When some Surprise businesses became the targets of looting threats on social media in late May, the Surprise Police Department and forces from surrounding cities and towns went into action.
Surprise police were forced to activate its Emergency Operations Center when threats were made to Ross Dress for Less, 13715 W. Bell Road, and Guns Plus, 16551 N. Dysart Road, Suite 112.
The emergency setup had been in place for years for moments like the week of May 30, once looting began happening in Phoenix suburbs.
Fortunately for Surprise police and residents, the threats never materalized. It turned out to be a localized version of a story that had been playing out across the country the last few months since civil unrest began with the police-related death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Surprise Regional Chamber Government Relations Chair Chris Herring hosted a fireside chat June 30 where Surprise Police Chief Terry Young and El Mirage Police Chief Paul Marzocca tackled topics such as dealing with protesters, working with bad cops and the how they’re perceived in the media and defunding the police, among other topics.
“In my 30 years, I’ve certainly never seen a year where we had a pandemic that we’re all facing together and then never in my career have I seen civil unrest to the point where the governor needed to put out a curfew order statewide,” Mr. Young said. “So, when you put those two things together certainly it creates some uneasiness for all of us.”
Mr. Young has been with the Surprise police for 10 years, half of them as police chief. He also serves as the president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police.
“One of the things that I find most incredible here is the relationship we have between the police and the community,” Mr. Young said. “In order for us to be effective, we have to maintain trust confidence and respect from all of those that are part of the community.”
Mr. Young told a story about how the break room at headquarters is always filled with food and other gifts from appreciative members of the community.
However, right now the public image of some police agencies has taken a big hit in light of events since Mr. Floyd’s death.
Mr. Marzocca said the media’s reporting of police incidents is having an impact on people’s perception of the situations.
“Perception is reality,” Mr. Marzocca said. “If you only have one source, either your phone’s your source or whatever’s your news channel, that’s what you believe.”
Mr. Marzocca said the various media entities put their own spin on the news.
“Sometimes the media, I hate to say it, it’s derived from profits and to get viewers,” Mr. Marzocca said. “Sometimes sensationalism makes the headlines.”
Mr. Young, however, pointed out that the media plays an important role in partnering with police to help during times of crisis or an emergency.
“There are a number of things we do to work together to benefit public safety in our communities,” he said.
Mr. Young said the problem is one bad cop or one bad department gets lumped in with law enforcement agencies all across the country.
“It sort of suggests that there’s one all encompassing police agency or entity out there,” Mr. Young said. “The reality is there is over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in our country and about 1 million different police officers who are a part of those agencies.”
Mr. Marzocca said all forces will have some “bad apples.”
“But that’s my job and Chief Young’s job is to get rid of those bad apples,” he said. “Nobody hates a bad cop more than the rest of the cops. That makes us all look bad.”
Shortly after Minneapolis police dealt with the backlash from Mr. Floyd’s death, police agencies across the country were thrown into dealing with protesters, some of which turned violent.
“We can’t ignore them,” Mr. Young said of the nationwide protesters. “There are some important conversations that need to be continued. But that doesn’t reflect what’s happening here locally.”
The chiefs pointed out the distinction between protesting and looting or rioting.
“We are prepared to handle both,” Mr. Young said. “These are the things we communicate and train for.”
Mr. Young said officers usually try to have conversations with planned protesters ahead of time.
“If it’s a peaceful protest, more times than not we’ve had coordination with those demonstrator leaders to determine what their plans are — if they’re planning on marching somewhere or staying in place,” Mr. Young said. “We’re also prepared for counter protesters and try to keep those resources out of site but available. Should something escalate we have the ability to manage that.”
Defunding the police is also a big topic that both chiefs feel would be devastating to providing services. Some proponents for the nationwide movement are calling for cuts of one-fourth to half of the police budget to go to other social resources.
Mr. Marzocca said 80% of the department’s spending is on personnel. A cut in half of the budget would mean half of the officers on the streets right off the bat.
“We’re always looked at as first responders, now more or less we’re the last responders,” Mr. Marzocca said. “When all of the rest of society has broken down, who do they look to? The police department.”
Police officers have increasingly had to provide mental health services to communities whereas in the past it never had to deal with those issues.
Mr. Young said in Surprise not only would a force of 154 officers be cut in half with half of the funding, response times would be “substantially longer.”
Right now, priority one calls have a response time of about five minutes.
“It wouldn’t just double, it would be exponential,” Mr. Young said about a defunded department. “It could be 15 to 20 minutes way. That could be a life-threatening event.”
The general presence in everyday life would be noticeable, too, he said.
“The idea of reducing staffing out on the street I just think would be a nightmare for any community,” Young said.
Thanks to COVID-19, officers have had the added duties of enforcing residents to wear masks while in their communities, thanks to a Maricopa County-wide mandate that people wear face coverings in public places.
“That’s not an easy question as you know,” Mr. Young said about enforcing the law. “The balance is very delicate.
“If we all keep in mind, at the end of the day, it’s really all about the health and well-being of all of us.”
Both chiefs said education is at the forefront of the face mask issue. The departments are trying to let the public know that they will be helping, not hurting, a chance at slowing the pandemic by wearing a mask.
“Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on there the reality is we need to take steps to look out for one another,” Mr. Young said.
Some business owners in Surprise have had to take matters into their own hands when refusing service to customers who won’t wear a mask. Mr. Young said those businesses should just leave it to the police to handle.
“If you find yourself in a situation where somebody is completely resistant to it and it becomes adversarial, I never suggest or recommend somebody get into that kind of a conversation over an enforcement issue,” Mr. Young said. “That’s when you call us and let us have that conversation.”
Mr. Marzocca agreed that the education route is the way to go.
“We don’t want to put somebody in jail for not wearing a mask,” Mr. Marzocca said.
Editor’s Note: Jason Stone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.