An effort to change the name of a city park to honor slain Tucson police Officer Jeffrey Ross has led to a controversy that the City Council will likely have to resolve.
The issue to rename Alvernon Park, near East Speedway and North Alvernon Way, to Jeffrey H. Ross Memorial Park is not appropriate, many neighbors have told the city, primarily because of the lack of a real historical connection between Ross and the midtown park.
Retired Tucson police Officer John Sainz sees it differently. He was a close childhood friend of Ross, and the two often played together in the park. It was, after all, right across the street from the Ross family home.
The City Council will take up the matter at its meeting on Tuesday, which starts at 5:30 p.m.
In February 1982, Ross was part of a team of narcotics officers that raided the now-defunct Ranch House bar, a topless-dancer club and biker hangout on North Casa Grande Highway when the bar manager shot him in the chest. He died a few hours later.
The push to rename a city park has been underway for about a year and has been led by Sainz. He said he began the effort to honor his childhood friend after he noticed that other communities honor fallen officers by renaming public spaces after them.
Sainz, who joined the force at the same time as Ross, remembers that after his friend’s death, the police department gave the family a medal.
“At the time, I didn’t think he was rightfully honored, as they are now,” Sainz said.
Initially, Sainz requested the city change the name of another park — Rolling Hills Park in east Tucson — because it is close to his current home, but city officials rejected his request, noting that Ross had no ties to that park.
In consultation with the then-city’s interim director of the Tucson Parks and Recreation, Joan Stauch, the decision was made to settle on Alvernon Park, as Ross grew up in the Peter Howell Neighborhood where the park is located.
But that decision has split the quiet residential subdivision, which hasn’t changed much since Sainz and Ross were children.
Donald Ijams, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1976, said he never heard of Ross until a neighborhood meeting a year ago.
The city policy for renaming a park is complex and says the fact that Ross lived near the park 48 years ago is not enough to justify the name-change request, Ijams said.
Official guidelines for renaming a city park require that a name change must be “fully justified,” but the two-page document does not elaborate on what those qualifications would be or offer any examples.
Ijams says the city already has a beautifully designed memorial for fallen officers in front of the Tucson Police Department’s main headquarters downtown and Ross is honored by a sign placed near where he was killed.
Both of these memorials, he said, and the TPD’s annual ceremony honoring fallen officers, comprise significant community recognition of his service and sacrifice.
“Some of the concerns, on the part of the neighborhood, is that the concerns were so long ago and superseded by additional connections by other people,” said IJams.
Ijams, who worked as a civilian for the Tucson Police Department for 28 years, notes the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission agreed with neighbors who oppose the name change.
The commission in March rejected on a 4-0 vote the request to change the name of the park. The commission’s decision was then forwarded to the City Council.
Kathy Phelan, another neighborhood resident who opposes renaming the park, said she understands the grief of losing someone so close. But renaming the park isn’t the right solution and doesn’t tell those who come to the park much about Ross or his sacrifice 36 years ago.
“It would mean nothing else to the neighborhood, it would do nothing to build our community,” she said.
Others who wrote letters in opposition to the renaming said there is little connection to the park other than Ross played there as a child, and that his family no longer lives in the neighborhood.
Another resident wrote she was opposed to the renaming, in part, because Sainz, who is seeking the change, doesn’t live in the neighborhood.
But not all residents in the midtown neighborhood are opposed to renaming the park.
Resident Ken Smalley signed on to support the effort to honor Ross shortly after a neighborhood meeting and asked 17 of his neighbors to sign a petition to take to the city.
Sixteen signed the petition, he notes.
But petitions and polls on the issue have been mixed, with Ijams noting that seven neighbors who signed a similar petition have asked to have their names taken off after they changed their minds.
Letters of support in the renaming came from Ross’ family, the Fraternal Order of Police Tucson Lodge No. 1, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier and the Tucson Police Command Association.
But for another officer who served with Ross, retired Pima County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ray Pesqueira, changing the name of the park is a fitting tribute to the man who saved his life.
More than 36 years since the night Ross was shot, Pesqueira vividly remembers watching Ross get shot. On the night of the incident, Pesqueira was working undercover and had just signaled to Ross and his team that he had made a drug deal with the bar manager.
“Jeff was leading the charge, before any other uniformed agents, he was the one kicking down the door. The bad guy got off a shot ... and Jeff died soon after getting to the hospital,” he said softly.
A compromise could be in the works, with a less formal name change a possibility. Something like “Alvernon Park, dedicated to Officer Jeffrey Ross” has been floated by city staff as an attempt to bridge the divide between the two groups.
But a memo to the City Council on the issue and several letters written in opposition to the change noted that attempts to reach a compromise over the name change failed.
Councilman Steve Kozachik, whose ward includes Alvernon Park, has met with both groups.
“I met with both sides, have had multiple conversations with both sides and am disappointed that both drew a line in the sand and couldn’t come to a compromise solution. Jeffrey deserves better than what this has turned out to be,” Kozachik said.
“I even offered to rename the Ward VI Council Office the Jeffrey Ross Ward VI Council Office since it used to be a TPD substation and the guys pushing for the park renaming rejected even that.”
The name of Alvernon Park was not commemorative, as it was named for the nearby street, according to a memo from Albert Elias, assistant city manager.