2009Local Reporting

REASONABLE DOUBT: Public pays the price

MCSO shift in focus results in longer response times, fewer arrests, investigations
By: 
Ryan Gabrielson
July 12, 2008

In Guadalupe, grocery store employees waited in vain for help during an armed robbery.

In Queen Creek, vandalism spread through a neighborhood where Maricopa County sheriff's deputies rarely patrolled.

In Aguila, people bought guns in the face of rising crime that deputies couldn't respond to quickly enough.

And in El Mirage, dozens of serious felony cases went uninvestigated.

Response times, arrest rates, investigations and other routine police work throughout Maricopa County have suffered over the past two years as Sheriff Joe Arpaio turned his already short-handed and cash-strapped department into an immigration enforcement agency, a Tribune investigation found.

Response times on life-threatening emergencies have slowed across the county, with residents on average waiting 10 minutes or more in most patrol districts. The County Board of Supervisors has set five minutes as the expected standard.

Detectives' arrest rate on criminal investigations plunged, from 10 percent in 2005 to 3.5 percent last year.

Arpaio and his top officials acknowledge the office has struggled with emergency response and a swelling caseload. But they deny that immigration enforcement is to blame.

Illegal immigrants are breaking the law and arresting them is a key priority for the MCSO.

"If you're violating the law, that comes first, that comes first," Arpaio said.

But throughout the county, people are feeling the consequences of Arpaio's decision to focus his dwindling resources on immigration enforcement.

PANIC BUTTON

After 10 p.m. on March 18, two people walked into the Circle B grocery store in Guadalupe brandishing a gun and demanding cash.

The female cashier followed the robbers' orders, but also triggered a silent alarm, said Betty Mar, who owns Circle B with her husband. The store's security firm immediately alerted the MCSO of the armed robbery in progress.

"She pushed the panic button and waited 15 minutes," Mar said. "And nothing."

The cashier triggered the alarm a second time, the robbers long gone with $400 from the register.

Mar said deputies arrived 45 minutes after the MCSO received the emergency call.

The MCSO disputes that figure. Lt. Edmund Shepherd said the agency's records show a patrol car reached the store 17 minutes after dispatch received the call.

Shepherd heads the patrol operation in District 1, which covers much of southeastern Maricopa County's unincorporated areas as well as Guadalupe.

"I was unhappy with the amount of time that went by. But it's not 45 minutes," Shepherd said.

The MCSO's emergency response standard is five minutes. But deputies arrived late on two-thirds of the most serious 911 calls in the two years since the MCSO began immigration enforcement - more than 6,000 emergencies in all.

Average response times for District 1 are the best in the county, in large part because many of them come from tiny Guadalupe which covers less than a single square mile. The MCSO has a station about 300 yards south of Circle B, from which deputies are supposed to patrol Guadalupe alone.

Most of the calls come from Guadalupe and deputies there arrive within four minutes most of the time, the town's crime reports show.

Response times to the rest of District 1 are often far slower - sometimes upward of 20 minutes, records show - but the overall average for the district is about eight minutes.

Earlier this year, some Queen Creek residents complained to the Town Council about long waits on emergency calls. Burglaries were on the rise for the past year in the Cortina subdivision in the eastern part of town, finally reaching the point this year that residents decided to speak up about it.

The MCSO has a roaming patrol unit that isn't assigned to a particular district, but fills in the gaps in various parts of the county that do not have enough deputies to cover all their patrol beats, Shepherd said.

That unit was supposed to be protecting Guadalupe when the Circle B robbery took place, he said.

"There's supposed to be a car in town the entire time," Shepherd said. "During that time the car was out of town when it should have been there."

But it was out-of-range doing other police work. That work was not related to immigration enforcement, he said.

Despite being short-handed, the MCSO has repeatedly used regular patrol deputies for immigration enforcement. Often, patrol units assist the human smuggling unit when illegal immigrants flee into the desert during late-night traffic stops.

And sometimes deputies do their own immigration investigations. Being redirected to immigration enforcement further strains the agency's ability to respond to other emergency calls and police work.

Mar has tried to check on the status of the investigation into the robbery at her store. But, she says, no one at the the MCSO will call her back.

"I just have to keep the faith," she said. "I tell my employees, 'Hopefully that won't happen again.'"

CLOSED CASE

Employees were preparing to close the 99 Cent Discount Store in El Mirage on Aug. 20, 2006, when a teenage girl ran inside.

Agitated and refusing to leave, the 15-year-old girl told the store's manager that two men had just raped her in a ditch outside, a police report says.

Paramedics took the girl to Del E. Webb Hospital in Sun City West, where medical staff found physical evidence of sexual assault, according to deputy chief Bill Knight, head of the sheriff's central investigations, who researched the case.

At midnight, a detective from the MCSO's special victims unit arrived at the hospital to begin an investigation, the report says.

But the investigation never really began.

The MCSO closed the case a month later by designating it "exceptionally cleared," which is supposed to be applied to cases where a suspect is known and there's enough evidence to make an arrest but circumstances prevent an arrest. That designation allows the MCSO to count the case in the same reporting category as investigations that end in arrest.

But in this case, the detectives didn't have a suspect and appear to have done no work on the case.

The girl had run away from a group home where she said she'd been physically abused. As she wandered through El Mirage, two men approached her and offered to share a cigarette, the police report says.

They all walked to a retention basin near Thunderbird Road. One man pulled down her shorts, the girl told officers, and they both forced her to have sex with them. The men gave her money to keep quiet.

