State police are reviewing basic procedures used by the Marana Police Department in its investigation of a death at a nightclub two years ago, but the state's review is restricted by the town from looking into allegations of misconduct and conflicts of interest involving Marana Police Chief David R. Smith raised by the Northwest EXPLORER in a series of articles earlier this year.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety last week began the limited review of the procedures used by the MPD in its investigation of the death of 23-year-old bar patron Westyn Lee Tanawa Hamilton, who died Dec. 2, 2000 while struggling with bouncers at the New West/Gotham Nightclub.
The articles published in January raised questions about the propriety of the investigation conducted by the MPD.
MPD officers, supervisors, Smith and the detectives who investigated Hamilton's death were paid an estimated $250,000 over two and a half years by the nightclub to work security, and often worked along side the bouncers involved in the fatal struggle with Hamilton.
The bouncers were cleared of any criminal charges after the investigation by the MPD. The Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner, which identified 52 cuts, bruises and abrasions on Hamilton's body, ruled the cause of death as restraint asphyxia, a little understood condition in which victims quit breathing usually while under stress and while being restrained.
Several MPD officers, including one of the homicide detectives that investigated Hamilton's death, said they believe Smith supported and protected the nightclub, and may have interfered with the investigation.
Lt. Tim Chung of the DPS' Special Investigations Unit said his unit's review would not be looking at the allegations of improper conduct by the MPD and Smith that were raised in the articles because the town had not requested them to do so.
"Personally, I've read articles, one article, but that's not part of our request (the request made to DPS by Marana). Our request is to specifically review the process and procedures in their investigation," Chung said. "We're reviewing their criminal investigation into this incident. We're looking at the methods and procedures that they used during their investigation."
Chung referred questions about the specific nature of the town's request and questions as to why the DPS was not looking into the allegations to Marana Town Attorney Dan Hochuli.
"I'm telling you that what my unit has been asked to do is to review the Marana Police Department's investigation," Chung said. "I believe that Mr. Hochuli can answer that question, whether it's determined to be a criminal investigation or administrative issue that the town can deal with."
Hochuli refused to comment beyond more than one statement because he claimed an EXPLORER reporter who interviewed him after Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr.'s state of the town address Nov. 12 "secretly recorded" his interview.
The reporter was holding a note pad and tape recorder in one hand and in plain view and a pen in the other during the interview.
In response to four questions about the scope of the DPS investigation requested by the town, and as to whether he had contacted the Special Investigations Unit, Hochuli would only repeat the same statement:
"We did everything that DPS asked us to do and more, and in response to that, the DPS said they could find nothing wrong in what the Marana Police Department has done, and commended the Marana Police Department for its actions," Hochuli said.
Commander Ron Miller, who heads the DPS' inspection unit which does administrative reviews of Arizona police agencies on request, said Hochuli and Sutton met with DPS officials last month.
Sutton and Hochuli gave the DPS copies of the EXPLORER articles and a report on a prestigious national certification MPD had recently been awarded, and asked for an administrative review of the MPD.
Miller said the DPS chose not to do an administrative review of MPD management procedures because the department had earned the nationally recognized certification by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in March.
"We reviewed the audit that was done by CALEA, there's nothing there that we can do or supplement. In fact, we found that it was a very thorough audit and it was very favorable to their agency. There was nothing else that we could do. So we were not going to duplicate what was already done, but we did say that we would come in and do a kind of a morale survey and that's what we're working on now," Miller said.
But Miller said he also suggested that Hochuli forward the more serious allegations to the DPS Special Investigations Unit.
"What was concluded on my part from that was that this would not be an inspection. I head the inspection team, I concluded from that article that if anybody was going to do anything it would be our Special Investigations Unit," Miller said.
Hamilton's mother, Toni Hamilton-Harper, said she believed the DPS investigators needed to look at all the allegations surrounding the case.
