Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier is a Republican serving his first term after winning election in November 2016. He recently sat down for an interview on Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel about the challenges surrounding law enforcement on the border, a recent death in the jail, the county’s new ordinance prohibiting people from using their mobile phones while driving and more. You can see the complete interview on at zonapolitics.com. This Q&A has been edited and condensed for print.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention during your seven months here, particularly on some border topics, one being the border wall, which you said I think was a medieval solution to a 21st-century problem. What are your concerns about the wall?
Well, I think the term “the wall” gets in the way of progress on this. The wall should be considered an analogous term that could mean a great many things. It could mean physical barriers where those are appropriate. It could mean technology where that’s a better solution. It could mean topographical barriers. There often are those on our border if you go outside of Sasabe or down around the Tohono O’odham reservation. There’s mountainous areas. We’re not building a wall through there and originally the rhetoric was that we’re gonna(sic) build a big, beautiful 30-foot-high concrete wall. Well, it’s not practical and there are places where that simply will not work. And I think that was getting in the way and I think the Trump administration’s backing away from that a little bit, which I’m glad to see, and taking a more pragmatic approach.
You’ve also said the Pima County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t really have the resources to take over the job of the Border Patrol when it comes to arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants. Talk a little bit about your thoughts there.
Well, the fact of the matter is there are about 3,800 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector. I have about 500 sworn deputies to patrol 9,200 square miles. I don’t have the resources, nor do I believe it is the role of local law enforcement, to take on a federal problem and immigration is a federal problem. I don’t have the resources and I think that’s outside the scope of what we need to be doing as a proactive law enforcement activity.
How important is it for the undocumented immigrants to feel comfortable being able to come to sheriff’s deputies and be able to say they’re a witness to a crime or a victim of a crime?
Well, I think it’s very important. Otherwise we create a whole new class of victims, people that are afraid to go to local law enforcement for fear of, you know, immigration issues. The immigration issue isn’t always relevant to what we’re doing and so sometimes it’d be like if you were reporting a burglary and we asked you about your car registration. Well, it’s irrelevant and sometimes with what we’re doing, their immigration status is largely irrelevant to what we’re doing and we need to be focused on law local law enforcement issues.
President Donald Trump recently addressed a group of law-enforcement officers and he suggested that they rough up suspects a little bit before taking them in. Is that something you can condone?
No. That is the simple and short answer. I try to be very measured in the way that I speak and I’m just a lowly little county sheriff and I kind of wish the president would be more measured in the way that he speaks and tweets and so forth. I think those are very unfortunate comments. I don’t think any law enforcement leaders that I’m aware of are on board with that. It’s really counter to what we been doing our whole lives. I’ve been doing this since 1981. This is not something I subscribe to.
You’ve asked the state to investigate the question of whether the previous administration misused RICO funds. The FBI had been investigating this and a high-ranking official pled guilty to federal misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to probation. What do you want to see in terms of the investigation by the state?
What I hope to do is to put to rest further speculation about whether there are bad actors still employed with Pima County Sheriff’s Department. I don’t have any doubt that the federal investigation was complete. It was thorough. I don’t lack confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the nature of that investigation but, in order to exhaust every possible remedy, every possible venue of looking at this, there was another avenue available to me and, conferring with the FBI at length over a period of many months, we went back and forth on these issues and we kind of came to the consensus the best idea was to exhaust the final remedy. And that is to ask the Attorney General and his staff to review this again to make sure we haven’t missed anything, make sure there weren’t federal or state violations that weren’t addressed by the federal investigation. I had a meeting with the Attorney General’s staff this past week. I’ve met with the Attorney General twice personally and I’m confident that they’re taking this very seriously.
In April, there was a terrible incident at the jail. A man in his mid-20s, Branden Roth, was killed allegedly by his cellmate, King Yates. Roth was in jail on theft charges. The cellmate was accused of killing his wife. Should these two men have been in a cell together?
Well, it’s a complicated issue and it’s partially based on the way the housing units are at the jail and the fact that the jail is nearing its capacity. And so what we try to do is to not look at charges necessarily, but look at threat assessment from each inmate and, based on their past conduct and other things that we knew, their classification level was similar. Now clearly the person accused of homicide had a threat level that was higher but was still within the margins and these two people had cohabitated in that cell for two weeks with no issue. The victim had not come forward and said, “Hey, I’m kind of afraid here, this guy’s not acting right, we’re having arguments,” or any such thing that would have been a warning flag that we needed to separate these two. They cohabitated for two weeks and then, for unknown reasons, this crime occurred that we couldn’t predict. The one variable in law enforcement is unpredictable human behavior. We just can’t foresee some of these things as much as we’d like to. It’s a tragedy. We hate that it happened. We believe it was the first homicide in our jail in, I think, 41 years, so we have a remarkable record given the nature of the people in that jail and the size of it.
Has it triggered any kind or review of the policies of how you’ve put inmates together?
We always are reviewing that. I mean, every time we have a critical incident like this, we always go back and reflect upon lessons learned. Was there something that could have been done differently? Were the protocols followed? Do those protocols need to be looked at further? So that’s a natural course of events in law enforcement. We have a critical event, we always go back and have an introspective look at the organization and our policies and practices to make sure that there are what they should be.
The County Board of Supervisors passed a hands-free ordinance. You can’t touch your phone while you’re driving anymore. Do you think this was necessary?
I think it’s a public awareness thing. I’m not asking my deputies to go out and get binoculars and sit by an intersection and hope they catch Jim Nintzel talking on his cell phone. That’s not of interest to us, but the ordinance itself is an educational thing. It’s saying, “Hey, you know, you should probably think about this. Is it really that important to become distracted behind the wheel?” We know that it does precipitate accidents and so this is more of an educational thing and I think my deputies are taking more of an educational posture toward enforcement.
You’ve begun issuing tickets rather than just warnings now.
I suspect it will still take a very educational posture toward this. The speed limit on the street is 35 miles an hour but we don’t stop and write people tickets at 36. I mean, there is discretion involved here and I’m confident our deputies will use good judgment when they enforce from this ordinance.