Part 3: Armed and ready absent oversight, training

Courtesy of Wikipedia Bisbee, a town with only 13 sworn officers, has 4.15 handguns per sworn officer.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Bisbee, a town with only 13 sworn officers, has 4.15 handguns per sworn officer.

Bisbee is the most heavily armed police department in the state of Arizona, with 4.15 handguns per sworn officer and 3.77 rifles and shotguns per sworn officer. The department has 13 sworn officers who serve a population of 5,360.

While most departments in the state hover around 1.42 handguns per sworn officer, towns like Bisbee are able to get as many guns as they want with minimal oversight. There are no national or state standards or recommendations on what equipment a police department should or shouldn’t have.

“There’s literally nothing to give any guidance to police departments in terms of what kind of weaponry they should have, what kind of gear they should have what’s reasonable and what’s not reasonable,” said Pete Kraska, the chair of graduate studies and research in the school of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University.

Some cities, like Flagstaff have no budget for new weapons and are left with outdated guns in their inventory; others secure weapons through grants or the 1033 program.

“There are no standards, there’s no state or federal oversight,” Kraska said.

That leads to a stockpiling of weapons with no standardized oversight or training, which is a problem for people like Alessandra Soler, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona.

Soler points to police department’s ability to buy newer and more sophisticated equipment, when their budget allows.

“They’re purchasing these weapons and they’re purchasing these high tech gadgets and they’re not passing the policies to make sure that these things are not abused,” Soler said.

That falls into a larger lack of oversight for police departments throughout Arizona and the nation when it comes to standards for departments. The chief of police in each agency mostly determines those standards for police departments.

Most agencies have internal affairs offices that handle civilian complaints and misconduct by police officers in their department.

“Every chief has their way of doing things,” said Liana Perez, the director of operations at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).

Some police departments, notably Tucson and Chandler, also subscribe to citizen oversight, where residents review officer conduct.

In order to develop of standards to ensure that police departments are following a code, some departments in the country get accredited.

The largest in the United States is The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), with almost 1,000 law enforcement agencies in the country.

It took Tucson three years to get accredited. Internal and external audits ensure that a police department is up to the training, administration and operation standards of the accreditation agency.

Once accredited, agencies will have to maintain compliance to stay accredited.

Of the 99 agencies in Arizona, not including tribal agencies, only 13 are accredited by CALEA.

“A lot of times they do get the accreditation to make them eligible for federal funds and federal resources and federal grant money,” Perez said. “That looks favorable on their application for resources that they need.”

Every department in the state has to comply with the standards set forth by AZPost, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

Every police officer goes to a police academy approved by AZPost, unless they transferred from a department out of state.

An officer from out of state can test out of going to the academy by passing an exam.

However, once out of the academy and on the force, officers only have to complete eight hours of training each year, with no guidelines for what that training entails.

Photo courtesy of Pete Kraska Pete Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, has been studying the militarization of police forces since 1989.
Photo courtesy of Pete Kraska
Pete Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, has been studying the militarization of police forces since 1989.

“We don’t mandate anything service-wise,” said Lyle Mann, the executive director of AZPost. “We mandate eight hours a year, but it can be any subject that the agency wants to do.”

Kraska found similar results nationally.

“We did two national studies,” Kraska said. “And we found both in small departments and in large departments, it kind of didn’t matter, that the number of training hours per officer per year is actually very low, often times fewer than 50 hours per year per officer.”

Laurence Miller, a psychologist who specializes in treating law enforcement officers, said that the national standards are aspirational at best.

For Miller, the hours of training need to more completely address the community aspect of policing.

“Most policing doesn’t involve putting your life on the danger, every minute of every day on your shift,” Miller said.

Miller said he thinks there needs to be more focus on dealing with people, and attributed some of the problems of police violence to officers with limited training in diffusing a situation.

“If there were certain national standards of training in terms of dealing with people,” Miller said, “I think we’d see a lot of these types of situations being reduced.”

In Arizona, more hours are given to report writing, 28 hours, than interpersonal communication, 12. Only two hours of the curriculum are devoted to dealing with mental illnesses.

“One of the things that has surprised people that have recently become informed about the whole phenomenon of police militarization is just how ad hoc and off the cuff all of this is done,” Kraska said.

Dan Desrochers is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News. He can be reached at ddesrochers@email.arizona.edu.

For Part 1 click here.

For Part 2 click here.

For high resolution photos click here.