"I don't see how they can separate things like that," Hamilton-Harper said. "If they're going to look into my son's case, then they need to look at all the problems with how the police handled the investigation. It sounds like they are just covering up and sweeping things under the rug that they don't want to look at."
Sutton disclosed the successful outcome of the DPS administrative review based on the CALEA report during his state of the town address, but made no mention of the review by the Special Investigations Unit. (see story above)
Sutton said he couldn't recall if Miller asked him and Hochuli to take the more serious allegations to the Special Investigations Unit, or if the DPS itself decided to refer the matters to the investigators, but he knew the town wanted to stay impartial.
"I don't know that we referred anywhere. Because we weren't looking for anything specific, or we didn't want them looking at specific things. We tried to be general so there was no leading, or there was no interpretation that we were trying to get certain results out of them," Sutton said
He said he had limited his involvement to the one meeting with the DPS last month, and was unsure what exactly the state agency was asked to investigate.
"Just some of the things, basically, that were brought about from your paper, and we wanted to just shed a light from a different perspective. Not yours, not the town's, just whatever they thought they should look at. And they were familiar with some of the issues that were going on, but I don't remember any referrals.
"That wasn't what we were asking for. If they thought that it needed to go to a different department, we wanted them to make that decision. We really didn't want to be in the decision making process as to who looked at what," Sutton said.
Claims by current and former employees of the MPD of plummeting morale, an exodus of employees, uneven disciplinary measures and other matters related to Smith's administration prompted another series of articles by the EXPLORER in August and September. Smith refused to be interviewed for any of the stories.
In response to the series, Marana Town Manager Mike Hein sent a letter to the mayor and council, as well as to all members of the Marana Police Department, laying out his plans for "an outside agency review of morale in the police department and a review of some of the specific allegations raised."
Hein in his letter also characterized the articles as containing "innuendo and complaints garnered from access to disgruntled employees released from the department."
The EXPLORER spent almost two years on its investigation, interviewed 18 former and current members of the department in addition to a scores of other sources, filed more than 100 public records requests and compiled thousands of pages of documents.
Hein said he has distanced himself from the DPS review because of claims in the articles by some current and former employees that he was not responsive to the alleged problems with Smith's management of the department.
"Clearly the mayor and council feel it's important, and I've been on record as saying that it's important, to try and bring closure to the allegations. DPS is perhaps the only choice that is available to the town that is reputable and has the resources to do those kinds of things, and have done them in other communities. We defer to their judgment as to how to proceed," Hein said.
Miller said the survey to gauge morale in the Marana Police Department is being developed and is expected to be administered by the DPS to MPD employees in the next two weeks.
A survey of employee job satisfaction conducted by Marana's human resources department in February 2000 resulted in a large number of responses critical of Smith, his ethics and his ability to administer the department.
Hein has said in previous interviews he believed that "ballot stuffing by a handful of disgruntled employees" during the 2000 survey resulted in the unfavorable responses.
EXCERPT OF SUTTON'S DPS COMMENTS
Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton's statements about the Arizona Department of Public Safety's review of the Marana Police Department made at his State of the Town Address Nov. 12.
"…and no one provides better service to you than our award-winning Marana Police Department. In May of 1999, Marana Police Department entered into a voluntary contractual agreement to obtain national accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement (sic), or CALEA. Over 400 standards are set forth by CALEA, which address areas of administration, operation and technical support activities. Through an extensive process, the agency participated in several mock assessments, had its records scrutinized, procedures observed, personnel were interviewed, and a public hearing was held to gain input from the community. At the conclusion of the final assessment, the Marana Police Department either met or exceeded the optimal standards as contained in CALEA's manual. Consequently, the Marana Police Department was officially accredited by the National Accreditation for the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (sic) in Jacksonville, Fla. in March of this year. We're very fortunate to have our award-winning police department as our first response unit line of defense.
