/ Modified jun 23, 2015 4:56 p.m.

METRO WEEK: Evaluating Police-Community Relations

Tucson Police Department expands outreach, minority community leader says more work to be done

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The Tucson Police Department is making strides to improve its relationship with the community, but needs to increase its diversity, Chief Roberto Villaseñor said.

While Tucson has not experienced violence or protests seen in Ferguson, Mo., New York and Baltimore, it is not immune from the possibility, said Pastor Da’Mond Holt, who leads efforts to improve relations between TPD officers and the African-American population in Tucson.

“It only takes one incident,” Holt said. “But I think that it hasn’t happened yet because of the fact, as well, that we do have good officers out there.”

Holt meets with Villaseñor and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall once a quarter to discuss these topics.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Holt said.

Their conversations are aimed at “doing whatever we can to prevent any of those types of violent acts to take place in our city,” he said.

The Tucson Police Department holds “coffee with a cop” meetings at coffee shops, where people can talk to an officer in a non-confrontational environment, Villaseñor said.

Holt wanted to extend that kind of outreach to more urban environments, so he proposed officers play basketball with kids at Boys and Girls Clubhouses in Tucson.

That will build a rapport between officers and children, and break down perceptions that minority kids are bad, Holt said.

Officers also need to interact with the community not just in response to crime, Holt said.

He attributes high tensions between police and racial minorities to officers' lack of community involvement and a focus on responding to calls, rather than preventing crime. He used the example of Flint, Mich., where he grew up.

“In the 90s, the mayor at that time put more mini-stations in urban areas,” he said. That meant using buildings that had open office space to increase police presence so the officers the police know the neighborhoods and residents, he said.

African Americans make up about 4.5 percent of the Tucson population, but the police force is 2 percent to 2.5 percent black, Villaseñor said. TPD also has too-few female officers, at 14 percent, in comparison to the general population of about 50 percent. Otherwise, Villaseñor said, the force’s diversity reflects the community.

The largest minority group in Tucson is Hispanic, and Villaseñor said enforcing the state’s anti-illegal immigration law, known as SB 1070, has caused some tensions, which have led to changes in enforcement, he said.

“Probably because of the sensitivity and political leanings of Tucson, we put more emphasis on that law than other areas,” he said. Other parts of the state “didn’t have such a focused resistance to the law.”

Villaseñor said the department was accused of improperly enforcing the law that requires officers to call federal officials if, in the normal course of their duties, they encounter someone they have reasonable suspicion is in the country without a federal permit. After the allegations, he said, the department tracked its experiences.

“We developed some very good ways of gathering statistics of what were our stops,” Villaseñor said. Asking, “what were the things that we were encountering? How many times were we contacting Border Patrol? How many times was Border Patrol responding?”

He found Border Patrol responded to TPD's calls less than 1 percent of the time. In a 15-month period TPD contacted Border Patrol 18,000 times as required by SB 1070, Villaseñor said. The federal agency responded 100 times, and made about 50 or 60 arrests, he said.

Now, the department is only calling the federal immigration enforcement agency when doing so would comply with President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration enforcement priorities.

That means only calling when a suspected illegal immigrant has a felony criminal record or multiple misdemeanors, is a terrorist threat or a gang member, Villaseñor said.

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