Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead speaks to Tribune editorial board members during a meeting Thursday, July 15, 2010 in Mesa.

Tim Hacker/Tribune

When Frank Milstead became Mesa's police chief, he pledged not to oversee a massive shake-up to a police force that was already strained by three years of wrenching change.

Yet Milstead has ordered many small changes that, when put together, are making some significant differences in how the city fights crime.

Many of the changes were triggered by forces beyond his control.

He had to work with a $6.4 million budget cut that resulted in the department having 105 fewer officers than a year ago. A smaller civilian support staff. A sharp limit on how many hours the police helicopter can be airborne. Fewer cars. And virtually no money for overtime.

"You often hear people talk about doing more with less," Milstead said. "Well, eventually you do less with less. If you can just do the same with less, that's good. But eventually you do less with less."

Milstead said the changes he has initiated have focused largely on how the department can reduce crime with shrinking resources. But some go beyond the budget issues.

So far, he's broadened the SWAT team duties so its officers are on the street to fight crime in problematic areas.

Milstead also started a summertime crime suppression squad, putting about 20 officers on special assignments to look for parties, noise complaints and other problems that can result in a 5-10 percent boost in crime this time of year. So far, the effort cut crime about 5 percent.

Also, the gang unit is trying to break up entire organizations by developing cases against the entire operation instead of arresting individuals on lesser charges.

And Milstead freed up the time of the internal affairs unit and many supervisors by dropping a system that required any complaint about an officer - no matter how small - to result in an internal affairs investigation.

That is one of several ways he's tried to have management work more closely with officers since taking control four months ago.

"Police work is supposed to be fun. Police work is supposed to be rewarding and some of the things that had been put in place under the previous regime were very stifling to the officers," Milstead said. "They felt that they weren't trusted, that there had to be all these different levels of review. My opinion is I have to be able to trust not only the line-level sergeants and lieutenants, but the commanders and assistant chiefs as well so I've changed some of those things around to give people a little more trust."

Milstead explained his new approaches last week in a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board. His style is sharply different than predecessor George Gascón, who brought a big-city approach to Mesa when he arrived from the Los Angeles Police Department. Gascón left in June after overseeing a sharp drop in crime.

Gascón ordered many changes, including the use of COMPSTAT, a computerized process of constantly analyzing crime data to pinpoint trends and problem areas.

Gascón's orders were consistent, Milstead said, but he knew the police force needed stability. He abolished a Gascón practice of launching an internal affairs investigation over any complaint made about an officer, including when a citizen simply had a question about procedure and didn't want to file a formal complaint. The number of internal investigations skyrocketed and that created a great amount of stress, even though the officers were cleared nearly all the time. Milstead said the practice could work against officers who were trying to be more active.

"The more work you do, the more people you meet through the day, so the more likely you're going to find somebody who takes umbrage with your way of doing things," he said.

The change has been a boost to officers, said Bryan Soller, president of the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police. Soller said he was impressed that Milstead began his job already highly knowledgeable of how the force operates and that his changes have focused on stabilizing the police force.

"When you talk to him, you just feel like he's your best friend," Soller said. "You get a real trust out of him. If he says something, it will get done."

Milstead also is different from Gascón in his relationship with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The Mesa chief publically and sharply criticized Arpaio for his crime suppression sweeps in Mesa, saying the department didn't have enough notice. Milstead said he's asked Arpaio for notice, adding he's worked with the sheriff frequently in his years with Phoenix police.

Milstead's approach to discussing illegal immigration is also a sharp contrast to Gascon. Even after Gascon left for San Francisco, he blasted Arizona's SB 1070.

Milstead has raised practical concerns that it will cost the department more money and could bog down a strained force, but he hasn't criticized the measure.

"We try to stay out of that debate," Milstead said. "It doesn't really matter what any of us think personally. It's how do we get the enforcement end of this taken care of. It's nothing we ask for. It's just what we get."

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