Pima County’s voters will decide between two familiar faces for county sheriff this election season.
Republican Mark Napier is running for re-election against Democratic challenger Chris Nanos, who lost against Napier in 2016 after serving a year as the county’s interim sheriff when Clarence Dupnik stepped down in 2015 after a 35-year run as the county’s chief law enforcement officer.
Both candidates for Pima County Sheriff have decades of experience in law enforcement, but they have a history of clashing during the election season, which involves threats of a defamation lawsuit this year.
Nanos has been in law enforcement for more than 40 years and started his career at the El Paso Police Department at 20 years old. He joined the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in 1984 as a corrections officer and became chief deputy in 2014.
If elected sheriff, Nanos would focus on community outreach, lowering attrition rates, decreasing the jail population and implementing technology like ankle bracelets for non-violent criminals.
Napier has 30 years of law enforcement experience, 17 of which he was in command or supervisory positions. He spent 21 years with the Tucson Police Department and has a master’s degree in criminal justice and a bachelor’s degree in social psychology.
The Republican nominee is running to ensure “business-like” and “fiscally sound” operations in the sheriff’s department, placing his staff in traditionally underserved, rural areas and seeing through his law enforcement reform plan, which includes implementing a citizen review panel.
After serving as an administrator at the University of Arizona for seven years, Napier felt a calling to return to law enforcement and improve conditions at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. As a result, he decided to run for county sheriff in 2016.
“A lot of the deputies and commanders were asking me to run, and at that time, there was a lot of scandal at the sheriff’s department. There was the federal RICO investigation, Mr. Nanos had a vote of no confidence. There was a lot of corruption and cronyism going on there,” Napier said. “It turned out nobody stepped up and was going to run and I decided I just couldn’t stand by idly and not step up and serve my county because I saw things at the sheriff’s department I thought were not moving in the right direction.”
One chief deputy was indicted in the year-long FBI investigation looking into the misuse of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) funds by members of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Nanos was never charged and says he’s been cleared of all wrongdoing in the investigation.
“When you look at the whole thing, the FBI investigation, 18 years worth of data, every subpoena I honored and got them all the information immediately. My opponent says I’m corrupt, or I led an organization that was based in corruption—that corruption never touched on me,” Nanos said. “The U.S. Attorney’s office, the FBI and the Department of Justice, the Attorney General, they investigated and said, ‘Chris Nanos had no knowledge, Chris Nanos had nothing to do with it.’”
When he took the sheriff’s office in 2016, Napier claims “the place was a mess.”
“The budget was a complete train wreck, we were tracking to be $6 to 7 million over our budget. We didn’t have a strategic plan, which to me is unthinkable,” Napier said. “The deputies in the field were doing amazing, but administratively, we were a train wreck.”
Claims of defamation
One of the biggest controversies in the race for Pima County Sheriff centers on a billboard. Napier has threatened Nanos with a defamation lawsuit based on a billboard erected near I-10 and I-19 that called Napier a “proven liar,” said he was found guilty of perjury and showed an edited picture of Napier with a long Pinnochio nose.
Although the billboard has since been taken down, Napier is demanding Nanos publicly apologize through tasks including posting an apology on a billboard, taking down “defamatory” Facebook pages and websites against the current sheriff and taking out a half-page newspaper ad with his apology.
As part of his demands, Napier also said Nanos should “strongly consider” ending his candidacy for Pima County Sheriff.
The candidates’ conflicting campaign styles certainly highlight their differences, but according to Napier, the claims against him are worse than just “dirty politics.”
“That’s not dirty politics, that’s defamation. There has to be a line that any reasonable human being says that crosses the line,” Napier said. “When somebody posts a billboard adjacent to a very busy street that states I have been found guilty of a felony crime of moral turpitude and then I’m appealing that, knowing that to be absolutely false, that’s out of bounds.”
Nanos has no intention of apologizing and claims Napier’s threats are meant to draw attention to his campaign. If the current sheriff does sue, Nanos says he’ll file counter litigation.
“This lawsuit of his is nothing more than political fodder, he is never getting an apology from me. He’s the one who owes an apology to me for lying,” Nanos said. “He will never sue. He knows that he would get slapped with a First Amendment civil rights violation lawsuit in about half a second, and he would lose.”
Nanos’ claims about Napier are based on statements made in January by former Arizona Republican National Committeeman Mike Hellon from the Law Enforcement Merit System Council, who said Napier and his command staff lied in hearings about a lieutenant’s suspension. Napier says he was cleared of wrongdoing in an investigation by the Arizona State Attorney General’s Office.
“He seems very intent on convincing people to vote against me, and I think that’s the wrong approach,” Napier said. “Maybe dirty politics works, but it’s not going to be at my hand. I don’t want any part in that.”
If re-elected for a second term as sheriff, Napier says he’ll continue to promote police reform through his three-tiered plan called ACT (accountability, community engagement and transparency), which was conceived shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in May.
“A lot of departments were waiting to see what happens, kind of saying, ‘Let’s see if this blows over.’ We said no, this is not gonna blow over and this is an opportunity to do something. So we created this plan, we’re implementing it and it’s getting national attention,” Napier said.
As part of the “accountability” tier of the reform plan, Napier plans to create a citizen review panel to help the department review “significant use of force and disciplinary issues.”
Nanos is also running on the promise of police reform and says he would reinstate an ankle monitor program in the Pima County Jail that he implemented when he served as interim sheriff. Nanos says Napier did away with the program, which allows nonviolent criminals to wear ankle bracelets instead of staying at the detention center.
“You have 80 percent of our jail population, when I was there, doing nothing more than waiting for trial. We looked at that and 93 percent were from misdemeanors or very minor nonviolent felonies like possession of drug paraphernalia. Those people, we decided, shouldn’t be in our jail,” Nanos said. “I got an ankle monitor program that costs $15 a day versus today’s cost $127 a day. As a Republican who claims to be fiscally responsible, why would you end such a program as that?”
The Democratic challenger called Napier’s ACT reform plan “10 pages of fluff” and said it doesn’t adequately address calls to defund the police and reroute money to programs for mental illness. Nanos specifically called out the ACT plan’s proposed hiring of six to eight “community engagement specialists,” which the plan describes as unarmed deputies who respond to calls for service including, “mental health-related requests for assistance,” “substance abuse,” and “homeless related calls.”
“What is defund the police?” Nanos said. “To me, it means let’s get those programs that are better handled by professionals, like our medical field, get them to deal with our mental illness. Don’t have your own mental illness taskforce.”
Napier doesn’t support taking away funds from police departments and pushing them toward mental health programs.
“What we’ve done is we’ve trained the public, if you will, to call 911. That’s the number you call when you need help. If we have another number you call or another handoff to another agency, I think that encumbers things,” Napier said. “I think law enforcement needs more and different tools in its toolbox to answer the community’s growing desire for an evolution in the way that we deliver service to the community.”
The candidates also have differing positions on instituting body cameras in the department: Napier says the department can’t yet afford them, while Nanos insists there is room in the budget.
However, with a jurisdiction so close to the Arizona-Mexico border, both Pima County sheriff candidates agree the department’s role is not to enforce border security.
“There are definite public safety threats that affect the people of Pima County that come up from the border, things like drug trafficking and human trafficking,” Napier said. “These are significant transnational crime threats that affect public safety here in Pima County, and we’re obligated to work with our federal partners to address those things. That doesn’t mean we adopt their responsibility. I think we can stay in our respective lanes and cooperate in an appropriate way.”
“Every law enforcement agency knows this, if you call us, we’re going to come and help you, but we’re not going to do your job for you. We’re gonna come help you and then leave, that’s it,” Nanos said.
Nanos argues he’s the better choice of the two candidates and doesn’t want the FBI investigation opponents use against him to deter citizens from voting for him.
“It was a great agency when I left. Sure there were some bad characters who did some things that they shouldn’t have done, but that doesn’t make the agency corrupt,” Nanos said. “I just want to be here to help my family of deputies and my team and my community.”
Napier says Pima County’s voters should re-elect him because of his formal education, extensive background in law enforcement and deep passion for the county he serves in.
“When I’m not sheriff anymore, Pima County is my home. I care deeply about what happens to this community, and I think that that shines through in the way I conduct myself and the way I pursue my duties as Sheriff,” he said. “I know politicians say a lot of things they don’t mean, but I don’t. I genuinely care about this community and I’d be so proud to continue this for another four years and continue moving us in the right direction.”