A Phoenix police officer’s alleged threat to harm Mayor Kate Gallego comes as the mayor pushes forward changes to the way the city investigates claims of police misconduct, causing tension to escalate between her and the law enforcement community.
Details about the threat haven’t been released, although police officials have characterized it as an officer making an “unprofessional” or “threatening” comment and the mayor’s office said it was a “credible threat” to harm the mayor.
Gallego and the City Council have been talking for the past year about how to hold police accountable for misconduct. As the mayor has shown support for allowing residents to be involved in investigating claims of excessive police force through a citizen review board, it has put her at odds with some police officers who disagree with that approach.
Now, just days before Tuesday’s election in which Gallego faces two challengers for the mayoral spot, police are investigating one of their own.
The officer, Steve Poulos, has been assigned to home, and Gallego has been provided with additional security detail.
Poulos has been with the department for about 22 years. He declined to comment through his attorney on Thursday.
Tempe Police Department is handling the criminal investigation to determine whether the officer should face any charges. Phoenix Police Department is conducting an internal investigation, which will determine if the officer’s alleged comments violate department policy.
Police have not released details about the alleged threat or in what context it was made.
As to what spurred such a threat, Councilmember Carlos Garcia said a city police union is partly to blame for creating conflict, while one of Gallego’s challengers, Merissa Hamilton, said the mayor has “undermined the good work of our police,” and created divisiveness with “anti-police rhetoric.”
Gallego declined to comment.
Who is Poulos?
Poulos joined the Phoenix Police Department in 1998 after four years with the Pittsburgh Police Department.
Documents from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which certifies law enforcement officers in Arizona, show he has no major misconduct violations.
Requests for detailed personnel records from the Phoenix Police Department weren’t immediately returned.
Poulos never moved up from the rank of police officer throughout his more than two decades with the department. He is likely eligible to retire with a full pension.
Ben Leuschner, president of Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, which represents Phoenix police leaders, said the association’s take on what happened with the threat was “there was an officer who made a very unprofessional comment at work.”
“We condemn any kind of unprofessional comments,” he said. “That’s something we would never condone.”
Councilmember partially blames police union for conflict
Garcia, who has been the most outspoken voice on the council about police misconduct, says he believes the Police Law Enforcement Association, the union representing many city police officers, is partly to blame for the incident.
PLEA is the larger and more vocal of the unions that represent the rank-and-file officers in Phoenix.
Garcia said the union’s messaging to their members may have made him and the mayor “a target.”
“They continue to make us a villain in this whole scenario when what we are trying to do is bring accountability,” he said. “They have a lot to be blamed for.”
Poulos is not a member of PLEA, but the Fraternal Order of Police Phoenix, according to officials. FOP declined to comment on the allegation as it remains under investigation.
In response to Garcia’s comments, PLEA President Britt London told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that the councilmember’s comments and alignment with local activists advocating for the abolishment of police were responsible for the animosity between the groups.
“I feel that Councilman Garcia is in large part playing into the divisiveness of the community because he continues with unproven rhetoric regarding police across the nation and especially here in Phoenix,” London said. “I wish people wouldn’t jump to conclusions without knowing the facts and letting things play out.”
Asked to comment on the alleged threat, Hamilton, who is running for mayor and has been endorsed by the Arizona Police Association, pointed back to Gallego. She said it’s concerning the mayor is “politicizing the alleged threat and refusing to release full details about it, in what is a clear attempt to distract from her full-throated embrace of the anti-police committee that is dangerous to our city and empowers violent people to revictimize the very survivors we should be protecting.”
Tensions rise after critical February vote
The council’s discussions about police oversight began more than a year ago.
This was long before George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, causing protesters to take to the streets across the country — including in front of Phoenix City Hall for weeks — to call for more police accountability and prompting many large cities to change police policies.
The discussions in Phoenix were prompted by a public outcry following a high number of police shootings over the past nine years, a number of use-of-force cases that resulted in legal settlements and a May 2019 viral cellphone video showing a white police officer pointing a gun at a Black man and his family during a shoplifting investigation.
Gallego said at the time the video was released that she was “sick” over what she saw and called police officers’ behavior “completely inappropriate and clearly unprofessional.”
