Stop committing crimes, leave the county, or go to jail.
Those are the only three options available to repeat criminals targeted by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s relatively new High Impact Offender Program (HIOP).
The Sheriff’s Department Foothills Division invited staff of The Explorer to see the program in action for a Friday night ride along, and it became clear very quickly why, against this task force, the bad guys never win.
The most valuable weapon of Sheriff’s deputies who make up HIOP is not one that shoots bullets, rather the abundance of intelligence and evidence they have racked up against the criminals they pursue. Combine that with stealth, communication, coordination, and the knowledge and backing of the law, and the recipe is one unfavorable to those suspects who have fallen on the HIOP radar.
While driving in a marked police car, Deputy Jamie McNeely, a six-year veteran of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, described the goals and responsibilities of HIOP, which is made up of several units across the county.
“Within the HIOP program, basically we take habitual offenders within the community that are negative influences on the quality of life for the good, productive citizens, and try to remove them from the community to improve the quality of life in that community,” he said.
Officer Brian Cross drove an additional marked car, while two undercover officers staked out areas known to be frequented by repeat offenders. Much of the initial intelligence collected against offenders comes from citizen input.
“We take information we receive from different sources – they can be calls for service, suspicious activity, investigative leads from property crimes or narcotics crimes or 88-CRIME tips – we take that information and we either confirm or deny that criminal activity is occurring,” said McNeely. “Once we determine that criminal activity is occurring, we go ahead and start an investigation and try to make it where, as opposed to them continually getting arrested with misdemeanor charges, we try to build a solid investigation to where they will be in jail or prison for a longer time, so they’re out of the community.”
As the undercover officers tracked the movement of the suspects, the marked cars remained in relative proximity, and when the opportunity arose, pulled over the suspect based on a moving violation.
In one of the first stops of the night, a black Mercedes Benz was pulled over, the driver of which was suspected to be a repeat offender, and whom it was determined had just made a drug exchange in a nearby grocery parking lot.
The vehicle was stopped for having an item hanging from the rearview mirror.
After a routine check of the driver’s information, it was discovered the individual was driving on a suspended license, at which point police followed protocol by asking the other passengers to step out of the vehicle so it could be immobilized for 30 days as per department policy. The driver would be initially arrested for driving on a suspended license.
“Once he (the driver) was removed from the vehicle, the front seat passenger was asked to step out, at which point there was a marijuana pipe in plain view,” said McNeely. “Then the rear seat passenger was asked to step out, and there was another marijuana pipe in plain view. There were numerous items of paraphernalia. A syringe had fallen out of his shorts while I was searching him, from his crotch area, which he tried to step on and conceal.”
What seemed like a traditional and successful stop to the HIOP officers turned a bit more interesting after the officers told the two passengers they were to be booked into the Pima County Jail on misdemeanor charges.
“The female passenger became irate, started making a scene, which raised our suspicions that there may be some illegal contraband on her,” said McNeely. “When it was explained to her there would be an additional charge if she took contraband into the jail, she provided us with information stating she had approximately an eighth of an ounce – commonly known as an eight ball – of methamphetamine inside of her, in her crotch area.”
Welcome to a Friday night with the Pima County Sheriff’s High Impact Offender Program.
In the latter part of the night, McNeely and an undercover officer tracked a vehicle being driven by known drug users, who were minutes earlier seen loitering outside a Circle K.
The vehicle was pulled over near the area of Camino de la Tierra and Curtis Road for a missing license plate light, and the driver was asked to step out of the vehicle.
The K-9 unit, which arrived moments after the stop, alerted to drugs in the vehicle, at which point officers implemented a search, discovering heroin and prescription drugs inside, and making an arrest based on the findings.
Though suspects sometimes complain the program is a form of harassment, Sergeant Patrick Hilliker, who leads the Foothills Division HIOP, said the frequency in which these suspects commit crimes justifies continual surveillance.
“These criminals continually disrupt public welfare,” he said. “If we are getting a bunch of calls on these suspects, that’s something we want to act on. It’s very specific, and well documented why we are focusing on these certain people. It doesn’t happen because somebody is in trouble once. It’s people who are habitual.”
For more information on the High Impact Offender Program, visit www.pimasheriff.org.