It’s tough to make the leader of a street gang cry, but that’s exactly the type of results the Pima County Sheriff’s Department has seen with its newly formed High Impact Offender Program.

Initiated earlier this year, the program brings a new twist to a very common law enforcement practice often known as a Targeted Offenders Program.

“Agencies around the country have done something very similar for decades,” said Captain Byron Gwaltney, a Patrol Division Commander. “The twist with this is that it’s geared toward street-level quality of life type crimes.”

Whereas other programs target high-profile serial criminals like rapists or bank robbers, the High Impact Offender Program looks to clean up the streets by targeting predatory criminals involved in such things as violent crime, drug trafficking, and burglaries.

“The High Impact Offender Program is a very narrowly-focused enforcement effort, to where we use old fashioned police work, combined with results driven philosophy, technology, intelligence gathering, analysis of criminal trends, and research of suspects,” said Gwaltney. Gwaltney added that in the past, when a citizen would report a spike in crime in a particular neighborhood, officers would increase patrol, but their presence would only be effective for a period of time.

“Those resources are eventually going to be needed somewhere else, so it’s not a sustainable approach to law enforcement,” he said. “These criminals will go into hiding when we are there, and come out of hiding when we leave.”

But with the new program, there’s nowhere to hide. The officers aren’t going anywhere.

If an individual is suspected of being involved in repeated criminal activity, the Sheriff’s Department enacts the program’s “what, where, who,” model.

“We start out with either a what or a where,” said Gwaltney. “What types of crimes are we seeing, and where are we seeing those crimes? We use the ‘where’ and the ‘what’ to get us to a ‘who.’”

Once officers identify a likely suspect behind the crimes, generally with the help of residents in the area, the initial phase of the High Impact Offender Program begins.

“This is where we divert from the tradition of just putting more cops in a neighborhood,” said Gwaltney.

Officers begin surveillance on the suspect, perform background checks, and conduct a criminal history analysis to compare with the types of crimes being committed the area.

“All of that research and investigation may result in nothing, and we don’t think the person is involved, but more often than not, the investigation leads us to believe the person is involved, and is on the peripheral of just about everything that is going on,” said Gwaltney.

After sufficient evidence and surveillance, directed patrol units put together a report on the particular suspect with all research conducted, which is forwarded onto a stringent command approval process in order to assure the correct amount of officer resources are being applied to a certain individual.

Once the report is approved, the suspect becomes labeled a High Impact Offender, in which surveillance continues, and a zero-tolerance, high impact enforcement efforts begin.

“We will follow that person around for as long as it takes,” said Gwaltney. “We might not catch them committing the big crime, because a lot of it is luck and timing, but now we’re focusing our enforcement efforts on everything else they do wrong. If they’re going a few miles over the speed limit, they get a ticket. If they commit a misdemeanor, they get booked in jail, not cited and released. Our goal is to be there every time they commit one of those crimes.”

According to Deputy Thomas Peine, the surveillance is often performed in an undercover vehicle, though not always. In fact, conspicuity isn’t even the overall goal for officers.

“These suspects will likely know very quickly they are being watched,” he said. “The goal of this is to get on their case until their ways have changed, they go to prison, or they move.”

Gwaltney said the majority of High Impact Offenders either end up moving or in prison, though a few have attempted to change their criminal ways.

Still, a simple move between neighborhoods won’t solve an offender’s problem. Once labeled a High Impact Offender, the title follows the suspect throughout all six of Pima County’s districts.

Gwaltney said by stacking up charges against an individual, it helps the case move along at the County Prosecutor’s Office.

“We might not catch (the suspect) on the big one, but we can stack the misdemeanor charges to the point where we paint a picture to the county attorney,” he said. “We can say, ‘Look at his history, look at all the things we’ve found on this person,’ and you can really draw the human aspect out of the prosecutor. It’s not just a case number anymore, we really have a person that’s a predatory type criminal that is affecting others’ quality of life.”

Gwaltney said while there have been some complaints from the suspects to Internal Affairs, there is little argument for harassment.

“If you are a high impact offender, you’re going to commit crimes when you wake up and in the normal course of your day,” he said. “We are simply there to watch them happen, and hold you accountable for it. Every arrest or civil citation is based on the merit of that particular event. It’s all documented. All we did was watch a crime happen.”

One of those repeat criminals was the leader of a gang near Benson Highway, who was heavily involved in narcotics sales, violent crimes, and trafficking stolen property. He had no respect for law enforcement, repeatedly flashing inappropriate gestures to officers passing by his home.

“He was running that neighborhood to some extent,” said Gwaltney, “He had no fear of anything, whatsoever.”

But while he had money, cars, and power, he also had a big problem: the Pima County Sheriff’s Department had recently labeled him a High Impact Offender.

Officers began surveillance on the suspect, and within a short amount of time, seized $26,000 in drug money, illegal weapons, narcotics, and drug paraphernalia, meanwhile serving a number of search warrants on his property and repossessing many of his vehicles.

“Three to four months into the enforcement effort, this person was in the back of a patrol car in tears,” said Gwaltney. “We told him, you’re a High Impact Offender, and here are your choices: quit committing crimes and be a good person or move away, or we’re going to keep stacking these charges against you until you go to prison. It totally dismantled the leadership of that street gang.”

At one point, the leader of the gang told officers, “You guys must be pretty bored, I haven’t done anything wrong in three weeks,” to which the officers responded, “We know, we’ve been watching.”

Gwaltney said the program brings a laser focus approach to law enforcement.

“It’s the difference between fishing and hunting,” he said.

The High Impact Offenders Program is soon to be implemented in all of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department substations, and the northwest side program is set to begin this week. Keep an eye on as we accompany officers for a ride-along and bring video footage of the program in action.

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