 229-8430 or online at [email protected]

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Chris Farnsworth