Some East Valley law enforcement agencies have tightened training practices and policies since the death of Scottsdale police Sgt. Thomas A. Hontz during a training exercise in Gilbert a year ago today.
Hontz, 45, was the first Scottsdale officer to die in the line of duty in the city’s 51-year history. He was killed during a police and fire training exercise with chemical agents. The 24-year police veteran and former SWAT team leader died from shrapnel injuries suffered when a "gas ax'' exploded outside an abandoned house.
Gas axes are used to break through walls and disperse chemicals into enclosed rooms to subdue suspects. They are not commonly used in the Valley, police said.
The particular tool Hontz used was on loan from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and was given to the Scottsdale police without instructions or warnings, police reports show. Eleven others suffered injuries in that joint training session attended by Scottsdale police, Gilbert police and firefighters, and one member of the Rural/Metro Fire Department.
The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health Review Board fined Scottsdale $7,000, the maximum penalty, for the accident. Division officials said Scottsdale violated a basic safety standard when Hontz loaded the gas ax with a smoke grenade, which was never intended for that use. Tempe and Scottsdale stopped training with gas axes after Hontz's death.
"It has been taken out of service and we have no plans at this point to use it in the future as a result of that incident," Tempe police Sgt. Dan Masters said.
Though the majority of departments do not use gas axes, they have taken other safety steps with their equipment, such as tear gas and pepper spray.
Scottsdale has made the most significant changes. All new equipment and training now must receive approval from the deputy police chief level. Officers also are required to wear protective gear until training is finished and until they leave a training site. Hontz was not wearing his gear when the accident occurred at 5 p.m., according to police reports.
"The gas ax, our chief of police (Doug Bartosh) was unaware that it was being used. And, there was not policy requiring that such equipment was to be reviewed through the chief's office or authorized by the chief's office. So, with the death of Tom Hontz, that's been a policy put into place,'' said officer Scott Reed, Scottsdale police public information officer.
There's also a daily reminder for many police employees in Scottsdale — a simple framed photo of Hontz hanging in police headquarters on East Via Linda.
Scottsdale and Mesa have since discarded expired gas tools, which acting Scottsdale Police Chief Alan Rodbell said was "pretty standard practice in law enforcement circles'' and have updated their product information and manufacturers' written safety precautions to serve as references.
"There was no approval that was necessary for someone to experiment with something that they wanted to try or test so now there's a review process,'' said Rodbell, adding no requests have been made within the department since the policy was put in place. "Obviously, no untested equipment is being experimented with.''
Lt. Bob Gervasi, Mesa SWAT commander, said his department conducted an inventory over the summer and discarded all of its expired smoke grenades and tear gas tools that police typically would use for training. It also now keeps manufacturer safety manuals on hand during all training sessions and operations.
"Virtually every kind of munition we have has an expiration,'' Gervasi said. "We've gotten rid of all our old stuff.''
In Chandler, detective Emma Bribiescas said her department always is in search of new and innovative ways to upgrade its training, but not as a result of Hontz's accident.
"It's a piece of equipment that our agency does not use and apparently was not very common throughout the Valley,'' Bribiescas said. "Obviously, the people who were working with that piece of equipment were very well trained in Scottsdale and felt that it was not a safety concern at the time they were doing it. They did not realize the danger of what they were dealing with."
Gilbert has made no changes and information could not be obtained from Phoenix police, the sheriff's office or the Arizona Department of Public Safety, whose representatives did not return repeated messages.