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Citizen Staff Report

Hanging fire on discipline

Action, if any, against officers may take months

Citizen Staff Report

It could be October before it’s known whether any Tucson police officers will face discipline for their actions in the Fourth Avenue riot.

A citizen panel appointed by Police Chief Richard Miranda to review police actions during the April 2 riot is struggling to digest more information than anticipated.

The panel, formed in early May, originally was expected to complete its work in six to eight weeks. But it could take longer because of the crush of logs, reports and videos to examine.

A police special board of inquiry, which would recommend any discipline, is to complete its review of the panel’s findings by the end of August.

Miranda then will decide whether any officers are disciplined, Assistant Police Chief Robert Lehner said last week. Such a decision could take another month.

With the review panel still at work, Lehner said, “It’s too early to say if any discipline is coming out of this.”

But “there are several instances where the use of force and the decision to use force have been called into question,” he said.

The citizen panel has held five public meetings, hearing from more than 50 speakers and sifting through hundreds of pages of documents. But key questions about police behavior in the riot remain unanswered:

- Why did police decide that rubber bullets and other “less-lethal” munitions would be the method for controlling crowds if things got out of hand during the University of Arizona basketball team’s appearance in the national championship game?

- Why were so many people who were not rioting struck with less-lethal weapons?

- Why were several people – including the only police officer wounded in the riot – shot in the head with less-lethal munitions when police say they are trained to fire them at legs?

- How much training did officers receive in crowd control and the use of less-lethal weapons?

- Why did police think a massive show of force was necessary?

- How do police explain a major contradiction in their post-riot reports?

Having a citizen panel – a first for the Police Department – review police actions has slowed the typical department review process for major incidents, Lehner said.

“It is definitely slower than it would be otherwise, but the value is certainly worth the time,” he said.

The panel itself cannot recommend discipline to officers who may have used excessive force but can say it is “concerned with the use of force in some areas,” Lehner said.

Panelist Brigitte Jordan, who represents the Iron Horse neighborhood adjacent to Fourth Avenue, said she did not want to comment on how the process is working. Jordan said the panel voted to not talk to the media because the meetings are open to the public and the media.

“I want to respect the other panel members,” she said.

The panel’s review includes an examination of police training records and policies, the NCAA championship deployment strategy, police post-incident reports, and about 20 hours of video footage of the incident. Because of its comprehensive nature, panel members say they may need to meet twice a week.

The next panel meeting is Thursday, in the Crystal Ballroom at the Tucson Convention Center. It begins at 6 p.m.

Panel member Bob Smith, news director for KOLD-TV, said he feels overwhelmed by the “the amount of all the documents.”

“I didn’t go into it with any expectations, but there is a lot of information to pore over,” he said. “We are getting all the information we requested. This is what we wanted, and we need the information to make intelligent recommendations.”

In spite of intense publicity and criticism of the way police handled the riot and the amount of force they used to control the avenue, command officers and sergeants said police do not feel they are the subject of a community witch hunt. They believe they still have the support of most of the community.

“In police work you can make decisions, but we can’t please everyone all the time,” said Capt. William Washington, head of the department’s South Side patrol district. “I haven’t heard any grumbling.”

“Actually,” Washington said, “it’s pretty quiet down here on the South Side. Actually, it’s kind of old news.”

Other officers said they understand the reason for the inquiry.

“I don’t think they feel it’s a witch hunt,” said Capt. James Gerrettie, who heads the department’s East Side patrol district. “I certainly think they expect that, given the significance of the event, it’s certainly not out of the ordinary to have things gone over.”

In past decades police have shown opposition to outside, especially civilian, reviews of police methods of operation.

But Gerrettie said he did not think that was as prevalent an attitude as it once was.

“We’re part of the community,” he said.

Rank-and-file officers are waiting to see what comes out of the meetings.

Sgt. Richard Anemone, president of the Tucson Police Officers Association, who earlier told the Tucson Citizen that officers were “being crucified by the media,” said the committee is on track to accomplish its goals.

“When they’re given all the information, they’ll be reasonable and prudent, and they’ll be fair,” Anemone said.

Anemone said the association considered sending a representative to the panel meetings but decided against it.

Having a police union representative at the panel meetings “might hinder the committee. We’re just going to let them do their job,” Anemone said.

Robert Webster, the midtown patrol district’s community resources sergeant, deals with 55 neighborhood associations in the district. Many, he said, are unabashed about supporting the police.

“I’ve had numerous officers who have been approached by citizens who have gone out of their way to show support for them,” Webster said.

But, Webster added, officers “are not oblivious to the fact that not all went well” the night of the riot.

Anemone said many officers will not tolerate excessive force by their colleagues.

“Those who get punished for doing the wrong thing know they will get punished for doing the wrong thing,” Anemone said.

Political leaders are also awaiting the committee’s findings. They say the citizen panel is proceeding as they expected it to and that it should be given as much time as it needs.

“They’re being deliberate, and they need to be, but we’re all anxious for their output,” said Mayor Bob Walkup. “I don’t anticipate anything surprising, but I’m anxious to close this matter out, take appropriate action as required and get on with business.”

Miranda originally wanted the group’s meetings closed, arguing that an audience would be too distracting. But confronted with criticism from the news media and some council members, he changed his mind. All of the panel meetings have been open to the public.

“I’m glad it’s an open process to anyone who cares to participate or view,” said Councilwoman Shirley Scott.

Councilwoman Carol West agreed. She praised a process that allows “citizens an opportunity to come forward and express their concerns.”