When officers arrived, the girl retraced the series of events.

"As my flashlight lit up a tree just to the east of the dumpster she said, 'Right there by that tree,'" El Mirage officer Phillip Witte Jr. wrote in his report.

The officers transferred the case to the MCSO's special victims unit once the girl arrived at the hospital for examination. A detective showed up, but the case file does not reflect that he did anything else. Knight, who followed up on a number of cases brought to his attention by the Tribune, including this one, also found that no investigation was done and the case was closed just a month after the assault while they were still waiting for DNA analysis to come in.

In May, an El Mirage detective called a sergeant with the MCSO's investigations bureau to determine what happened with the case. "The report was x-cleared but he did not know when or why," the town's detective wrote.

To "exceptionally clear" a criminal investigation, MCSO detectives must have identified a suspect, but cannot make an arrest due to "technicalities," the agency's policy says. Those technicalities include uncooperative victims or if the statute of limitations for the crime has expired.

But in this case the detectives did not have a suspect.

In response to a public records request, the MCSO released what officials said were investigative files for Queen Creek and Guadalupe. In each town, a number of cases were exceptionally cleared but no investigative work appeared to have been done by detectives.

Knight said he is not concerned that detectives use the incorrect label to close cases, so long as they conduct a thorough investigation.

But the labels do matter.

The FBI counts exceptionally cleared cases as arrests in its annual report on crime in the United States, but it has strict requirements for using that label.

Police departments must have enough evidence to make an arrest, have identified the suspect's exact location, but cannot arrest the suspect because of circumstances out of their control in order to close cases by "exception."

MCSO detectives closed three times as many cases designated as exceptional - 2,725 - as cases with arrests - 876 - in 2006. The MCSO began its anti-illegal immigration operations that year; the number of criminal investigations that detectives cleared exceptionally rocketed 37 percent.

The central investigations division has the same turnover and manpower shortages as the patrol districts, finance records show. Two of the human smuggling unit's most active detectives were transferred from central investigations.

"Is there possibly some miscategorization?" Knight said. "Yeah, that's certainly possible. We have a lot of new people come into those assignments all the time."

Less manpower, slower response

(click on image to enlarge)

SPECIAL VICTIMS

The MCSO is trying to determine exactly what happened with its El Mirage investigations.

On June 13, Tribune reporters sat down with Arpaio; his media relations director, Lisa Allen; spokesman Paul Chagolla; enforcement division chief Brian Sands; budget chief Loretta Barkell; and patrol chief Frank Munnell to talk about what the newspaper's investigation had found. The session was recorded and, among other things, the Tribune brought up the El Mirage cases and the lack of investigation.

The reaction from MCSO officials was immediate and indignant. Arpaio, Allen, Sands and Chagolla all expressed surprise that anyone was accusing the MCSO of leaving cases uninvestigated. They contended the new El Mirage police administrators were political enemies and just trying to make them look bad.

"Not investigated?" Allen said, her voice rising.

"I find that odd. I mean, it's suspiciously odd to me."

But a week later, in another recorded interview that this time included Knight, the investigations chief told reporters that El Mirage had told them of the problem in October, and that the MCSO has had an internal affairs investigation into the matter since May.

"There was some stuff turned over that should have been worked more efficiently," Knight said. "And I can tell you from an administrative standpoint, some of those folks are under administrative investigation right now for some of those cases."

Chagolla now says that the top echelon of the MCSO - Arapio, Allen and Sands, who directly supervises Knight - had no idea there was an internal affairs investigation of that magnitude.

The MCSO's internal affairs bureau is investigating how the special victims unit, which specializes in sex crimes, handled cases from El Mirageand from every other part of the county, Knight said.

"We're taking a look at everything these people had during that time period," he said.

Knight said he does not know how many cases are included in the investigation; federal law forbids him from involvement, as he oversees the special victims unit.

But crime statistics from the MCSO show that internal affairs could be reviewing about 200 sex crimes from that period to see if they were investigated and, if not, why.

The MCSO became aware of the problem in October, when El Mirage formed its own police department. The MCSO turned over about 70 sex crime case files to the new department from the two years that the MCSO was responsible for police work there.

"When those cases came back, we were told we were going to have a summary of the cases and that they'd pretty well been worked," said El Mirage Police Chief Mike Frazier. "And so when we got them, there was a sheet on the front, as I recall, but there was 'not worked, not worked.'"

The Tribune reviewed 350 violent crime cases from El Mirage that the MCSO turned over to the town. Case files for 18 armed robberies and aggravated assault show virtually no followup by detectives, in addition to the 12 sexual assaults.

El Mirage police hired an additional detective just to go through the MCSO files and determine whether there were investigations that should be continued.

On the sex crimes in particular, the town's detectives took issue with how little work MCSO had done.

"I received this case, along with numerous others from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in October 2007. None of these cases had been investigated by the county," an El Mirage detective wrote as he closed a reported sex crime.

That case involved a 13-year-old girl who accused her father of having raped her months earlier. MCSO detectives closed the case when the girl's mother called to say she did not want MCSO "to pursue this investigation," MCSO records show.

After Frazier told the MCSO's central investigations bureau about the uninvestigated cases, Knight said he offered to take back and recheck the work.

Frazier said he declined because El Mirage's department had become fully operational, and the cases were its responsibility now. Later, Frazier said, another official from the MCSO called to apologize.

"They were all, honestly and I think sincerely, a little embarrassed," Frazier said.