A Mesa police officer ended 2019 with full retirement benefits and got to keep his badge despite what a city investigation found was a pattern of sexual harassing female officers and civilians in recent years.
Officer Jeffrey Neese, a former sergeant, was demoted to a patrol officer last year after he was found to have committed sexual misconduct against several female subordinates.
He's also at the center of a legal claim filed by seven alleged victims against the city of Mesa for its handling of his harassment, particularly by placing Neese in a role where he continued to interact with the public after his findings of guilt.
The day after the women filed their notice of claim — the typical precursor to a lawsuit — in July, two additional women came forward, both civilians, alleging that Neese sexually harassed them in 2017 and 2018. Then-Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista placed Neese on paid home duty shortly after learning of the new allegations, and opened an ongoing Mesa Police Department investigation into the claims.
Two previous investigations by the city of Mesa in late 2018 found that Neese had exhibited a repeated pattern of sexual harassment over several years, including sending unwarranted graphic texts and Facebook messages to subordinates that described masturbating, a pornographic drawing of three female officers, and fetishizing LGBTQ officers’ private relationships. He was initially removed from the SWAT team and was to assume a sergeant role on the patrol team after the findings of the first investigation in October 2018, but was instead demoted to patrol officer after another woman came forward and the city confirmed her claims.
Following the more recent accusations, Neese remained on paid home leave from July until December 19, when the city of Mesa unanimously granted Neese's request to retire, according to city board meeting notes.
December marked his 20th anniversary with the police department, according to Detective Nikolas Rasheta, public information officer, making him eligible for full pension.
"While we find some comfort knowing that Sergeant Neese will no longer be in a position to harass Mesa Police Officers, his retirement doesn’t change the systemic issues within the Mesa Police Department or the City of Mesa," said David Lunn, attorney for the seven women who filed the notice of claim, in a statement sent to news media. "In fact, it makes matters worse for victims now and in the future."
Because Neese was allowed to retire under normal conditions, he can apply at another police department should he decide to re-enter the field.
"By slow-playing the investigation, the City created a blue-print for other offenders of how to outlast the process so they can receive their full pensions before potentially seeking other employment where they can continue their negative behaviors," Lunn said.
The women's attorney alleged that as of December, the city of Mesa and Mesa Police Department had not yet sent any of Neese's findings of misconduct to the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST), which issues and revokes officer certifications.
Detective Rasheta said internal investigations must be fully completed before passing along information to the AZPOST — he declined to comment on whether previous findings from the two completed investigations by the city of Mesa had already been sent to the board.
Resheta said the agency is moving forward with its internal investigation of Neese despite his retirement, and will continue until its conclusion.
The city of Mesa has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Neese’s sexual harassment complaints date back to at least 2014, the notice of claim alleges. All of the officers in the notice were trained by Neese, who held a supervisory role in the Mesa Police Department. Many cited this as a reason they did not immediately come forward.
The claim against the city is working its way through the legal process. The women also filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Lunn, and are awaiting “right to sue” letters to formally file their case with the court.
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Lunn declined to have the alleged victims comment to Phoenix New Times, citing the ongoing case. However, they held a press conference together on July 18, the day of the claim's filing, in which they spoke about their experiences. Many of the women alleged that there were several other victims who had declined to be named in the claim out of fear of damage to their careers.
“It was clear to us that his behavior went unchecked for years,” Officer Ashley Elliff, one of the complainants, said at the conference. “This was not a one-time incident.”
As of November, Batista is no longer police chief of the Mesa Police Department. No official reason was given for his departure, as New Times staff writer Meg O'Connor reported in a November 15 article.
"A retired Mesa police officer said several female Mesa officers filed complaints alleging Batista and other department leaders had treated them unfairly," O'Connor wrote. "New Times has requested those complaints."