Feathered Bastard

Mark Spencer, PLEA President, and the Dark Spots on His Career Record

In response to my request for a comment from the Phoenix Police Department concerning Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Mark Spencer's challenge to the current Operations Order 1.4.3, PPD spokesman James Holmes got back to me yesterday. His comment follows below. But first a little background.

As I discussed in this week's column item "Union Blue," Spencer recently went on a ride-along with two cops working the area near 36th Street and Thomas Road, where day-laborers congregate in a parking lot shared by Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other businesses.

On July 14, Spencer arrested Alvaro Grijalva, who admitted that he was there looking for work, and that he was in the country illegally. Spencer didn't take Grijalva in to be booked. Instead, he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE agreed to take Grijalva, and Spencer transported Grijalva to ICE after running the whole thing by a Phoenix Police sergeant on duty.

Spencer then called his wing-nut buddy J.D. Hayworth, afternoon saliva jockey for conservative radio station KFYI 550 AM. On the air, Hayworth crudely excoriated the PPD's higher-ups for not having all their cops roust illegals as Spencer did in this case. The effect would be to turn Phoenix cops into immigration enforcers, similar to MCSO deputies during an anti-illegal sweep.

I believe that Spencer went out that day looking to test the limits of the operations order, though he denies this is the case. See, Spencer is a nativist activist, with a thinly-veiled personal agenda when it comes to immigration. This is not the first time he's exploited xenophobia and helped Mexican bashers in this town sow the seeds of discord. And likely, it won't be the last.

This current arrest is a sensitive matter, because the new operations order was forged during the 2007 Pruitt's standoff, and the PPD is not looking to return to that bit of ugliness, which could have easily turned violent with minutemen and pro-immigration activists facing off against each other.

So the PPD's measured response was not a surprise:

"The Phoenix Police Department is looking into that investigation," said Holmes, "and into that arrest. At this point, they're reviewing the report and procedures in the report to ensure that...it was in accordance with our operations orders. We just don't have a conclusion about it at this time."

In other words, Spencer's tossed a vial of nitro into their laps, and they're trying to figure out how to handle it without an explosion. 

A recent Arizona Republic profile of Spencer, who's just been awarded another term as PLEA President after running unopposed, portrays him as a Bible-thumpin', gun-totin' aw-shucks sort of guy.

The article is filled with lines like this one:

"Spencer insists that, in his day job, he speaks as a cop, not a pastor, although his moral compass `comes from the power of Jesus Christ.'"

That's just swell. But did the author of that drivel bother to pull Spencer's personnel file? I did. And Spencer's career has not been without blemish. Several incidents in his earlier days on the force speak to what might be seen as a tendency to act rashly and fail to follow PPD guidelines: Kinda like he did on July 14 in making an arrest that may have been in violation of Operations Order 1.4.3, which states that, "Federal immigration law...will not be utilized as the sole cause for a stop or contact."

For example, in a September 21, 1993 incident, Spencer was admonished for the way in which he dealt with prisoners on a felony stop.

"You failed to use appropriate progressive force," reads the review, "with two prisoners when you grabbed them by the hair, pulled them from their vehicle, and continued to pull them as they crawled on their hands and knees approximately 20 feet to a patrol car. You also told one of the prisoners to `crawl like a dog.'"

For the "crawl like a dog" episode, Spencer was docked 24 hours pay.

Going back a little further, there was a 1991 incident where Spencer pointed a shotgun out of a moving car at another vehicle. Pointing a gun out of a moving car is a no-no. He was again disciplined.

In 1990, he ran up on a suspect by himself with his gun drawn, instead of waiting for backup. When he pushed the suspect with one hand, the suspect pushed back and his gun was discharged accidentally. No one was hurt. There's no record of him being punished for this.

Finally, in 1988, he "exhibited rude and unprofessional behavior while making a traffic stop" and wrote the driver a ticket for no registration when the driver didn't produce it fast enough. He also threatened to take the driver to jail.

In most of these cases, Spencer, who has been with the PPD for more than 20 years, said he would do things differently today. He rationalized the gun out of the moving car, pointing out that the guy he was after was a bank robber, and that at least one high-level PPD assistant chief agreed with his action. On the accidental discharge of his gun, he had no quibble. For the "crawl like a dog" incident, he had an interesting explanation.

"The point behind it was," explained Spencer, "to control the prisoner without causing injury. He was failing to move back in my direction, and it would have been inappropriate for me to drag him across asphalt and to convey how I wanted him to move with me. That was the statement that I made. The department found that that use of force was out of policy. I was subsequently disciplined for it."

In general, Spencer claimed not to mind the discipline.

"Discipline is there to create behavior," he told me. "And I think certainly improvement is always something we should seek, whether it be a police officer or a New Times reporter."

It may be a bit unfair to knock Spencer for incidents that occurred earlier in his career. However, his activities in challenging Operations Order 1.4.3 deserve similar scrutiny, and in my opinion, punishment, despite Spencer's current position as the PPD union rep. That's because his provocation is potentially as or more dangerous than the discharge of that weapon so long ago, particularly should it result in another Pruitt's standoff.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons