The rumor mill at the Tempe Police Department was cranked to full steam recently over gossip that several officers had a "wild 'girl's night out'" last month at a topless club while in Palm Springs for a conference on the city's dime.
It wasn't all rumor, it seems.
When an anonymous tipster spilled the story to city leaders, Police Chief Sylvia Moir was forced to respond to her superiors and acknowledge that some of it was true.
Moir addressed the strip club incident in a letter to city leaders on Sunday. Several female Tempe Police officers visited a strip club while on the city-funded trip to California for the "Women Leaders in Law Enforcement Training Symposium" conference last month, Moir admitted.
A spokesperson for Tempe said the Palm Springs trip cost the city $6,309 total.
In spite of gaps in her explanation to the city, Moir declined to be interviewed. The city would not disclose relevant details, such as how Moir discovered her officers went to the strip club, which or how many officers participated, and what time they were there.
It's unknown how much money the officers may have spent at the strip club. Because it was a work trip, department employees received a sum in advance to cover their expenses while traveling, known as a per diem.
In her statement, Moir said that she would "strongly discourage this type of activity on work trips in the future and will ensure this is conveyed widely in the department and to the individuals involved."
Moir also visited Palm Springs for the conference, but said that she did not go to the strip club.
Two anonymous emails sent to the Tempe City Council last week made several allegations about Moir and officers in the department. The tipster claimed that officers were at the strip club drinking until the early hours of the morning and that Moir had tried to suppress gossip about the incident.
In her November 11 letter to Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching and the city council, Moir said that several female officers visited "an establishment where topless dancing occurs" during off-hours at the conference.
A Tempe spokesperson provided Moir's letter to Phoenix New Times in response to a public records request.
Moir and other Tempe police officers attended the conference from October 21 to 23. The event was organized by the California Police Chiefs Association and took place at the Riviera Resort in Palm Springs.
Although she expressed dismay at what occurred, Moir said that the officers were not at the strip club for very long.
"The employees reportedly left the establishment after 20 minutes, upon feeling that the activity was inappropriate," Moir wrote.
"I do not condone this activity," she continued. "I have personal feelings about these establishments and believe that they objectify women. I was not in attendance, though I was an attendee of this particular conference."
Moir called the trip to the club "a very poor choice," but said that the incident did not violate city or police department policy.
One of the two anonymous messages to the city states, "It's been told that the [chief] is doing everything possible to shut down the gossip about the 'girls' going to a topless bar while on city business."
Additionally, the letter named named two female lieutenants who allegedly attended the strip club.
In her statement to the city, Moir said that the named employees were not at the establishment, but she did not name the employees who attended.
Moir also noted that the city cannot control how employees spend their per diem while on taxpayer-funded travel "as long as it is spent on legal activities," implying that the officers did not break any rules even if they were spending money at the club.
Based on their phraseology and subject matter, the anonymous letters seem like they were written by the same person.
One message was sent directly to the city council from a throwaway email address. The other was forwarded to the City Council from a different recipient, retired Mesa police detective and former Arizona Republic blogger Bill Richardson, who said he received the letter with no return address in the mail.
Richardson, a frequent critic of Tempe police, asked the council to investigate the allegations.
"If this is a rumor, it needs to be put to rest. If it’s true, it needs to be addressed," Richardson wrote in his email. "Real or imagined problems within a police department can erode morale and effectiveness."
A Tempe spokesperson, Nikki Ripley, confirmed that the officers will not face discipline because they did not violate any city rules. When asked if the city manager had a response to the incident, Ripley would only say that Ching supports Moir and her communication to the city council.
Ripley was unable to say how many officers visited the strip club. When asked how Moir can say definitively that the officers were at the strip club for only 20 minutes, Ripley said, “One of the employees involved relayed the duration to her.”
Moir received a $66 per diem for a total of $231 during the three-and-a-half days of the conference, Ripley said, but the chief declined mileage reimbursement and drove her personal vehicle. There was no charge for Moir's conference registration because she was a panelist.
Moir was also forced to defend herself from other allegations contained in the anonymous tips to the council, which alleged favoritism toward female employees and frequent out-of-state trips for training and conferences.
"Many male officers have applied for training, only to be denied by Chief Moir," one of the letters states, adding, "Chief Moir is out of the office a lot. Ever since she got here, she takes extended trips out of state on city time, training, conferences, etc."
In her statement, Moir said that her policy of equal access applies regardless of race, gender, or class, and that this policy does not equate to favoritism. She called the charge that she favored female employees offensive and said that it "shows a gender bias."
As for her travel, Moir said that conferences serve as valuable learning opportunities. She often declines the city's daily per diem or transportation in order to reduce costs, Moir said.
"I reject the assertions in the letter as a combination of simply misinformed, outright false and inflammatory. Sadly, many also display barely-concealed sexism and discrimination," Moir wrote.
According to Ripley, the statement to the city leadership by Moir served as the chief's first acknowledgement of the incident.
Asked why Moir felt the need to respond to the anonymous allegations so quickly, Ripley said, “It’s a city standard to be transparent and responsive when questions are asked and issues are raised.”
The Palm Springs incident is the second time Moir has had to address controversy over the past several months.
In July, Moir said that she regrets speaking out of turn in the press to characterize the fatal self-driving Uber crash on March 18 in Tempe as "unavoidable" before a comprehensive investigation had been completed. Investigators eventually concluded that, in fact, the Uber crash was entirely avoidable.
One of the anonymous letters states that according to a past president of the Tempe Officers Association, Sergeant Jeff Millen, "Moir is showing extreme favoritism to female employees."
Millen could not be reached for comment.
In an interview on Wednesday, Tempe Police Association President Sergeant Rob Ferraro said that he supports Moir's handling of the strip club incident. As far as the favoritism allegation, Ferraro said that the police chief is trying to change the culture of the department so that opportunities are presented equally.
He was skeptical of the idea that the episode reflects badly on the police department, noting that the officers went to the club during their off-hours.
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"I feel like once we start going down the road of trying to determine what’s appropriate versus what’s legal or illegal, it’s a road I’m not really comfortable going down," Ferraro said. "It’s a road that’s difficult to come back from."
There's no evidence that the employees did anything illegal or advertised the fact that they were Tempe police officers, Ferraro said. What they spend their taxpayer-funded salaries on is their choice, he said.
"They’re adults, they can pick and choose what they want to do with their time just as you can, just as I can," he said.