The Gilbert Police Department is keeping information about Mayor Steve Berman’s extensive weapons cache a secret, after a court commissioner’s decision that the mayor is too volatile to possess any weapons.
Berman was forced to turn over his gun collection to the police last week after a court commissioner decided he “poses a credible threat of bodily injury” to his estranged wife, Michelle, who recently accused him of years of physical abuse.
The order essentially put Berman's private collection into the public sphere, with the guns being guarded by public officials and documented in police records.
But on Thursday, the police department refused to release information showing what kinds of weapons Berman gave up.
In fact, in responding to a public records request from the Tribune, the agency instead released page after page of heavily redacted documents, hiding the descriptions, makes, models and values of the mayor's weapons.
Based on a count of blacked-out lines in the document, the mayor turned over at least 26 such items to the agency, but an exact number is impossible to obtain.
The document, put together by officer Dave Rich, said simply that Berman turned over "a number" of guns and ammunition to the police.
The secrecy appears to be an unusual attempt to keep public records away from the public, said Phoenix lawyer Dan Barr, who specializes in First Amendment cases and has represented the Tribune.
"Frankly, this strikes me as a report that is fairly straightforward," said Barr. "This isn't a public report dealing with something private, like a sexual assault victim."
In keeping the information secret, clerks with the department first pointed to a new policy that went into effect on Monday - four days after the Tribune originally requested access to the information.
The policy, enacted by police Chief Tim Dorn, references a state identity theft prevention law.
The law bars governments from releasing someone's personal information, such as addresses, bank account numbers or credit card information.
It says nothing about guns or ammunition.
The identity theft law, however, does say it cannot be used to "restrict, diminish or otherwise affect" the state's public records law.
Barr said he has never heard of the identity theft law being used to mask the description of guns.
"Do guns have privacy rights?" Barr said. "I don't think so."
Berman could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Melvin McDonald, said "it's nobody's business" what types of weapons are in the mayor's collection or how much they're worth.
Though the mayor is the subject of a domestic violence investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, his guns have nothing to do with that, McDonald said.
Berman was only told to turn over the weapons after a judge ordered him to stay away from his wife.
"The police are holding on to the guns pending a resolution of this matter," McDonald said, adding that he planned to appeal the judge's order in the coming days.
Late in the day, Gilbert police spokesman Sgt. Mark Marino said the reason for the censorship was a different department policy than was cited by the clerks.
The policy, he wrote in an e-mail, "is to redact any gun seizure case that contains three or more guns. We will redact any information necessary to protect the person from the potential or threat of future victimization and under the right of privacy."
When asked if there was a specific state law that allowed it, he referred questions to the town's attorneys, who could not be reached for comment.
Other police departments appear to have no such policy.
Sgt. Ed Wessing, the chief spokesman for Mesa police, said he can't see any reason to withhold the make and model of a weapon unless it was part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
"If there was an ongoing investigation I probably wouldn't be releasing the information any way," he said.
In many cases, particularly with large weapons seizures, Wessing said, guns are even put on display during news conferences.
In Gilbert, however, there seems to be a pattern emerging.
Since news of the domestic violence investigation involving the mayor spread in early July, town officials have been particularly tight-lipped.
Town Council members have declined to comment on numerous occasions. The mayor has ducked reporters - even once breaking into a full-blown sprint to avoid questions.
Even Dorn, the town's police chief, who originally asked the sheriff's office to investigate, was coy when first approached about the allegations by the Tribune.
"Gilbert is not investigating the mayor," he would only say at the time. "Gilbert is not investigating the mayor."
It wasn't until the sheriff's office confirmed that Gilbert police handed the case over to them that Dorn revealed the truth.