Tempe officials have been struggling for the past week to limit damage to the reputation of the city and its police department after Tribune writer Nick Martin profiled a November segment of a cable TV program that featured a police sergeant who stopped two young black men for littering and asked them to rap for a video camera.
Public reaction to Martin’s story and the national media coverage that followed has confused concerns about the “Tempe StreetBeat” show as it appeared on the city cable channel, as opposed to the actions of its host, Sgt. Chuck Schovillle. This segment showed Schoville speaking with the two young men after stopping their vehicle in the parking lot of Arizona Mills mall.
Schoville appears to offer to waive a $500 ticket for tossing out a fast food wrapper if they perform an impromptu rap about littering. At the end of the segment, when one of the men tells Schoville he’s right about a sports comment, Schoville says, “You know why you say I’m right? Because I have a badge and a gun. I’m always right.”
As edited and broadcast, this segment clearly was inappropriate and displayed (we hope) an incorrect view of the professionalism and character of the Tempe Police Department. Police officers have wide discretion in writing a ticket or simply issuing a warning for minor infractions. But they never should put people in the position of paying to avoid justice by providing entertainment or some other favor.
There’s an obvious racial element in this case because viewers can’t tell if the officer had some reason to believe the two men were rappers or assumed so because they are young and black. But the scene would have been just as offensive if an officer had asked them to sing a country song, to dance around a Mexican sombrero or to buy him a croissant.
Also, Schoville’s final statement manages to invoke the fear and intimidation that many blacks and other minorities have experienced in dealing with this country’s law enforcement — that anyone who questions those in authority will feel the full force of their police power.
New Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff and other top city officials apparently never saw this “StreetBeat” show on the cable channel. But they instinctively knew it was wrong when the show was brought to their attention. Mayor Hugh Hallman immediately apologized for the video’s messages and promised to deal with those in city government whose poor judgment led to its airing.
But Hallman rightly has withheld any criticism of Schoville’s actions as a police officer. The 25-year veteran is entitled to a fair review of his interaction with the two men, much of which wasn’t visible on the “StreetBeat” program. Additional video footage released by the city gives the strong impression that Schoville always intended to provide a warning instead of a ticket, and his request for a rap song was part of a longer conversation seeking to make some connection with the two men.
An internal investigation will determine if any of Schoville’s actions fell outside Tempe’s expectations for proper conduct. But what was presented to Tempe residents on his “StreetBeat” program as an example of fine police work was nothing of the kind.