But for some people, for some reason, that isn't enough. Recently, there have been some articles in one of the local newspapers alleging that poor management, morale and discipline problems plague our police department. To make sure that the police department is a quality organization, and to shed light on the shadow cast by these allegations, this council is requesting (sic) that the Arizona Department of Public Safety, DPS, conduct a review of the management practices of the Marana Police Department. We recently received a response.
After reviewing Marana Police Department documents and CALEA reports, the DPS director himself, Dennis Garrett, has determined that any additional audit by his staff would be unnecessary. He said the CALEA assessment team has done a thorough job of reviewing the operation of the police department, and in fact, had reviewed far more areas than what would have been audited by his inspection team. He went on to say that the Marana Police Department should be commended for their compliance with the commission standards.
The Marana Police Department has voluntarily demonstrated that they meet professionally recognized standards of excellence for management and service delivery. He finished the letter, addressed to me, by saying 'you and the town know, (sic) Marana Police Department employees, and all the citizens of Marana, should be proud of this accomplishment.'
We declare that any further audit of the police department is unnecessary. Our police department is better today than it was a year ago; our police department will be better a year from now than it is today. Our police department performs more than admirably, they perform more than what is expected, they perform more than what is observed. They are responsible for all of us, and they will live up to the highest standard personally, and are accountable for all their actions personally and as an organization.
MARANA POISED FOR 'BIGGER, BETTER' ERA
Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton gave an upbeat view of his town's progress and called for a greater spirit of volunteerism during his third annual State of the Town Address Nov. 14.
About 150 Marana citizens and local dignitaries turned out for the speech at Heritage Highland Golf and Country Club, and gave Sutton a standing ovation at its conclusion.
"At any given moment, on any given day, your town government is involved in dozens of decisions affecting the delivery of services to our citizens," Sutton began. "It remains incumbent on all - council, staff, volunteers, and our citizens - to focus on the programs that are most critical to the long-term quality of place in Marana.
"We are that tool of implementation, but you wield that tool. What will you do to make Marana better? How can we get there together?"
Sutton said the answer to making Marana better lies with increased volunteerism, and launched into a litany of projects recently completed, proposed or underway in the town that citizen participation could bolster.
"Just 25-years-ago, think of what Marana was. Twenty five years later, look at what Marana has become. Twenty-five years in the future, think of what Marana can and will be," he said.
Sutton frequently referred to the terrorist threat facing America, and repeatedly returned to patriotic themes in the course of his speech. He also inserted numerous quotes from the likes of Plato, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
"'When people assume a public trust, they should consider themselves public property,'" Sutton said, paraphrasing Jefferson and adding "While only one person can drive a car, all of us decide the destination. I'm proud of where we're going, and I'm also proud of where we've been."
After delineating the myriad park projects, roadway construction, airport improvements and new programs in the town, he challenged Maranans to apply their spirit of civic responsibility to improving them.
He also unveiled the town's First Time Home Buyer Program, in which Marana would pay up to $5,000 toward home payments and closing costs for qualified home buyers in exchange for work in community service projects.
"It won't be a financial debt, but rather a moral debt. These new homeowners will become woven into the fabric of our community."
The town had set aside $50,000 to begin the program, he said.
Growth issues were also addressed by Sutton, who became the town's first elected mayor in 1999.
"Population projections indicate that Marana's greatest period of growth is in all likelihood still ahead of us. This population expansion is expected to continue as Southern Arizona continues to attract residents from all over the country. Marana will capture a significant portion of this growth as a result of our setting in the beautiful Sonoran Desert, and its desirable geographic location, coupled with the outstanding public amenities and public good that the town has to offer," he said.
But Sutton cautioned that the booming expansion does not mean carte blanche for developers, and the town's recently drafted General Plan update will help guide Marana toward responsible development.
"The update will make clear that new development is welcome, but not at the price of the residents of Marana today," Sutton said. "We will not simply become bigger, we will become better."