Friday, January 13, 2012

Phoenix police unit under scrutiny: Review of internal-affairs unit spurred by conduct and enforcement concerns

The Phoenix police officers whose job it is to investigate the actions of their colleagues will soon find themselves under scrutiny.

The city has hired a California firm to assess the Phoenix Police Department's Professional Standards Bureau, the internal-affairs section that reviews and investigates the conduct of the department's own.

The outside review grew out of requests by citizens, the Phoenix police union and police department managers and personnel for an outside appraisal of the procedures and methods used by the bureau.

Phoenix officials confirm that there has been dissatisfaction within department ranks about the bureau's ability to uphold department standards and to conduct investigations fairly. One lieutenant who worked in the bureau recently left his work there in disgust and accepted another assignment.

"Concerns about procedures and methods in the PSB were heard from citizens, police management, from union leaders and others," Phoenix Assistant City Manager Ed Zuercher said.

Zuercher said Matrix Consulting Group, based in Palo Alto, Calif., sent several employees to the department to interview present and past officers of the bureau, as well as others in the department.

Matrix will be paid $77,000 for the work, which is to be completed in 90 days.

Zuercher said the impetus for the assessment came from members of the Community Engagement and Outreach Task Force formed after Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson, an African-American and former police detective, was thrown to the ground by a Phoenix officer at a March 2010 house fire. The officer said Johnson had insisted on going dangerously close to the fire, while Johnson said the officer overreacted.

The Task Force sought ways to improve communication and relations between the police department and the residents of south Phoenix in particular. Zuercher said some people expressed concern about the effectiveness of the bureau in policing officers and enforcing proper conduct.

Police Department employees, some of command rank, also have suggested that standards of conduct within the department have eroded, and that lax enforcement by the bureau is partly to blame. Some Police Department employees also blame police-union pressure to lower standards of conduct.

Dave Kothe, a spokesman for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the police union, represents officers facing discipline after bureau investigations. He said "ninety percent of the trouble between PLEA and Police Department management is over internal investigations."

"Again and again we have seen inconsistency in how officer misconduct is treated," Kothe said. "If an officer is in trouble for not writing reports when he has gone on calls, then he should be treated the same as any other officers with similar infractions. That's not what we're seeing."

Grievous as some conduct may seem, Kothe said, similar penalties must apply. As an example, he cited a case last year in which an officer was accused of having intimate relations with women he came into contact with while on duty.

"A lot of people wanted to throw the book at him," Kothe said.

"But in the past when that same kind of conduct was investigated, we didn't fire people; we suspended them," Kothe said. "When they do something with an employee two years ago, they are required to do the same thing on similar misconduct two years later."

The bureau has 21 "sworn officer" personnel, Sgt. Trent Crump, a police spokesman, said.

"Their job is to conduct administrative investigations, including allegations of employee misconduct," Crump said. "They are supervised by an assistant chief, a commander and two lieutenants."

He said the bureau in 2010 conducted more than 200 investigations, including allegations of officer misconduct. It also investigates all officer-involved shootings.

Crump said the Matrix assessment will include"examining the operations of our PSB investigations."

"Matrix will compare current PSB operations with 'best practices' in other departments and they will identify opportunities for improvement," Crump said. "They will examine and evaluate PSB training for its investigators, and supervisory and command staff. They will also look at how cases are assigned, tracked and at the timeliness of case completion."

"There have been concerns related to the quality of PSB investigations, the length of time to do investigations and our ability to hold officers accountable for their actions," Acting Chief Joe Yahner said.

"And you have to hold officers accountable for their actions for there to be public trust in the department," he said. "That's why we welcomed this review and recommended to city management that they go ahead with it ... public trust is what it's all about."

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