Capitol Cop-Out

For years, Capitol Police officers have arrested people without cause and harassed the homeless.

They target those who hang out along the sidewalks and parking lots near state government office buildings just west of downtown Phoenix. They are lax in turning in booking information, leaving people to sit in jail for days at a time, only to be turned loose for lack of evidence.

Three separate reviews of the department — in 1997, 1998 and 2001 — have all reached the same conclusion. The Capitol Police department is an agency that lacks proper management, that allows for improper conduct to occur and that routinely has violated citizens' civil rights, according to the independent investigations, which were recently released by the state after a public records request.

Most of the problems can be traced, according to the investigations, to longtime Capitol Police Captain Jay Swart and a few other officers.

Many officers have left the department since 1996, citing intimidation, threats and retaliation against anyone who spoke out with concerns. Swart has acknowledged that many vacancies have been filled with less-than-qualified replacements who lacked the skills to properly do their job.

The state Department of Administration, which oversees the Capitol Police, has done little, if anything, to correct the problems, despite investigations that consistently reach the same conclusion. No disciplinary action has been taken. The officers accused of misconduct remain in charge or on patrol.

And, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, the most pressing problem — improper arrests — has not been fixed. The county continues to refuse to prosecute numerous Capitol Police arrests because they lack sufficient evidence or contain serious questions regarding probable cause.

State officials won't discuss specific concerns about the Capitol Police. They declined repeated requests to allow Capitol Police officers or senior agency officials to talk about the investigations.

William Bell, deputy director of the state Department of Administration, says allegations of improper arrests by Capitol Police officers have never been substantiated.

In a letter to New Times, Bell says the department has worked with the County Attorney's Office to reduce the number of cases that prosecutors refused to pursue. He says that the department has far fewer bad arrests than in the past.

Swart wouldn't talk to New Times about the allegations. But during a September 2001 interview with an investigator, he admitted that some of the concerns weren't so far-fetched.

"I know the criticism of what people say about me, and I'm not saying that some of it's probably not true," Swart said at the time. "I'm not the most skilled police administrator, but I will tell you that I've worked, and I try to give what I can give to people."

Now, state legislators are getting involved in how the agency — which affects them directly — should be managed.

Representative Russell Pearce and 17 other House members introduced a bill this year to consolidate the Capitol Police with the state Department of Public Safety since both agencies handle security at and around the Capitol. At the time, the initiative was meant to eliminate an overlap in coverage and to provide more oversight, training and stability to the Capitol Police agency, which has about 30 sworn officers.

The bill failed earlier this month, but Pearce says he will continue to push for the agency to be removed from the state Department of Administration's supervision. He and other legislators now want to review the investigations -- reports the lawmakers have never been shown. They say they were never told about the severity of problems within the agency, and they are concerned because those problems have never been made public.

"We don't have a right to hide our dirty laundry under a rock," Pearce says.

The shadow of downtown Phoenix looms over a desolate strip of vacant buildings along West Madison Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues.

It's a popular spot for transients who seek shade beneath the awnings of boarded-up businesses, across the street from the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen.

On any given day, dozens of people can be found with their suitcases and shopping carts overflowing. Some sit and talk. Others wander the sidewalk.

It's also a popular spot for Capitol Police to make arrests.

Such was the case with Robert Louis Walker, who was hanging out on West Madison when he was nabbed in July 1997 by Swart. A 15-year veteran of the department, Swart has been its captain since about 1993.

Walker, a 30-year-old black man, began to walk away when Swart's car approached. Swart asked the man to stop, and promptly cited him for criminal trespassing, which is a misdemeanor. But Walker refused to cooperate and wouldn't sign the citation. So Swart took him to Madison Street Jail.

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John W. Allman