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Phoenix Cops May Have Inflated Kidnapping Stats to Get Federal Bucks

Phoenix police reported 358 kidnapping calls during 2008, and they said a majority of them were linked to drug and human smuggling across the Arizona-Mexico border.

While Phoenix police union leaders raised questions about the veracity of the statistics, the city's top officials — City Manager David Cavazos, Police Chief Jack Harris, and Mayor Phil Gordon — dismissed concerns that kidnapping statistics are inaccurate or intentionally inflated.

A New Times analysis of 264 of the 358 reported kidnappings shows that only about one of every four incidents labeled as kidnappings in 2008 appeared connected to border-related crimes.

Chief Harris agreed to discuss the kidnapping statistics with New Times, but a police spokesman later said that Harris decided to pass on the interview because the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General is auditing kidnapping figures.

There is absolutely no doubt that individuals in Phoenix with ties to drug and human smuggling have been held for ransom, threatened with death, beaten, tortured, and sometimes murdered. There is no doubt that their friends and family members have been extorted for money, cars, weapons, and drugs in exchange for the safe release of loved ones.

New Times detailed the stories of kidnapping victims in "Seized" (August 12). We spoke directly with victims, pored over local and federal court and police records, and spent time with detectives investigating the crimes, rescuing victims, and arresting predators.

Phoenix officials released the kidnapping statistics to media outlets across the country, shared them with federal lawmakers, and cited them in grant applications to depict the rising levels of border-related violence Phoenix police grappled with daily.

However, of the 264 available police reports reviewed by New Times, 64 had discernible ties to human smuggling and kidnapping. This means that Phoenix was dealing with Mexican-style kidnap-for-ransom cases an average of once a week, not daily.

"One a week still indicates a crisis. Those figures didn't need to be inflated," said Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. "Either the police management team was . . . disingenuous or grossly incompetent. We don't think that taxpayers deserve either."

Gordon painted an exaggerated picture for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science in March 2009.

"Almost every night, Phoenix police will get one or more calls" about an immigrant smuggled into the country being held for ransom and tortured. And for each one of the calls, Gordon said, the police department has to divert "as many as 60 officers to find, rescue, and protect those kidnap victims."

The other 200 police reports reviewed by New Times don't support the claims.

On May 13, 2008, a 20-year-old man attacked his ex-girlfriend after she drove to his apartment complex to pick up money he owed her. When she arrived, he got into her truck, and they spoke for a few minutes.

He asked her for a kiss, and she said no. He attacked her, grabbed a fistful of her hair, and forced her and her baby to stay inside the car for more than a half-hour. She eventually escaped and reported the crime to police, who drove to his apartment. He admitted the attack on his ex and was arrested.

The single-day investigation did not require intensive resources and the nonstop involvement of 60 specially trained police officers and detectives, but it is among the 358 kidnapping cases purportedly assigned to specially trained investigators.

Another report, this one dated March 21, 2008, notes an early-morning call from the Blessed Sacrament Church to Phoenix police. A priest told police he received an e-mail from someone threatening to kill him if he didn't pay $15,000. He said he had no idea who sent it.

Cops went to the church, picked up the e-mail and logged the incident in a five-sentence departmental report as "extortion."

The single-page report from 2008 makes no mention of any harm coming to the priest, or of anyone kidnapped. Nevertheless, it ended up on the list of kidnappings in that year.

It shouldn't have, according to an August 2010 memo written by Chief Harris to City Manager Cavazos.

Harris' memo notes that reported kidnapping figures had included only finalized incidents and excluded reports where "the crime was later determined to be unfounded."

He wrote that the kidnapping statistics did not include "information only" incidents — reports with insufficient evidence to determine whether a crime actually had occurred. Kidnappings that were sexually motivated or tied to domestic violence were reported separately, Harris wrote.

Evidently, this wasn't the case.

A list generated and released by the Phoenix Police Department shows that all 358 reports are titled "kidnapping."

Of the 264 New Times reviewed, at least 53 do not have the same label — 24 were labeled "armed robbery" or "extortion," seven were labeled "aggravated assault," and eight were classified as possible violations of federal immigration laws. Labels on 14 others included "suspicious person" and "robbery without a weapon."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo