As cities across Arizona continue to face tight budget constraints and possibly more cuts, police unions are pushing for more uniformity with departmental policies and battling to keep more officers on the streets.

A number of proposed bills progressing through the state Legislature would cut into revenue for city police departments. Coupled with the possibility of city budget cuts in the upcoming fiscal year, that could impact services in a negative manner, said Fabian Cota, president of the Mesa Police Association, which represents 731 sworn officers and sergeants.

Two weeks ago, Mesa’s budget directors submitted a request to all department heads to come up with a plan of reducing their budgets by 5 percent if they have to by the upcoming fiscal year which begins in July. The state might take away state-shared revenue from the cities through its vehicle license tax, and another proposed bill involving impact fees and how cities deal with growth also could have a negative impact that would trickle down to police departments, Cota said.

The possibility of further cuts comes during a time when officers are trying to establish consistent disciplinary procedures for those who believe they were unjustly fired and disciplined in a discriminatory manner. Police unions also are seeking sit-down meetings with legislators to offer solutions for concerns ranging from consistency in internal investigations to pension reform.

“When there’s a lack of fairness, equity and uniformity, it can all lead to problems,” Cota said. “When an officer is accused of a DUI, the discipline can range anywhere from suspension to automatic termination. Officers have been automatically fired for not writing a report for a very minor incident, and I believe these firings are being done in an attempt to balance the budget. There should be some kind of disciplinary process in place, such as a reprimand or a course of action that requires writing reports for certain incidents.”

“As of late, we’ve been putting up monumental fights to keep our resources,” Cota added. “Every other week, or every week, there’s a proposed bill that would cut city revenue. Right now, we’re seeing numbers in the department drop to where we were in 1996.”  

About two years ago, Mesa, the third-largest police department in the state, had about 835 officers, but due to attrition and retirements, the department is down to 769, according to information from the department.

“We see this (the possible cuts) as cutting into the bone during a time when we need to maximize officers on the streets,” Cota said. “Further cuts could cause a fundamental shift from where departments no longer are preventing crime, but we’re reacting to crime. We’re at a tipping point.”

Among the issues the unions hope to prevail in is a 120-day time limit on internal investigations. They also want the state to improve pension oversight so police personnel can have access to and upgrade to other open-market funds if they so desire.

The unions contend that two proposed bills involving pension adjustments — SB 1609 and SB 2726 — are violating the state’s constitution by reducing or diminishing benefits for public safety retirees and current employees.

SB 2726 would not allow them to receive increases in their retirement from returns for several years.

A number of agencies within the Arizona Police Association -- which represents about 9,500 police and corrections officers -- including the Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert police departments, met on Thursday to brainstorm and offer possible solutions to eliminate the chance of not seeing pension increases during retirement.

“Why would anyone want to pass laws that essentially violate law?” said Jimmy Chavez, president of the Arizona Police Association, who is a sergeant for the Department of Public Safety. “We’ve been willing from Day 1 to be part of the solution and sit down with legislators to help fix things.”   

Other proposed bills also affecting police would allow fired police officers who believe they were unjustly terminated to file suit in Superior Court and allow police unions to report misconduct to an oversight board. Also, a polygraph examination could not be used as the sole evidence to fire an officer and the complainant would be required to sign an affidavit before the complaint moves forward.

The proposals were sparked by last year’s adoption of Arizona’s “just cause” law, which bars excessive police discipline and requires the discipline be based on a “preponderance of evidence.”

Levi Bolton, who is in his third year as a lobbyist for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which represents about 2,300 rank-and-file Phoenix officers, is pushing for a number of the requirements to get passed in hopes of improving an officer’s due process rights as well as put in place a better method for higher-level managers within police departments to be investigated.

“Due process is for everybody,” Bolton said. “Police are not immune from the law, and should not be exempt from the law. We’re just asking for the same process that the bad guys get.”

Chavez said that DPS is one of the few law enforcement agencies that does have a 120-day time limit in place for internal investigations.

“For any agency that doesn’t have a time limit, that’s detrimental,” Chavez said. “Nobody likes to sit there and not have any inclination of what’s going to happen. We’re just asking for some consistency. There should be something in place that gets to the result in a timely manner.”

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