PLEA Bargain?

Last March 11, photographers zoomed in on the disfigured face of Phoenix police officer Jason Schechterle as he sat before a New York State Senate committee in Albany.

The officer -- whose story of near-death by burning and his near-miraculous (and ongoing) recovery is well-known to most Valley residents -- was poised to testify about the dangers of the controversial Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor.

That's the vehicle Schechterle was driving in March 2001 when a taxi rear-ended him at the intersection of 20th Street and Thomas. His gas tank exploded and the car burst into flames, burning him terribly.

Schechterle testified that 16 fellow officers have died in fiery explosions since 1983 after rear-end collisions ruptured their gas tanks. He claimed Ford had known for years that the Crown Vic police model was unsafe, something that the company continues to deny.

Schechterle's testimony earned a standing ovation from the audience, which included several members of the New York state troopers' union -- which lost one of its own to a Crown Vic explosion in December 2002.

Later, another Phoenix police officer stepped to the microphone to testify. But Roy "Jake" Jacobsen, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) -- which serves as a union for hundreds of the department's officers -- took a far different approach from Schechterle.

Jacobsen's comments -- and the way he handled the controversy after the hearing -- are threatening his tenure as union president, and are causing a deep rift in the Phoenix department.

"I can only share with you some of the accomplishments and the demeanor and cooperation I feel we've got in dealing with Ford engineers and safety-design people and not attorneys," said Jacobsen, a member of the Blue Ribbon committee convened by Governor Janet Napolitano last year to examine the Crown Vic controversy. ". . . As I see it here today, Senator, the issue is probably not so much what Ford knew or did not know or did not try to fix over these past accidents."

Jacobsen's remarks surprised and angered not only Phoenix officers who were at the hearing, but police from other agencies who attended. (Jacobsen did not respond to repeated calls from New Times seeking comment.)

Immediately after the hearing, Phoenix officer Bryan Chapman -- who also was attending the hearing and is Schechterle's best friend -- confronted Jacobsen in a hallway.

"I wanted to express to him how embarrassed I was to be a Phoenix police officer and a PLEA member after what he had just done," Chapman wrote in an August 24 letter addressed to "All Phoenix Police employees." (Jason Schechterle also signed the letter.) "Jake was Ford's star witness and I was disgusted. I pointed out to Jake that my best friend had nearly burned to death, and it could have been prevented based on what Ford knew and when they knew it."

Dan DeFedericis, the president of the New York state trooper Police Benevolent Association, said he and other troopers were outraged by Jacobsen's comments and told him so right after the hearing.

"We were so disgusted by what Jake had to say. It appeared to us as if he was almost there as an employee of Ford. For Jason's own union president to betray him like that . . . a couple of my bigger guys wanted to do more than get in his face after he spoke."

Later that night, the New York troopers asked Schechterle and Chapman for permission to take out a full-page ad in the Arizona Republic about Jacobsen's testimony, and also to send a mass mailing to PLEA's rank and file. The Phoenix officers said they'd rather take care of things themselves.

If the enormously popular and respected Schechterle had gone public with what had happened in New York, the outcry against Jacobsen would have been overwhelming. Instead, the officer and others met privately with Jacobsen shortly after their return.

"Jake told Jason how sorry he was for letting him down in New York," Chapman wrote last month. "Jason told Jake that he not only let him down, he let the PLEA membership down as well." (Schechterle declined to comment to New Times, confirming only the contents of his August 24 letter.)

In a column in PLEA's April newsletter about his testimony, Jacobsen noted that "I was anxious to tell the committee about the Blue Ribbon Panel's progress. It seems that my appearance there has been perceived as advocacy for Ford. If so, I apologize."

Jacobsen also said he planned to work closely with Jason Schechterle to push Ford to install fire panels on the Crown Vics. Phoenix was the first department in the nation to install bladder-fuel tanks in the cars, an expensive proposition that Jacobsen helped pull together.

But Jacobsen's quasi-apology did not have its intended effect.

"Jake put the political spin on it and tried to look as good as he could," Chapman and Schechterle wrote in their letter. "His apology' was lame and shameful, and spoke volumes about his honesty and integrity."

The two officers quit PLEA in July.

What finally led them to write the letter was a disingenuous response in a question-and-answer column in the August edition of PLEA's newsletter.

"Did Ford buy the PLEA president's plane ticket to the New York hearing on the safety of the Crown Victoria?" one question read.

"No," was the answer. "Jake paid for the ticket out of his personal funds."

That raised new questions: Why hadn't PLEA paid for the trip, if Jacobsen was traveling on union business? Was he expecting to be reimbursed by Ford or someone else?

The Q&A "pushed us over the edge," the officers wrote. "Jake has forced us to set the record straight in a public forum. . . . We believe that Jake Jacobsen is a good person and we recognize and thank him for all of his efforts. However, as long as he is the PLEA president, we will not support him or PLEA."

But it wasn't until September 5 (after the Chapman/Schechterle letter went out) that Jacobsen came clean, in a confessional column published in the PLEA newsletter.

In the column, titled "Learning the Hard Way," Jacobsen admitted he hadn't been forthcoming about bearing the costs of the trip:

"In that regard, as we have previously reported, I personally paid for the trip and lodging. However, it should be added that PLEA initially paid for the trip and lodging with the expectation of reimbursement from Ford. After my return, I made the decision to personally absorb this cost."

As for working with Schechterle on the fire-panel installation as promised, Jacobsen conceded, "I failed to do so. Since these mistakes, I have continued to look for improvements to the [Crown Vic], and I will continue to call for Ford to take responsibility for its failures. In the same manner, here I take responsibility for my own failures."

Jacobsen concluded by saying he had learned "hard lessons" in recent months, "and I hope I can count on your support even while admitting my mistakes . . ."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8433.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin