Phil Roberts Exaggerated the Phoenix PD's Kidnapping Statistics, Then Tried to Debunk His Own Numbers

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Police officers who used to work with Roberts said he would brag about being the highest-paid sergeant in the Phoenix Police Department. City records show that Roberts pocketed more than $150,000 worth of overtime and on-call pay in the four years he worked on kidnap and extortion cases.

In 2008, Phoenix Police Lieutenant Laurel Burgett was assigned to the Violent Crimes Bureau, which was home to Roberts' Robbery Unit. She created the Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement (HIKE) unit, a special task force that would exclusively take over those cases from the Robbery Unit. She assigned another sergeant to lead that team, passing over Roberts, who she noted in performance reviews did not effectively manage the detectives assigned to him or complete administrative duties.

Roberts grumbled about not being selected for the job. His disappointment was obvious. At times, he told his lieutenant that he was being treated like a child and that he should be the HIKE sergeant. Other times, a more contrite Roberts told her that he understood her decision and would work on his management skills.

He remained the Robbery Unit sergeant but also served as a backup HIKE sergeant. He could still tap his stream of overtime pay and participate in the adrenaline-pumping, high-profile kidnapping rescues.

A year went by. Lieutenant Burgett found that many of the cases HIKE encountered were linked to drug-trafficking operations. She decided the unit would be better off leaving the Violent Crimes Bureau and moving into the Drug Enforcement Bureau.

Roberts knew he would be left behind. He would no longer get to work the kidnapping cases or cash in on the overtime.

The move was planned for September 2009, and just one month before his ties to the task force were severed, Roberts' message about kidnapping cases in Phoenix took a drastic turn.

The same man who stood before law enforcement officers in April 2008 and talked about how kidnapping cases were escalating in frequency and violence had begun saying that police officials lied about the magnitude of the problem and that the statistics were "bogus."

He conveniently omitted that he had repeatedly disseminated those kidnap counts, he had sounded the alarm about the increasing violence, and he had billed Phoenix as the kidnap capital to media outlets across the country.

Roberts' voluminous memos, reviewed by New Times, do not paint a picture of a whistle-blower or a hero. Rather, they show a man desperate to discredit those who dimmed his moment in the spotlight and slashed his access to overtime pay when they snipped his ties to the high-profile cases.

Roberts' allegations went as far as claiming Phoenix police officials were in on the conspiracy to defraud the federal government of more than $2 million in grants.

It wasn't the only accusation he'd lodged against his own police agency, but it was the one that caught the attention of the public — and the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal agency visited Phoenix in January to get a closer look at those figures. Their inquiry is ongoing.

Stress eventually got the better of Phil Roberts.

Before he went on stress leave — and even while he was on leave — the seasoned sergeant launched dozens of allegations against Phoenix police officials.

One of the most shocking was that high-ranking Phoenix police officials intentionally inflated kidnapping statistics to swindle the federal government out of grant money aimed at combating crimes with ties to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Though statistics can be misleading, for state and local investigators charged with combating the violence tied to border-related kidnappings and home invasions, the magnitude of Phoenix's kidnapping problem is unmistakable.

The pictures that Phil Roberts showed to his colleagues in April 2008 were very real.

"We see some of the most violent people in the country," Phoenix Police Sergeant Harry Reiter, a member of a special state task force that roots out makeshift neighborhood prisons and rescues kidnap victims, told New Times last year ("Seized: Inside America's Kidnapping Capital," August 12, 2010).

The home invasions and kidnappings are not taking place in remote corners of the Valley. They are taking place in neighborhoods, in average single-family homes that are doubling as suburban prisons for hostages who are beaten and tortured until a ransom is paid for their freedom.

Cops confiscated a video from one of the houses where violent kidnappers stashed their victims and allowed New Times to view a typical beating last year:

A man with wavy, black hair and a pale face can be seen lying on his side, a semiautomatic weapon just inches from his head. A coyote's hand is pushing down the man's head to keep him from moving. The victim's eyes are squeezed tightly shut. For a moment, he opens them — wide — and the horror is unmistakable. The gun still in his face, he squeezes his eyes shut. His lips are moving rapidly (there is no sound on the video). He opens and closes his eyes a second time. The hand that is holding down the victim's head suddenly goes up in the air, and — crack! — a fist slams into the side of the man's head, ripping the skin near his ear. Blood oozes down his temple.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo