For a long time, at least since I moved to Phoenix several years ago, the Phoenix Police Department has benefited from comparison to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio always has been a polarizing figure, and the MCSO's bully tactics and the often-deadly conditions it maintains in Arpaio's gulag archipelago are well documented.
Moreover, Arpaio's embrace of nativism, his anti-immigrant dragnets, and his support for Arizona Senate Bill 1070 have allowed him to play the villain or the hero, depending on what side of that debate you're on.
Then, there's the rampant corruption within the MCSO itself, which scribes at this paper have been writing about since Sheriff Joe took office 17 years ago.
You might say that the current state of this corruption has been confirmed by the recent leak of MCSO Deputy Chief Frank Munnell's memo outlining alleged criminal activity and malfeasance within Arpaio's command staff.
And then there are the multiple investigations of Arpaio's office by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, the FBI, the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, and, due to Arpaio's direct request, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, which, I'll admit has about as much claim to law enforcement expertise as the fictional deputy dawgs on Reno 911!.
Indeed, the Phoenix cops I know take it as a personal insult if they are compared to Arpaio's boys in beige. This, despite the fact that Phoenix Law Enforcement Association president Mark Spencer has been an unflagging supporter of Sheriff Joe, and PLEA itself has essentially mirrored Arpaio's line on immigration enforcement and SB 1070.
Still, unlike some lefties in this city, I have never put the PPD in the same category as the MCSO. Though I've been critical of Phoenix cops in the past, I've also become aware of Phoenix police officers whose work and professionalism I hold in the highest regard.
I'm specifically thinking of the men of the PPD's Career Criminal Squad, who've been responsible for taking violent white supremacists off the streets and busting murder-for-hire rackets.
Similarly, I've always been impressed with the very different skill sets of the officers in the PPD's Community Response Squad, the unit responsible for keeping the peace at demonstrations while at the same time protecting the First Amendment rights of demonstrators. On more than one occasion, I've seen the former head of that squad, Sergeant Brian Murray, get between feuding factions ready to exchange blows, talking down both sides.
So how do I reconcile the issues that have emerged from the tragic October 5 shooting of an unarmed citizen, Daniel Rodriguez, allegedly by PPD officer Richard Chrisman, a 10-year veteran of the force, with my own knowledge of some of the proactive, positive work the PPD does?
By all accounts, Rodriguez's death was unnecessary. If we assume for the sake of argument that fellow officer Sergio Virgillo was correct that the apparently unarmed Rodriguez was no threat to the two cops, then the two should have been able to restrain the 29-year-old without killing him. See, Rodriguez was no giant — he was about the same height as Chrisman (5-foot-7) and well under Chrisman's 175 pounds.
After the shooting, demonstrators in front of the PPD's headquarters demanded justice for Rodriguez, and there were suggestions that race played a role in the killing. However, there has been no evidence that Chrisman made racially charged statements. In fact, Chrisman's live-in girlfriend is Hispanic.
Furthermore, the call Chrisman and Virgillo were responding to — from Rodriguez's mom, Elvira Fernandez — suggests that she was afraid of her son. On the 911 recording of the call, she said Rodriguez was acting violently, throwing things around, and had punched a hole in a wall in her trailer home.
"I'm just afraid he's going to come back and hurt me," she said in the call. "He's hurt me before."
But Rodriguez's apparently being no angel doesn't justify his death.
Even if Rodriguez was resisting and not complying with their commands, a pair of Phoenix cops should have been able to handle the situation without a fatality. Particularly after Rodriguez was Tased twice and pepper-sprayed, according to Chrisman's probable-cause statement.
Both Chrisman and Virgillo have incidents in their past that are eyebrow-raising.
Although Virgillo's personnel file testifies to an exemplary 14-year record with the department, KPHO recently reported that Virgillo's wife, Maria, was indicted in 2008 for her participation in a drug-smuggling ring that involved her brother. She received three years probation.
The TV station found no evidence that Virgillo, who was then a detective with PPD's drug-enforcement bureau, knew of his wife's criminal activities. But according to Channel 5, she was aware of certain department undercover operations and fed such information to her brother.
As scandalous as that may sound, the videotape of Chrisman and another officer planting drug paraphernalia on a mentally handicapped homeless woman is outright disgusting and troubling on many levels.
The video was turned over to the press when interim County Attorney Rick Romley and Phoenix Public Safety Manager (read: Police Chief) Jack Harris held a press conference announcing that a second-degree murder charge and a charge of animal cruelty (for offing the victim's dog) had been added to Chrisman's initial charge of aggravated assault.
The paraphernalia-planting incident earned Chrisman, who claimed it was a joke, a day's suspension and a spot on Maricopa County's "Brady List," a tally of law enforcement officers whose credibility is suspect. Chrisman is reportedly one of 480 Valley cops on the list, 254 of them PPD officers.
According to several reports, Officer Virgillo isn't on that list.
But it's that tape that bothers me the most. Although four officers were present, it's Chrisman and Officer Diana Pineda who plant a crack pipe and Brillo pad on the woman. The other two were aware of what transpired but chose not to report the episode to superiors.
The internal investigation that followed after the PPD and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office were made aware of the surveillance video, states that the woman was never charged in relation to the drug paraphernalia (though she was arrested for an outstanding warrant). As if this fact makes the scurrilous hassling of a suspect a-okay.
Watching the video, which everyone in the Valley has now seen, Pineda and Chrisman seem a little too practiced in this maneuver, as though they'd done it before. Chrisman told investigators that they'd confiscated the pipe and Brillo from someone else, someone they didn't arrest.
I'm sure many folks were thinking just what I was thinking as I watched that video. Why are Phoenix cops riding around with throw-down evidence? Have they framed people in the past? What if they did this to me? How would I defend myself against the words of four sworn officers of the law?
Finally, this incident occurred in 2005, so why are we learning about it only now, after one of the officers involved is accused of killing an unarmed man and his pet? Hypothetically, if Chrisman had been dismissed or relegated to desk duty, Rodriguez and his dog might still be alive.
Add to the Chrisman affair the recent incident involving a Phoenix police officer collared for allegedly choking his girlfriend and then punching the officer who was trying to arrest him. Ditto the fallout from Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson's alleged roughing up in March at the hands of a rookie cop.
What you've got then is a serious image problem, one not easily allayed by handing the South Mountain Precinct, where the Rodriguez shooting and the Johnson assault occurred, a new commander in Chris Crockett, African-American though he is.
The 45-member panel, appointed by Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos to review alleged PPD abuse incidents, certainly will address the issues raised by the Chrisman affair. But the PPD should be on notice from here on out that it'll get no more free passes because the department happens to share local air with the MCSO.
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Phoenix cops need to know that whenever they pull over a citizen to make a simple inquiry, the image of two Phoenix police officers donning plastic gloves and dipping into their patrol car's trunk for a crack pipe to plant on a victim will be uppermost in the minds of many of us, even if we were otherwise inclined to trust them.
Other members of the community, like Daniel Rodriguez's tormented mother — who still weeps over her decision to call 911 on October 5 — will envision Rodriguez in his casket and wonder why he had to die.
Is that unfair to the great cops, like the ones I've praised heretofore, and will continue to praise in the future?
Yes, but it is nonetheless a reality — one that the PPD must deal with. Now, like the MCSO, the department is squarely on our radar screen, and questions about not only Chrisman but all those Brady List officers must be answered.