Activists demand changes at Tempe PD, more community engagement

antonio arce tempe protester
A protester stands at the back of the Tempe City Council meeting on Feb. 13, 2020 with signs critical of the Tempe City Council and the Tempe Police Department. Madeline Ackley | Arizona Mirror

More than 20 protesters attended the first Tempe City Council meeting since charges were dropped against Joseph Jaen, the former Tempe police officer who shot and killed 14-year-old Antonio Arce 13 months ago. 

Tempe City Council meetings have been the target of frequent protests since Arce’s death in January 2019. At a meeting last February, Tempe city council chambers were packed with protesters and ended in four arrests

The Feb. 13 meeting just one year later was vastly different.  

Protesters representing a variety of community advocacy organizations, such as Tempe Against Police Violence, Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) and Poder in Action, filmed and held signs, but remained silent until the public comment portion at the end of the meeting.

Before hearing public comments, Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell reiterated that the death of Arce was a “tragedy” and expressed condolences to the Arce family. 

“We know that they are hurting right now, in light of the county attorney’s decision not to charge former officer Jaen,” he said.

Earlier this month, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel announced that charges had been dropped against Jaen, citing the likelihood that Jaen would have been acquitted.

At Thursday’s meeting, the council discussed its plans to hold a series of community talks regarding police reforms in partnership with Pastor Andre Miller, a criminal justice reform advocate and senior pastor at New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa.  

“The Antonio Arce case has pushed the community and the city to a point where collaboration, transparency and change are a must,” said Miller, addressing the council. 

Miller also encouraged community members to contact him if they wish to be involved in the process. The first public meeting regarding community policing will be held March 3, according to the council.

Several community members made their voices heard before the council expressing their frustrations, but also their ideas moving forward. 

Viridiana Hernandez, director of Poder in Action, expressed her desire to see a change in the city’s police practices, and said that change “cannot be done by the city alone.” 

Hernandez said she wished to see the implementation of a civilian review board with subpoena and firing powers to oversee the Tempe Police Department. Phoenix is currently exploring whether it should create a civilian review board.

The Tempe City Council has expressed support of some form of civilian review board in the past. 

Darien Barrett, an organizer with Tempe Against Police Violence and among those arrested at the February 2019 meeting, also spoke about his dissatisfaction with the way the city and police department handled the Arce case over the past year. 

“We can’t be biting our tongues, Sylvia,” Barrett said, addressing Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir, who was present at the meeting. 

“It wasn’t the gun that killed Antonio Arce, it was Joseph Jaen, a mentally ill person that you guys let back onto the force.” 

This week, documents emerged showing the extent of Jaen’s struggles with mental illness and troubling behavior in the years prior to his deadly encounter with Arce. 

“From here on, continue what you’re doing,” Barrett said, addressing council members. “If you work with the community, the community will work with you.”

New details emerge on Jaen’s past

In documents released this week related to his 2012 divorce, Jaen’s ex-wife accused the former Tempe police officer of abuse and said she worried that he would take his life if she separated from him.

Court documents also included an email that Jaen sent to friends and family: a photo of his four-year-old son holding his department-issued pistol. “He’s pointing it at Jenn,” the email read. 

The documents also shed light on the extent of Jaen’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Jaen, who served in combat in Iraq in 2010, was deemed unfit for police duty by a psychiatrist in 2012. Jaen resumed his role in the department nine months later, after taking three months of medical leave to seek treatment. 

On Jan.15, 2019, Jaen responded to a call of suspicious activity in an alley near 48th Street and Baseline Road in Tempe.

In the body camera footage, a truck is seen in an alley with its doors open, and Arce on the passengers side with a replica gun with an orange tip, signifying the model is a toy.

As Arce ran away from Jaen, the officer fired several shots. Arce died from his wounds after being taken to the hospital. 

Jaen has said that he believed he was in danger, and that he did not know the gun was a toy at the time. He resigned from the Tempe Police Department a few months later. 

Vice Mayor Kuby request for expert meeting denied

At the council meeting, community advocates shared personal stories of their encounters with police, requesting the council to take action. 

Vice Mayor Lauren Kuby became emotional while addressing advocates and community members present at the meeting.

“This has been such a devastating time in our city… this happened, and how can it happen? How could…  it never ever happen again?” said Kuby, choking back tears. 

She suggested organizing another meeting to clarify procedures and conduct a “thorough and comprehensive review of our police policy,” by bringing together stakeholders and subject matter experts.  

Kuby called for council consensus to put her proposed meeting on the agenda, a request which was denied by Mitchell, who opted instead to “take the direction of Pastor Miller.” 

Kuby responded that she is concerned if discussions are left as-is, the issue is “just going to drag on.” 

“I think we’ve heard tonight, I think we’ve heard over the past year that we want to have more actionable information,” said Kuby and suggested that Tempe take action similar to the City of Phoenix, which is currently reviewing its police department’s use-of-force policies and is discussing the implementation of a civilian review board.