Mesa Police will launch a new Critical Incident Review Board in about 30 days to more thoroughly critique a wider variety of use-of-force incidents as part of a series of reforms.
The new board culminates 18 months of review of use-of-force policies initiated when former Chief Ramon Batista called in the national Police Executive Research Forum in the wake of two controversial, but non-lethal, cases captured on video in 2018.
Police adopted 66 recommendations for improvements from a March 2019 report and have spent the last nine months reviewing them with a community advisory panel.
When considered as a group, the reforms represent a framework for much tighter oversight of lethal and non-lethal incidents involving Mesa officers that cause serious injury.
More people would be watching than ever before. An officer-involved shooting would trigger three teams of investigations—criminal, administrative and the new advanced training unit.
The advanced training unit’s function is to spot trends in use-of-force incidents and to correct potential errors immediately through additional training rather than waiting months until an officer’s annual proficiency training.
“It’s a comprehensive review that looks at the legality aspect, the policy aspect and the training aspect,’’ Assistant Chief Lee Rankin said. “It’s been a long, painstaking process. This demonstrates not only the commitment of this department, but of the city.’’
He said the department is now incorporating the reforms into its daily operations during an implementation stage.
“This represents a significant change in the way we do business,’’ Rankin said.
But for some protesters and critics, the changes are not significant enough.
Pastor Andre Miller, who participated on a community advisory panel that was briefed on the series of reforms, criticized the new board before its creation.
He contends that it’s too much like the department’s current low-profile use-of-force board and does not provide an opportunity for adequate civilian oversight of police behavior.
In both the previous and new boards, civilians are relegated to a non-voting advisory role, possibly providing some input but with no teeth in changing the way the department operates, he said.
“I really think that’s like smoke and mirrors. That’s really nothing,’’ Miller said.
He said what Mesa Police need is true oversight with civilians voting on such issues as whether a shooting is justified or if there should be a policy change.
But Mesa’s charter bars civilian review.
“I think it would be outside the scope of my ability to have citizens have a vote,’’ Rankin said.
Creation of a civilian police review board was one of the demands made by a group of about 50 protestors who marched on City Hall in a peaceful but confrontational protest two weeks ago, accusing Mesa officers of brutality in a series of shootings and other incidents.
At the protest, Miller said he wanted a proposal on a civilian law enforcement review board added to the Nov. 3 election ballot – which is unlikely since the deadline for filing initiatives for the Nov. 4 ballot is July 2.
A civilian review board would require a change in Mesa’s City Charter, which expressly prohibits such a board.
Miller said he would need to collect about 8,000 valid signatures to place such a proposal on the ballot or would have to convince City Council to place it on the ballot.
But Miller said he has only one firm yes vote for such a ballot measure, from Councilman Jeremy Whittaker. He also said that because of the steep charter hurdle, it seems premature to bring forward a specific proposal.
In the end, he said, it may be better to mount a drive to recall Mesa Mayor John Giles, whom he views as an obstacle to a civilian review board.
“If he wins the election and nothing is done, we will recall the mayor,’’ Miller said.
That also requires the 8,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
Giles said that city officials are in the preliminary stages of exploring the concept of adding civilian review. He said he neither supports nor opposes it but that he is open to improving the Police Department in a variety of ways.
“I hate to scrap that before it is up and running,’’ Giles said about the new Critical Incident Review Board. “Our Police Department is very committed to it.’’
Unless Miller has 8,000 signatures ready to submit by July 1, it is impossible to get a civilian review question on the ballot until 2022, Giles said. He said the city’s deadline for submitting ballot questions already has passed.
“It allows us to be more thoughtful, to allow all of the stakeholders to come together, not in a rushed way,’’ Giles said. “I want to build trust in the community and I want to do the right thing.’’
“We have started looking into implicit bias. All of us come into every situation with implicit bias. We all have some baggage. We are committed to being better,’’ he said.
During the most recent protest, Miller criticized the city for devoting $50 million from the $90 million it received in federal pandemic relief funds to public safety.
The remaining $40 million went to a wide range of expanded social services including food distribution, efforts to prevent homelessness, laptops for elementary school students and programs to aid the homeless.
“Police have turned into warriors, not guardians. I don’t need the military showing up at my door for a mental health problem,’’ Miller said.
The forum performed an analysis of 1,609 use-of-force incidents involving 552 officers between July 2015 and June 2018. It found that 88 percent of subjects involved in the incidents were men and the average age was 32.
A racial breakdown showed that 22 percent of subjects involved in physical confrontations with police were Hispanic, who make up 27.4 percent of Mesa’s population.
But while Blacks comprise only 3.7 percent of Mesa’s population, they were involved in 13 percent of use-of-force incidents.
“The median number of reports an officer was involved in was four, and 23 officers were involved in 15 or more reports,’’ the analysis said. “A relatively small number of officers are involved in incidents requiring use-of-force reports, with some apparent outliers involved in a disproportionate number of reports.’’
Speakers at the recent city council meeting urged a delay in police funding, rallying behind the national Defund the Police movement. They argued the money would be better spent on behavioral health practitioners than on armed officers.
Council dismissed their complaints and approved funding for forensic supplies.
“What we are seeing in the media is not what we are seeing in Mesa,’’ East Mesa Councilman Kevin Thompson said.
But Whittaker said he supports putting a civilian review proposal on the ballot, even if it requires a special election.
“I don’t have an issue with an oversight committee. Why shouldn’t the voters have a place to go’’ to air their grievances, he said.
However, Whittaker said Mesa is still a conservative city and a civilian review board does not appear to have much support.
“I don’t think it would pass,’’ Whittaker said.
Councilman Dave Luna said any proposal should be vetted by Mesa’s Human Relations Commission.
Councilman Francisco Heredia said he generally supports the concept of civilian oversight, but he said such a major change should not be rushed onto the ballot without a thorough review.
“I want to see a better policy around accountability and use-of-force and not having militarized equipment,’’ Heredia said.
Giles has been attempting to address the racial issue up front since the May 25 slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis was captured on video, igniting a wave of protests nationwide, including two in Mesa.
Giles has acknowledged the existence of “systemic racism’’ in society and said the Floyd’s death marks a “watershed moment,’’ where society needs to address inequities in the treatment of minorities.
“I want to build trust in the community and I want to do the right thing,’’ Giles said.
Beyond the Critical Incident Review Board and beefed up training, the reforms focus mostly on common sense suggestions, such as making use-of-force statistics more readily available.
Yellow tasers would replace black tasers, making them easier to distinguish from a handgun. The same concept would be applied to shotguns used to fire less lethal bean bag rounds.
One recommendation police rejected, however, was to eliminate use of the carotid maneuver, with the report saying it requires too much training for too few incidents.
Instead, Mesa police chose to keep the maneuver as one additional tool that could save an officer’s life. Instead, it adopted the forum’s recommendation to clarify a policy that authorizes the maneuver only when an officer’s life is in danger.
The carotid maneuver’s goal is to force the person fighting with an officer to pass out. Choke holds, which restrict breathing and can end in death, are not allowed.
Police statistics show the maneuver has been used sparingly, three times in 2016, one in 2017, three in 2018 and two in 2019.