Councilman Fred Ronstadt, whose ward includes North Fourth, said an extended time frame would be appropriate if it is needed.

“I don’t want the city to be accused, or the police to be accused, of purposefully overloading these people with information just to confuse them,” said Ronstadt, the only council member to make even a brief appearance at one of the panel meetings.

Other council members said they have watched portions of the panel meetings broadcast on Channel 12, the city-run cable network. All council members have said they are supportive of the Police Department’s overall actions during the riot and Miranda’s handling of the incident.

Council members Steve Leal and José Ibarra declined to comment on the panel’s progress, saying they preferred to wait until the group’s work is complete because they feared influencing its results.

“I’m anxious to see what the result is,” said Councilman Jerry Anderson. “I think (the panel) needs to be allowed at least to go through the process, and we’ll go from there.”

City Manager James Keene, who oversees the police and all other city departments, said the panel appears to be “progressing ahead in a very positive fashion,” adding that he would support extending its deliberations if need be.

“The commission is going to be able to define the amount of time that it takes to complete their work,” he said. “If that proves to be a little longer than we’ve programmed, then that needs to take place.”

But Keene hopes the review is “going to result in some specific recommendations and ultimately some changes, certainly in some of the police approaches, and there may be some recommendations for other sectors of the community.”

Ronstadt, stressing that he supports Miranda and the rank-and-file Tucson police officers, said individual acts of police misconduct, if they occurred, need to be addressed.

“I don’t have an expectation,” he said. “I’m not presupposing that there were individuals who misacted, but if there are, we need to have those individuals identified and take appropriate action. Every event allows us an opportunity to review it and make improvements on the process.”

Citizen Staff Writers David L. Teibel, Michael Lafleur and Michael R. Graham contributed to this report.

Q & A

No answers to pointed questions about the riot

Here are some unanswered questions about the Tucson Police Department’s role in the April 2 riot on Fourth Avenue. The answers, compiled by Citizen staff writers, are based on the latest information available from police and other sources.

• Why did police decide rubber bullets and other “less-lethal” munitions would be the method for controlling crowds if things got out of hand during the University of Arizona basketball team’s appearance in the national championship game?

Although police have long used less-lethal weapons in high-risk arrests and to subdue suicidal people, the Fourth Avenue riot is believed to be the first time they were used for crowd control in Tucson.

In preparing for possible disturbances, police stockpiled less-lethal munitions by borrowing hundreds of rounds from other law enforcement agencies.

More than 450 rounds were fired during the riot, and at least a dozen people sought treatment for injuries at local hospitals. The most seriously injured was a 19-year-old University of Arizona student hit in the face with a beanbag fired from a police shotgun: His eye was so damaged it had to be removed.

In similar riots this year at Purdue University and the University of Maryland after NCAA Tournament losses, police had but chose not to use less-lethal weapons.

At Purdue University, police used tear gas, which Tucson police used to break up disturbances when UA won the national basketball championship in 1997.

Police here say they started preparing for another basketball riot after the 1997 championship. Four people including a police officer, suffered minor injuries and six people were arrested in the disturbance that broke out on Fourth Avenue after the victory. Police used tear gas to break up crowds that night, but said they were concerned that it wafted into nearby neighborhoods.

• Why were so many people who were not rioting struck with less-lethal weapons?

At least 40 people reported being struck by less-lethal weapons, the vast majority of them shop owners trying to protect their property, journalists covering the riot, and people who said they were trying to obey a police order to disperse. Some were shot in the back.

Police commanders haven’t offered an explanation for why nonrioters were shot. The head of the police officers union, Sgt. Richard Anemone, earlier told the Citizen, “There is no way to know who is the good guy getting out.”

Some people were shot multiple times and two neighborhood residents have filed complaints with police alleging that officers fired on them more than an hour after the riot had died down.

A total of 10 people have filed complaints with police, alleging officers used excessive force. The cases, which are being investigated by the Internal Affairs unit, all remain open.

• Why were several people – including the only police officer wounded in the riot – shot in the head with less-lethal munitions when police say they are trained to fire them at legs?

Police have offered no explanation for how the UA student who lost an eye could have been struck in the head. The police officer who was wounded was hit in the ear. And a former Drexel Heights Fire Department paramedic filed a complaint with police after he said a rubber bullet clipped off part of his ear.

• How much training did officers receive in crowd control and the use of less-lethal weapons?

In post-riot reports, one of the commanders of the seven units involved in the riot said he had no training in when and how to use less-lethal weapons.

Other commanders wrote that their officers had no riot training and that they were at risk for injuries because they were not issued the proper riot gear.

• Why did police think a massive show of force was necessary?

More than 450 officers – nearly half the police force – were on duty on Fourth Avenue and other neighborhoods popular with UA students during the NCAA title game.

The deployment cost taxpayers about $60,000 in overtime pay. The total cost for the police presence during the championship game and the semifinal game was more than $200,000.

• How do police explain a major contradiction in their post-riot reports?

A police commander wrote that the media were warned about the possible use of less-lethal munitions during a briefing before the Final Four.

News executives and reporters at the meeting said they don’t recall the discussion. They said they were warned only that reporters could be subject to arrest if they remained in an area after police had issued an order to disperse.

Assistant Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said police would not comment on anything in the post-riot reports until after a citizens panel reviewing police actions in the riot has had a chance to examine them.


Vehicles burn and police advance against rioters during a melee after the University of Arizona’s loss in the NCAA basketball championship game.

GARY GAYNOR/Tucson Citizen

(No caption)

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