Nine Southern Arizona law enforcement agencies have teamed up to launch a countywide critical incident team, hoping to remove perceived conflicts of interest and improve transparency in incidents involving officers' use of force and in-custody deaths.
Law enforcement leaders from Pima County, Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita, the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, the Pascua Yaqui Nation and the South Tucson Police Department announced the formation Tuesday of the Pima Regional Critical Incident Team.
Until now, each local agency has handled its own investigations into such incidents, with departments conducting separate criminal and investigative inquiries.
Now, the criminal investigation into whether any laws were broken will be handled by one of the other departments, while each agency will still handle its own administrative investigation to determine if officers violated department rules or policies.
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The partnership, which Oro Valley Police Chief Kara Riley said was more than a year in the making, is an effort to get ahead of proposed statewide legislation that would require departments to hand off some investigations involving their own officers to other agencies.
House Bill 2650 would create a "major incident division" within the Arizona Department of Public Safety which, beginning July 1, 2025, would investigate any critical force incidents involving police officers, including the use or intended use of deadly force.
The proposed legislation, recently approved by a House committee, says departments wouldn't be required to use DPS' team if they instead turned over an investigation to a regional task force or another agency, such as the new Pima Regional Critical Incident Team.
While the Pima County Sheriff's Department took the lead in organizing the team, Sheriff Chris Nanos said credit for the idea belongs to Riley.
"This is something being done across the nation, and we decided we're going to do it now," Nanos said at a news conference Tuesday. "Transparency is really just that. It talks about our openness and our willingness to be honest with not just those that work within our organizations, but those we serve, particularly our community."
Under the partnership, the lead investigator in critical incidents will be from a separate agency from the involved agency. "The involved agency may still have investigators assisting with the investigation, but they will be assigned roles that are not determinative," said sheriff's Deputy James Allerton.
Nanos said when he took the idea to the other chiefs, everyone was quick to sign on. "They said, 'We're part of the community and we want them to know not just how we work, but who we are and what we're about,'" he said.
Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar said all the police leaders are interested in transparent investigations. But the collaboration isn't easy for the departments involved, he said.
"It takes a lot of work for our criminal investigative staffs to figure out just how these things are going to work when they unfold," Kasmar said. "There's a lot of moving complexities to these investigations where we have to protect crime scenes" while also "protecting due process for staff that's involved and being transparent to the media."
With 12 shootings involving TPD in 2021, that agency's volume will likely make up a large percentage of the cases, Kasmar said, which will give investigators at smaller agencies a chance to gain experience with high-profile investigations.
"There's really no more significant event that we investigate as organizations, so it's a massive vote of confidence for me to hand over that responsibility to any of the leadership or organizations (involved,)" Kasmar said.
Said Nanos, "There's going to be times where the sheriff is not going to be happy with Chief Riley's decision to do this or Chief Kasmar's decision to do that. But collectively we have decided to settle those differences and let the teams do their job."
Another benefit of regionalization is the cost savings it provides to the community, Nanos said.
"You don't need 10 bomb trucks or 10 SWAT teams, that's costly," he said. "By sharing resources, we not only benefit the community in a fiscal way, we also benefit in an investigative way that makes the community know that we collectively work well together and want to help each other help our communities."
Riley agreed, saying, "We have Pima regional teams with our tactical teams, our K-9 units all working collaboratively together. It was just going to be a different tentacle that we were working on."
Riley said getting elected leaders on board was an important part of the process, with all the paperwork required of the various town and city councils and the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
Nanos said the team will work as quickly as possible to get information out to the public after a critical incident.
"Expediency is important to us, but as important as that is, accuracy and the welfare of our officers and staff and the community has to take the forefront," he said.
The team's findings will be reviewed by the Pima County Attorney's Office, which supports the partnership and is looking into its own options for regionalizing prosecution efforts, Nanos said.
All inmate deaths that are suspected of being the result of a use of force encounter by a corrections officer will fall under the team's purview. Any other inmate death will still be investigated by sheriff's detectives.
When it comes to critical incidents involving TPD and the Sheriff's Department — the two largest agencies on the team — those two departments will take the lead in handling investigations of one another, Sheriff's Lt. Luis Cornidez, commander of the team, told the Star in a previous interview.
For critical incidents involving the smaller departments, lead investigation duties will rotate, with TPD and PCSD assisting as needed, Cornidez said.
Part of the Sheriff Department's role was to provide training coordination to the various agencies, bringing in officers from the Los Angeles Police Department last year to educate local agencies about their protocols and procedures when officers are involved in shootings.
The behind-the-scenes legwork to make the team possible was extensive, including finding the correct software for sharing reports, establishing protocols for getting evidence from one place to another, and figuring out storage and access for footage from body-worn cameras.
Contact Star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt