Tucson principal Tonya Strozier, the mother of three Black sons, has spent much of her life living in fear of what police might do to her loved ones.
As soon as her boys were old enough, she said, she taught them to steer clear of law enforcement, and told them how to act in public to reduce the chance of white people feeling threatened by them.
“Look people in the eye. Have a firm handshake. Don’t be disrespectful or give anyone any reason at all to question you,” Strozier said, recounting her long list of rules.
No walks to the corner store.
No driving after dark.
No do-rags, sleeveless white undershirts, “or anything else that looks like a stereotype.”
The fear was real, she said, because one of her cousins had already been killed by police in another Arizona city.
So, when Strozier, the principal of Holladay Fine Arts Magnet Elementary School, was recruited to help reform the Tucson Police Department, “I was skeptical. I went in with one eyebrow raised,” she said.
Things turned out better than she expected.
Some officers seemed to squirm as she poured out her heart, but they kept coming back to hear her perspective, she said.
She told them about Mark, her 29-year-old, who lives in Phoenix and doesn’t go out after dark. About Michael, 16, who does not yet have a learner’s driving permit because she dreads him being behind the wheel.
And about her 5-year-old, Solomon, who represents hope for a future in which she will no longer feel the need for such rules.
“What impressed me the most is they were willing to listen to me,” Strozier said of the Tucson police officers and commanders who took part in the effort.
“And then I listened to them and I got to see another side,” she said.
“I don’t put my life on the line every day like they do. I started thinking about the psychological toll that could take on a human being,” she said. “And at some point I realized that, as much I didn’t want police to dehumanize my people, there were places where I was dehumanizing them.”
“I didn’t leave space for them to be human,” she said.
Strozier, who also has three daughters, said some of her Black contemporaries in Tucson were critical of her decision to participate in the TPD improvement effort.
While she respects them, she said, “my belief is that we all have a role to play in creating change. I decided I wanted to be a bridge to a better future.”
53 recommendations for change
The process Strozier was part of — an in-depth review of what went wrong when two Latino men died in police custody earlier this year — produced 53 recommendations for change.
It also made police Chief Chris Magnus a national leader in accountability and police reform.
“The Tucson Police Department is probably further along on this than almost anyone else in the country,” said John Hollway, an associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania law school, where he serves as executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.
Hollway also was part of the TPD effort. He’s one of two outside experts the department brought in to run a process known as a sentinel event review, in which critical incidents are examined under a microscope to see what can be learned to prevent a recurrence.
The process is similar to an airline crash investigation, he said.
The other expert, Michael Scott, is a clinical professor of criminal justice reform at Arizona State University, where he oversees ASU’s Center on Problem-Oriented Policing. He’s also the former chief of a municipal police department in Florida.
Both experts lent their services at no cost to Tucson taxpayers.
Scott said the TPD is the only police agency he knows of that has used the sentinel review process to scrutinize in-custody deaths.
“What the Tucson Police Department has done here is fairly groundbreaking,” he said.
The review board, assembled by the TPD, included medical and mental health professionals, civic leaders, police union representatives, and — by design — some outspoken police critics.
Members were chosen for their expertise and to ensure diverse viewpoints were represented, officials said. The group was given access to unedited internal communications and to unedited footage from the body cameras worn by police officers involved.
In the end, the panel of 15 people was able to agree unanimously on 53 measures that could help TPD prevent similar deaths in the future.
Their collective findings recently were made public in an 80-page final report.
They include improved training for police officers and 911 staffers, better tracking of local arrest rates for people of color and new restraint techniques for those in the throes of a mental health crisis.
The thorniest discussions arose over whether the two Latino men who died in TPD custody — Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez, 27, and Damien Alvarado, 29 — were victims of racial discrimination, even though none of the officers involved said or did anything overtly racist.
“The central question was: If these two men had been white instead of Latino, would the outcome have been the same?” said review board member Claudia Jasso of Amistades Inc., a local social services agency that serves Latinos and advocates for racial justice.
Like Strozier, the Black principal, Jasso said she too faced criticism from other Latinos for taking part in the review.