Gallego and Garcia both proposed plans for the new oversight board, but Gallego voted in February in support of Garcia’s plan, which called for residents to be involved in internal investigations of police misconduct.
The oversight board will be part of a new Office of Accountability and Transparency, which will provide the city another layer of police oversight.
PLEA opposes this, and it has pointed out that the department already allows residents to be involved in officer disciplinary cases by serving on use-of-force boards, disciplinary review boards and the city’s civil service board.
Garcia had proposed giving residents even more power by allowing the Office of Accountability and Transparency to conduct its own investigation or interview officers independently, but that idea is now in question after a new draft of a city ordinance said that residents would simply “monitor and participate,” in investigations.
Many advocates of reform said this didn’t go far enough.
PLEA asks whether Gallego supports police
The conflict between PLEA and Gallego began years ago.
Gallego served on the City Council from 2014 to 2018, before resigning to run for mayor.
During contract negotiations with PLEA during her first year in office, Gallego made a motion to increase police officer pay. Then she voted against the motion, something that doesn’t often happen.
She did so in front of a crowd of police officers and their families, which the president of another police union, the Arizona Police Association, said gave them “false hope” that they would get raises.
Phoenix Councilmember Jim Waring said he believes that vote got the mayor’s relationship with PLEA off to a bad start.
The relationship has soured further in recent months, especially after the February vote.
After that vote, PLEA put out a news release titled “The mayor and city council do not have your back!”
“Although Mayor Gallego claimed she supports the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department, it was clear to us she did a complete 180-degree turn from her original proposal … because she pandered to the audience,” the association wrote.
Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego on being a mother and leadership through these times
Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego discusses being a mother, leadership and change during these tumultuous times.
Garcia says PLEA Facebook posts make the issues personal
In June, PLEA asked Gallego and every council member to take a “public stance and support Phoenix police officers.” Since, the union has frequently noted on its Facebook page that Gallego has not responded to the request.
The posts often incite dozens of comments against the mayor. Some call her an “idiot” or other names. Others suggest that the city should remove her security detail — city police officers — until she announces her full support for police.
PLEA has not posted on its Facebook page since Tuesday, when the initial news of the threat was made public.
When these posts go up, Garcia said, he gets an influx of angry calls and emails.
Garcia said he knows that he will face criticism from PLEA as he tries to bring more accountability to the department, but he said the organization should not make it personal.
Garcia said he and his family have received threatening comments, by phone, email and on social media. He has had conversations with his wife and children about what to do if they see something suspicious or threatening.
“Even though I know what I’m getting myself into, I do worry about my safety,” he said. “Especially for my family.”
He said that the threat to Gallego “signals an escalation” from officers who are opposed to the mayor and council’s recent actions.
PLEA not representative of all Phoenix police
Multiple police associations represent Phoenix police employees, and have different relationships with the mayor.
Waring said he knows that some officers are “adamantly opposed” to the idea of the new oversight office. But he said that doesn’t mean every police officer is, and he doesn’t believe all of law enforcement has the same relationship with the mayor.
“I’m sure there are officers who are favorably disposed to her,” he said. “I don’t think the alleged comments of one officer are indicative of the whole department. I’m certainly not claiming that.”
Leuschner said that his organization tries to stay relatively neutral when it comes to whether they support the mayor and council.
“What we will say is that what we would like to hear more of from our city leadership is an unwavering support of the police in general,” he said. “And a lot of our members have felt like that has been missing.”
He said that, when law enforcement officials don’t feel they have the support of city leaders, “that’s when morale really takes a hit.”
“That’s what we have been seeing,” he said.
What comment says about police culture
Leuschner said the fact that the officer’s comment was immediately addressed by the supervisor and taken up the chain of command shows that the culture doesn’t allow for unprofessional conduct to go unaddressed.
“I think there is a public misunderstanding about the way the Police Department works, or, for that matter, our culture,” he said. “We like to actually let the public know we take care of those kinds of issues.”
Garcia looks at the incident as saying something much different about police culture: An officer felt safe enough to make a threatening comment against the mayor while in a work environment.
Garcia praised the person or people who reported the comment but said he is now worried that they will face retaliation. He wants there to be whistleblower protections in the Police department so that employees can report actions of their colleagues without retaliation.
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Published at Fri, 30 Oct 2020 21:34:00 +0000