Phoenix’s new top cop stirs up controversy within the department, but says his sweeping changes will improve public service.
It’s 1978, and rookie Dallas cop Daniel V. Garcia has the keys to a brand new cruiser. First night out, he responds to a burglar alarm. He nabs a perp crawling through a window downtown, cuffs him and calls for backup.
Today, he remembers his sergeant asking: “‘Danny, do you want a helicopter to come and check the roof?’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ ‘Do you want to bring the K-9 out here to come check the inside of the building?’ ‘Yeah, that sounds good’... I was absolutely overwhelmed at the resources that are available to a police officer.”
Since becoming chief of the Phoenix Police Department last year, at a base salary of $193,800, Garcia, 57, has had to come to grips with a different law enforcement reality: a resource-poor department. The Dallas Police Department veteran succeeds Jack Harris, whose seven-year tenure ended after he was accused of goosing crime statistics to get federal grants. Inheriting a force plagued by low morale and a hiring freeze, Garcia immediately made changes, many of them controversial. Phoenix police officers bristled at Garcia’s ban on cotton-blend uniforms, his request that they renew their oaths annually and his suggestion to change officer shifts in the Estrella Mountain District from four 10-hour days to five eight-hour days. In May, Garcia was the subject of a blistering survey of 1,700 officers, commissioned by the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) and another union, the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association (PPSLA). The surveys revealed 93 percent dissatisfaction with Garcia’s job performance, with 80 percent of respondents viewing him as an ineffective leader. He didn’t win back any hearts in July – though he garnered some headlines – when he demoted three assistant chiefs to commander.
Faced with these facts, Garcia and supporters remind people he’s not here to be popular. “Of the top 40 things on my list, that’s about number 50,” he says. What matters most to Garcia is public safety and effective policing, and he says the changes he’s instituted at the department will increase and enrich police efficiency in Phoenix, where a downsized agency of roughly 3,200 officers serves a population of more than 1.6 million. That equates roughly to one officer per 500 people – well below Los Angeles (one officer per 378 people) and New York City (one officer per 237 people), but about even with the Dallas department that he left behind (one officer per 410 people). “We are continuing to provide exceptional service to the residents of Phoenix with several hundred fewer employees,” Garcia says. “This is quite an accomplishment and would not have been achieved without everyone’s hard work.”
He’s also managed to thaw the department’s six-year hiring freeze – barely. Earlier this year, the department promoted 11 reserve officers to full-time posts, and in September, the U.S. Department of Justice provided funding for Phoenix to hire 15 new police officers. “These 15 officers, combined with our recent hiring of 11 new officers ahead of schedule, will go a long way to giving our police department the personnel they need to keep our community safe,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said in a press release. Garcia went on to state, “The Mayor and I share the same goals when it comes to making the City of Phoenix the safest major metropolitan city in the country. It’s nice to know these efforts are shared and supported by the DOJ.”
Other personnel changes under Garcia haven’t been as well-received. He made waves in July by demoting long-time assistant chiefs Kevin Robinson, Tracy Montgomery and Blake McClelland and installing assistant chiefs of his choosing. It was not, he insists, indicative of poor work performance. “In no way were the assistant chiefs’ transfers reflective of any disciplinary problems,” Garcia says. “Leaders of large teams often pick their executive assistants, and this was nothing more than me picking the right team for right now. I thank them for their years of service and their continued support in their new assignments.”
But the post-survey demotions continue to rankle. PLEA president Joe Clure says Garcia has the right to appoint his own team, but says Kevin Robinson was out of the country when his demotion was announced: “[He] essentially found out on Facebook that he was no longer assistant police chief. I would not have done it that way.”
PPSLA president Sean Mattson adds, “We still have a long way to go, but the survey and some of the meetings that have taken place since its inception have been decent steps in the right direction.”
Garcia allows that his reputation for quick decisions cuts both ways, and that better communication might have taken the edge off his more controversial moves. Described as both “decisive and abrasive” by colleagues quoted on The Dallas Morning News website, Garcia nevertheless left fans in Dallas, where he rose to the rank of assistant police chief. “I think a lot of Danny,” says recently retired city manager Mary Suhm, who praises him for a “progressive” approach to policing. Sharon Boyd, publisher of now-dormant website dallasarena.com, says she worked with Garcia on neighborhood watch groups about five years ago. “He fought for the officers, to keep them on the streets,” she says. He had a good rapport with the community, cordial even during disagreements, she adds. “I became a big fan,” she says. “Phoenix is lucky to have him.”
Garcia wants to make more changes in Phoenix. He wants to bring back community policing, which emphasizes neighborhood engagement on a foot-traffic level, as opposed to paramilitary techniques like stop-and-frisk. Even more, he wants to instill a sense of what he calls “the nobility of policing.” He’s been using the phrase “policing with a purpose” so often that city officials trademarked it, with Garcia’s cheerful permission. His vision includes “ensuring and nurturing democracy, justice, spirit of service, fundamental fairness, and protecting others from harm.”
His vision of law enforcement includes putting up-to-date crime statistics online, where police and the public can view them any time. The RAIDS Online system (raidsonline.com) features Google Maps-like icons to show what happened where and when. Users search the system by date, crime, offender and other options to display maps, lists and graphs that show criminal activity by day, week and even hour. Tempe and Scottsdale already have the system. The Phoenix version was due to go online this fall.
When the site does launch, it may show rising crime rates. Phoenix saw 3,619 cases of aggravated assault from January to June 2013, compared to 2,411 over the same period in 2012. But PLEA president Clure says, “You have to remember, we’re coming off 30, 40-year lows. We had a good run there. So I’m not sure how much you can read into some of these stats right now.”
How Garcia reads them: “Our crime trends in Phoenix have seen a decrease or only modest increases the past few years, even though the number of police officers decreased.” Despite the 50 percent increase in aggravated assault, Garcia touts structural changes and systemic improvements in the department, many of which he’s made to the dissent of numerous officers.
Displayed prominently in Garcia’s office is an ancient photo of an official-looking man who bears a passing family resemblance. “I love to kid people and tell them it’s my great-great grandfather,” says Garcia, admitting that he found the picture in an antique shop and has no idea who the subject is. That quirky sense of humor, at odds with his hardass rep, is something he’s going to need.