“Believe me, when people found out I was participating I was not popular,” she said.
In response, she would ask them: “How are they going to hear from us if we’re not represented?”
Alvarado died in March and Ingram-Lopez in April. They were arrested in unrelated incidents — Alvarado for allegedly fleeing after crashing his car, Ingram-Lopez for behavior so bizarre it prompted his grandmother to call 911 out of fear for her personal safety.
Each man was restrained with handcuffs. Alvarado also was hog-tied after putting up a fierce fight against up to five police officers.
Both men were high on drugs, had drug-induced heart problems, and were in a highly agitated state that increased their risk of a heart attack just before they died in TPD custody, the review found.
After much discussion, the review board agreed that “implicit bias” — unconscious discriminatory views that people can absorb from society — likely played a role in the deaths, particularly in the case of Ingram-Lopez.
As evidence, critics pointed to a crucial communications breakdown that occurred when Ingram-Lopez’ grandmother, a Spanish-speaker, called 911 to ask police to come and get him out of her house.
Only one Spanish-speaking call-taker was on duty at the city’s 911 center and that person was busy on another call, the review found.
The English speaker who took the call didn’t get enough information to properly brief police officers on the situation they’d be facing once they reached the scene, the review found.
The fact Tucson’s 911 center was staffed that night almost exclusively by English speakers — in a city where a third of the population is Latino — was seen by critics as an example of implicit bias in action.
Jasso said the situation showed indifference to the safety of Spanish-speaking people in need of police help. Tucson “is an environment that isn’t as supportive of Latinos as it should be,” she said.
Officials at Tucson’s 911 center said they are moving quickly to arrange basic Spanish-language training for call-takers, a review board recommendation.
The center also is using an online translator service if no Spanish speaker is available, said Mandy Mason, deputy director of the city’s public safety communications department, which runs 911 and is separate from the police department.
Tucson’s police chief said he does not dispute that implicit bias exists within his department because it is woven into the fabric of society.
“It is present throughout the criminal justice system and, frankly, many other systems,” Chief Magnus said in an interview.
“Acknowledging that does not mean that the officers involved in the in-custody deaths were racist, or that the Tucson Police Department is racist,” he said. “This goes way beyond policing.”
Jasso said she came away believing TPD is sincere about wanting to learn from past mistakes. Magnus, who called for the in-depth review “did not have to do this,” she said.
“He did it because he understands TPD has a responsibility to the community.”
Delayed disclosure about man’s death
Another question the board addressed was why TPD waited more than two months to publicly disclose the death of Ingram-Lopez, who died April 21, about three weeks after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died with a police officer’s knee on his neck.
Floyd’s death sparked protests against racism in Tucson and around the country, but the board found no evidence that TPD kept the death under wraps due to fear of controversy.
The delay was attributed to several factors, among them that, until recently, the police department did not have a policy that required public disclosure.
TPD’s internal affairs department also had numerous weak links such as inexperienced leadership and inadequate oversight. As a result, senior leadership didn’t learn the full scope of what happened until shortly before they notified the public, the board found.
The police department has since put new measures in place to ensure timely notice to the public and increase management oversight in the early stages of internal investigations.
Ingram-Lopez’ family has since filed a multimillion-dollar legal claim against the city and the three officers involved in the incident. Prosecutors recently declined to file criminal charges against the three now-former police officers.
Painful effort to understand what went wrong
Magnus said most of the changes reviewers urged can be done at relatively low cost. Some already are in progress, such as a new program in which people of color interact with cadets at the police academy to explain cultural differences or share their concerns about law enforcement.
In a recent column on criminal justice reform, Boston lawyer James M. Doyle, a consultant to the National Institute of Justice, called the results of TPD’s review “very striking.”
His column appeared in The Crime Report, a news service for social justice issues run by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Tucson is just about the only city in America to receive such detailed accounts of deaths in police custody, Doyle wrote.
He said Magnus and the review panel “supplied Tucson residents with something no one offered the people of Minnesota after George Floyd’s death or the people of Rochester after Daniel Prude’s: a painful, comprehensive and transparent effort to understand what went wrong, and why.”
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd.