A year after the controversial police shooting of 14-year-old Antonio Arce and just weeks after prosecutors declined to charge the officer involved, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir was on the defensive during a first-ever community meeting in the City of Tempe.
The event, dubbed Tempe Listens, was the first in what the city says will be quarterly meetings that will focus on a variety of issues. The inaugural meeting focused on policing.
The meeting was moderated by Pastor Andre Miller of New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa. who has held similar community conversations between law enforcement and the people they police in other Arizona cities.
Tuesday’s meeting at Tempe Christ Church became contentious as the evening went on, with some community members voicing frustrations with Moir’s answers – or lack thereof.
Things reached a head when Moir claimed that Tempe Police Department does not have a cell site simulator device, often referred to as a Stingray, after a resident asked if the department would be willing to get rid of its counter-terrorism unit and stop using its Stingray device.
Stingray devices are meant to mimic a cell phone tower in order to trick a target cell phone so law enforcement can track a subject or to gain access to their device.
Moir also said Tempe PD doesn’t have a counter-terrorism unit.
But Tempe PD does own a Stingray, and in 2018 it attempted to secure funds to upgrade the system. Tempe PD also has a Homeland Defense Unit which cooperates with the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center.
“I don’t really know what the point of a community conversation is if you’re going to lie to us,” said one member of the audience as Miller attempted to calm the crowd.
Moir spent most of the night playing defense, as community members asked repeatedly for more transparency from the department and changes to various policies.
Multiple questions revolved around asking Tempe to adopt a policy similar to the one adopted recently by Phoenix to create a civilian review board for its police force that will have the power to investigate complaints against police and recommend policy directly to the chief.
Moir said that a civilian review board that Tempe created in 1999 that reviews incidents currently fills that gap.
The board isn’t listed on Tempe’s main webpage for boards and committees. The only webpage that can be found for the board is for an older version of Tempe’s website, which has no information on the board.
Moir was also opposed to the idea of not having members of Tempe police on the board itself, something some members of the audience asked for.
“Largely, the men and women in Tempe trust the Tempe PD,” Moir said.
Another point of conflict was Tempe’s LRAD, an acoustic cannon that can be used at long ranges. Tempe Police and Phoenix Police both previously told the Arizona Mirror that they have no policies on how they deploy their long range acoustic devices, which have been known to cause permanent hearing loss.
“It’s not a weapon,” Moir said in response to a question that phrased it as such. “I would have to look at how it is used, if it is used in Tempe.”
Some audience members took offense to Moir’s statement, saying that they had seen the device used at protests.
Moir also contended that a study by USA Today that said Tempe Police arrested black men at a higher rate than in Ferguson, Mo., was “skewed” and said that the paper should likely issue a “retraction.”
The story, which ran in 2015, prior to Moir’s tenure, made national headlines. Moir said she was “briefed” that the story used data of people who were “arrested twice,” which caused the skewing in the data. The numbers used by USA Today are from the numbers Tempe reports to the FBI.
“It is striking to see that people are here that judge police officers who have not been police officers,” Moir said in her closing statement for the night, adding that the high stakes environment that officers work in is “lost on some.”