The police videos are hard for some people to watch.
A Mesa police officer punches a 35-year-old man nearly unconscious after he refusesÂ to immediately sit down.Â Two officers squeeze a 15-year-old boyâs neck after he is handcuffed. A police officer shoots a manâs pit bull after responding to a dog-barking complaint; the bullet goes through the dog’s neck and strikes another officer in the groin.
All three cases, captured byÂ officersâ on-body cameras, are under investigation within the Mesa Police Department and the FBI is reviewing two cases.
However, an analysis by The Arizona Republic finds it is rare for Mesa officers to face any discipline in excessive-force investigations.Â
Mesa has shelled out more than $1 million to settle legal claims that officers usedÂ excessive force in the past four years, but only 2 percent of 158 internal-affairs investigations into such allegations were substantiated since 2014.
Some Mesa leaders are demanding that officers be held more accountable.
MORE:Â How do we stop the attacks on police? And police from attacking us?
âThe community as a whole: white, black, Hispanic, believers, non-believers, everyone is tired of harsh policing,â said Andre Miller, a pastor withÂ Mesa’s New Beginnings Christian Church. âItâs affected every economic group. Itâs affected every race in this city.”
Mesa Police Chief Ramon BatistaÂ already has revised policy toÂ prevent officers from striking peopleâs faces or heads unless a suspect is being combative. He also has sought to make it easier for the public to raise concerns over potential harsh treatment and improve the review process when claims surface.Â
As Mesa grapples with the spotlight on its policing techniquesÂ and its history related to excessive-force complaints, the future approach of the department and its relationship with the community hangs in the balance.
On a warm night in August, dozens of people streamed into New Beginnings Christian Church on Mesa’s west side.Â Miller had called a town hall in the church heâs run for nearly a decadeÂ to discuss what he sees as excessive forceÂ by Mesa police.
Miller invitedÂ Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Batista, who originally accepted but didn’t show up because of the FBI review.Â
A handful of tense moments marked the town hall. One man walked out after the vice president of the Mesa Police Association, Todd Zoglman, said that Johnson, the man caught on tape being punched or kneed by police,Â walked away âwithout major injuries.â
Longtime Mesa activist John Goodie addressed Montgomery, sayingÂ âItâs just frustrating because all we do is talk.”
Miller, in an interview with The Republic,Â saidÂ the viral videos showing Mesa police are evidence of a long-running problem.Â
MORE: Mesa police chief is a no-show at town hall on police use of force
âIf we did not have the visibility, if we did not have the technology that we do now, some of these things would not be getting addressed,â he said. âThis is not new information.Â This is a culture.Â This is a mindset.â
Miller saidÂ the problem in Mesa has not manifested along racial lines:Â itâs a âhumanity concern.â Â Â
âWhen I explain it to people, I donât make this a race thing because when you look at Mesaâs behavior, theyâve assaulted a 15-year-old Native American kid; theyâve assaulted an 80-something-year-old white grandmother;Â they killed a white gentleman;Â they shot an African-American mentally challenged gentleman not too long ago,â he said. âThey donât discriminate with who they put hands on.â
Mesa’s police department has completed at leastÂ 158Â investigations into whetherÂ officers usedÂ excessive force since 2014. Three of the cases, or 2Â percent, found the officer was in the wrong,Â The Republic’s analysis shows.
Of those three cases:
The analysis included internal-affairs cases that specifically investigated use of force, including police shootings.
Some officers have been investigated multiple times for excessive-force allegations since 2014. OfficerÂ Ernesto Calderon was investigated for four use-of-force complaints. Three were unsubstantiated; the fourth is still open.
Calderon is one of five officers under investigation after the May arrest ofÂ 35-year-old Robert Johnson, whom officersÂ punched or kneed after he refused to immediately sit down. The officers were not criminally charged after a review by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, but the FBI isÂ reviewing this case.
In response to The Republic’sÂ findings,Â BatistaÂ said that most calls to police do not end with officers having to use force, but the department is continually trainingÂ officers for unpredictable situations.Â
“My goal is to evaluate what we do today and use my 32 years of experience and training and the advice of the Mesa police assistant chiefs along with the recommendations from outside experts to continue to train our officers on how to deal with persons in unpredictable and often dynamic situations,” Batista said.
The RepublicÂ analyzed similar data for fiveÂ other metro Phoenix police departments and found substantiated findings of officers using excessive force is rare.Â When it didÂ occur, discipline ranged from written reprimands to suspensions, although Tempe police fired one of its officers afterÂ an excessive-force investigation in 2017.
Peoria, a West Valley suburb, is about a third the size of Mesa. At about 800 officers, Mesa’s police department is about double the size of the larger comparison cities, Glendale and Scottsdale.Â
Police departments track excessive force investigations, but the data is not reported to an outside agency. The data should be publicly available with a public records request after the investigation is completed.
Phoenix police, the Valley’s largest police agency, would notÂ provide comparable data from its disciplinary database. A spokesman said releasingÂ the department’s entire disciplinary investigation database would be too burdensome, and releasing any part of it separately wouldn’t be required under Arizona public records law.
Beyond internal affairs investigations into potential wrongdoing, residents and others can sue.Â MesaÂ has been hit with more than 80 notices of claim, often precursors to lawsuits, over allegations that officers used too much force in the past four years.Â The city settled claims to eight different parties, paying out nearly $1.2 million.
Some of the settlements include:
Most ofÂ the notices of claimÂ never spurred an internal-affairs investigation. Of the 77 officers named in the notices of claimÂ in the last four years, 18 appear to correspond with anÂ internal-affairs investigation, according to a RepublicÂ analysis of the claims.Â
Some claims never made it to court;Â others are still in litigation.
A lawsuit against the city is pending in federal court over the shooting of Daniel Shaver by police Officer Philip Brailsford in 2016.Â The FBI also is reviewing this case.
The FBI also reviewedÂ the case of 28-year-old Scott Farnsworth, who was shot 11 times by three officers on Sept. 22, 2017. The FBI informed Mesa on Oct. 30Â that it would not pursue further investigation, a Mesa police spokesman said.Â Â
The pervasiveness of smartphones and police on-body cameras make it easier to capture and share video of police behavior, forcing police departments to address potential abuses of power.
“It’s no longer a police officer’sÂ word against a suspect that they have stopped for a possible crime, because you have these real-time depictions of these encounters,” said Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Such police behavior is not new in some communities, said Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina.
âWhen I talk to people of color, they tell me our communities have been knowing about this police behavior for years. Theyâll say police have been abusive for a long time,’â he said. âBut now, white people and middle-class communities have been confronted with police behavior they’ve never seen before.â
The Mesa Police Department has about 800 police officers who patrol the 36th-largest city in the nation. Sixty-one percent of the residents are white, 28 percent Hispanic, 4 percent black, 2Â percent Asian and 2 percent Native American, according to U.S. Census data.
Batista, who was hired in July 2017, has publicly called for internal investigations into at least three cases since June. He tapped former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to be part of the internal investigations. He also hired Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C., to review three years of the department’s use-of-force cases.Â
“We are willing to go the distance in the process of self-evaluation and improvement through the use of outside experts,” Batista said. âMy aim is to study and evaluate the recommendations from outside experts with a focus on improving our training and providing our officers with greater skill and opportunity to resolve volatile situations peacefully.”Â
Scottsdale police, at Batista’s request, investigated officers’ handling of the Johnson case and another involving 15-year-old Gabriel Ramirez, whose case is also under FBI review. Ultimately, the County Attorney’s Office cleared seven officers in the two cases of any wrongdoing.Â
Batista has also called for an investigation into the officer who, responding to a barking dog complaint, shot Isaac Smith’s 4-year-old pit bull, Mio, and inadvertently struck another officer in the groin.
As far as the FBI investigations, Batista said he’s open to input.
Meanwhile, the chief has already madeÂ changes. He revised the departmentâs use-of-force policy to prevent officers from striking peopleâs faces or heads unless a suspect is being combative.
The Police Department also changed how it opens an internal investigation for an excessive-force allegation. Batista said that anyone, including people internally or externally, who wants to report a potential police-brutality case can do so online, over the phone, in person or through a notice of claim.Â
“An extensive review process has been improved to evaluate use of force incidents immediately after they occur,” Batista said by email. “This includes a thorough multi-layered review at all levels of the organization to include sergeants, lieutenants, and commanders. Non-involved supervisors are also required to respond to the scene of any dynamic use of force.”
In August, DiAnn Alexander sat at the Alston House with a group of residents in Mesaâs historically African-American Washington-Escobedo neighborhood. The Alston HouseÂ was the home of Dr. Lucius Alston, the first black doctor to practice in Mesa.Â They met thereÂ to talk with The Republic aboutÂ the perception of police in Mesa and other community issues.
Alexander is tornÂ because she has seen positive interactions between officers and community residents in her yearsÂ in the neighborhood, though sheÂ now lives in Chandler.
But her grandson fears the police. The young men who hang out in the park at night in Mesa feel intimidated when officers come around, she said;Â theyÂ worryÂ theyâll get hassled.
âItâs like a fear that overcomes them because of history, because of what theyâve heard,â Alexander said.
Ray Villa, the community partnership coordinator for Mesa police, interviewed high school students earlier this year about policingÂ and hopes to interview more residents in the future.Â
âOne of the biggest things we found out was that they didnât know if law enforcement liked them or not,â Villa said.
Dennis Kavanaugh, a former Mesa city councilman who served on a council committee overseeing the Police Department, has heard the debates over use of force and internal investigations for years.
He believes the review process is working.
The issues facing Mesa are the problems that would face any urban police department, he said.
Mesa residents, he said, know that crime rates have largely declined. He doesnât believe the department has fallen out of favor with the residents itâs policing.
Instead, he attributes the rise in noteworthy use-of-force cases in Mesa to the rise of social media.
âItâs easy to pick a villain, and you have the villain of the day,â he said. âSocial media is quick to judge and seldom investigates the facts or the circumstances.â
Kavanaugh urges those concerned to participate in the Mesa Citizen Police Academy, to get a glimpse of police officer training.
For Miller, the pastor, the solution to the seemingly never-ending spate of alleged excessive-force cases is civility. More training. Mental-health resources for officers. His suggestions go on and on.
Miller said he plans to work withÂ other advocates toÂ lobby for a change to the city’s charter. Specifically, theyÂ want the City Council to remove the part of Mesa’s charter that prohibits a police review board made up of civilians.
The job wonât be easy. A charter amendment mustÂ get through the council, then go before voters.Â
Miller said he is not asking for a civilian board that would have theÂ power to hire and fire theÂ police chief.
“Itâs where we have a seat at the table and we look at these use-of-force instances with the city of Mesa,â he said. âThey need community input and need to know how those who are being policed feel about their tactics. And thatâs what we donât have right now.â
The Republic reached out to Mesa’s mayor and council for comment. They issued a statement saying they would work with Batista and the department “to improve and grow the organization and the partnership it has with all the communities within Mesa.â
READ MORE ON MESA: