Harris, 61, is unique among cops nationwide. He is one of the few officers to go from the street to the top office in a big-city police department in his hometown. His tenure includes homeland security issues for the 2001 World Series, immigration mass marches Downtown, serial killers and a raft of other challenging cases. Meanwhile, the rate of property and violent crimes in Phoenix has dropped every year since 2003, according to FBI crime report statistics.
Harris says he’s proud of his accomplishments. But right now, he’s having fun. In May, he ran San Francisco’s popular Bay to Breakers 12K run. These sorts of events used to be his shtick. But with one artificial knee (due to a blown ACL he suffered years ago), Harris thought it better to throttle back and run half the race. Then he realized he was almost to the beach. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to go ahead and finish.’ I did the whole seven-and-a-half miles,” he says.
The day after being interviewed by PHOENIX magazine, Harris was set to go joyriding with a friend on a speedboat. But what to drive there? The blacked-out 2009 Chevrolet Corvette Z06? The new Dodge Ram pickup? One of his two Harley-Davidson motorcycles? Choices, choices. He likes motorized toys, and savings from his salary ($193,377 per year) plus a generous state pension ($95,715 per year) buys a lot of fun.
“There’s a world out there to enjoy,” he says. “And I’m enjoying the retirement part of it. I’ve been working since I was 15 and never had a real serious break. There are days I look out and say, ‘You know, this could get boring if I don’t have enough things to do,’ but I haven’t found that yet.”
Life wasn’t always so carefree. The son of a truck driver and a waitress, Harris grew up in west Phoenix near 35th Avenue and Van Buren Street, living in the Alzona housing project for low-income families.
Harris graduated from Carl Hayden High School in 1967 and attended Phoenix College. His father told him he thought a career as a police detective would be cool. So Harris earned his two-year degree in police science. When he was notified that he was being drafted for the Vietnam War, Harris joined the Marine reserves and then the National Guard, being hired by the Phoenix Police Department while serving in the guard’s reserves. He completed a nine-year military commitment.
As Phoenix’s population boomed, Harris grew up with the department. He started in south Phoenix and was an officer for 11 years, then spent four to six years at every rank – except detective – on his way to the top. He says his three favorite positions involved overnight shifts as a motorcycle officer on the DUI squad; posing as a “buyer” with the department’s vice and narcotics unit; and organizing complicated police barricades as a SWAT team lieutenant.
The serial rapist case and the serial shooter case were the peak of his tenure as chief, Harris says. At press time, Mark Goudeau was on trial for allegedly committing a string of robberies, rapes, kidnappings and murders as the “Baseline Killer” in 2005 and 2006. During the same period, authorities believed a “Serial Shooter” was terrorizing the Valley. Turns out, two men were involved: In 2009, Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman were convicted of murder and other charges in that case.
But the intangible parts of his chief status aren’t so obvious. For example, when more than 100,000 people marched through Downtown in April 2006 to protest immigration sweeps and promote civil rights, Phoenix police were ready. Harris credits the department’s community response teams for bringing in the organizers and Hispanic leaders to negotiate a better route than Central Avenue, which was under construction for light rail.
“Some people thought, ‘Oh, you’re just giving in to the immigrant community,’” Harris says. “Well I can guarantee you, if 100,000 people want to march down the street right now, they can march. You can’t stop them. So the best we can do is do it with the least amount of disruption to the community and the most safety for everyone involved.”
Maybe Harris should have been watching out for his own safety. As public support for stricter immigration enforcement intensified, Mesa Republican Senator Russell Pearce’s pet legislation gained more steam at the state Legislature. By the time Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law in April 2010, her popularity had skyrocketed. Other politicians were jumping on the political bandwagon.
As a result, Harris says, key officials at City Hall changed their position; Harris did not. He had joined with several other police chiefs in major U.S. cities and, as a group, they decided routine immigration checks were not a good use of their departments’ limited resources. (A federal judge eventually blocked the most controversial parts of SB 1070 from taking effect in August 2010, and the Arizona Attorney General was still challenging that decision at press time.)
Under Harris, Phoenix police waded into the immigration fight. He says the department brought 10 federal immigration agents into the office to work on violent crimes that may involve illegal immigrants. It also launched a task force with the state Department of Public Safety and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to pursue human smugglers and locate drop houses.
But police officers should not be involved in the day-to-day activities of catching illegal immigrants who are not involved in violent crimes, he says. After all, he adds, there may be 300 Phoenix police officers covering 510 square miles and a million-and-a-half people in the city – and that’s on a good day. Should the cops really be chasing gardeners?
“You have to decide: Am I going to use my resources to go after the smugglers, the drug dealers, the murderers, the rapists, the burglars, or am I going to tell my officers, ‘If you want to spend your day picking up landscapers and takin’ ’em over to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], go ahead’ – that doesn’t make any sense. It’s not that we [police chiefs] agreed there shouldn’t be more enforcement of immigration laws. It’s just a matter of priorities, that’s all.”
Harris’ position angered officials at the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), the union that represents the department’s police officers. “That kind of started the ‘Let’s get the police chief fired’ philosophy that has been going on over at PLEA for several years,” Harris says.
PLEA President Mark Spencer says Harris should be recognized for his 39 years of service but that he ultimately played politics with the illegal immigration issue by not allowing officers more leeway in calling federal authorities if they believed they encountered an illegal immigrant while on duty. Spencer credits SB 1070 and police officers’ limited use of its new rules with driving Phoenix’s crime rate down because officers were able to detain more illegal immigrants.
“I hope the next chief has the ability to see the value of community partnerships and see the value of police labor,” Spencer says. “In other words, I hope the next chief understands the importance of people who pay to get the work done – taxpayers – and the people who actually do the work – police officers. I think that’s crucial. And there truly needs to be a commitment to the rule of law.”
While the illegal immigration debate blew through the department, Harris found himself addressing several internal police scandals. In October 2010, Phoenix police Sergeant Sean Drenth was found dead outside his patrol car near 19th Avenue and Jefferson Street. Investigators couldn’t figure out if Drenth’s death was a homicide or a suicide.
Drenth was implicated in a three-year internal police probe that found about 30 officers may have been paid for off-duty security work they didn’t actually do. Harris says investigators forwarded their findings to the state Attorney General for prosecution two years ago, but it took 18 months for attorneys to sift through the details and file charges.
It wasn’t as big as it was made out to be, Harris says: Most of the officers had likely clocked in a bit late and clocked out a bit early to get to their off-duty security jobs but had been paid for that time. They weren’t taking money under the table, and the damages involved less than $1,000 per officer. In the end, only four were charged with felony fraud, and at press time, their cases were at various stages in the legal system.
Which leaves us with the case of Richard Chrisman, a Phoenix police officer who was fired in March after authorities charged him with second-degree murder and animal cruelty. They claim he shot an unarmed man suspected of domestic violence – and the 29-year-old man’s pit bull – after responding to a call for service from a south Phoenix trailer park in October 2010. Chrisman has pleaded innocent to the charges, and the trial was under way at press time.
But the incident that shattered Harris’ dwindling support at City Hall involved kidnapping statistics. In an internal city memo, a Phoenix police sergeant reportedly complained that the department had inflated its kidnapping statistics to collect $2.4 million in federal grant funds to combat the issue. The complaint triggered audits, which later found that the number of kidnappings were under-counted. Harris was vindicated, but it was too late: Fed up with the political drama, he had already turned in a one-sentence resignation letter in April and left.
Harris says he has no regrets. He says he may consider working as a consultant, an expert witness on law enforcement issues in court trials, or an executive in the private-security business – but not for at least six months. Being chief is still too fresh.
“In retrospect, it is probably more art than science,” he says of the job. “You certainly learn the technology and the ins and outs of the criminal justice system. But the one thing that surprised me, and that I think surprises most cops who become police chiefs, is the politics of the job. And let’s face it, the reason I am not there today –?even though I was getting close to retirement anyway –?is because of the politics.”
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