Police Chief James Hughes
Maricopa Police Chief James Hughes, shown here in a file photo, shared statistics at Tuesday's city council meeting illustrating a dramatic drop in police use of force incidents in 2020. Photo by Victor Moreno

A dramatic drop in use of force incidents was recorded in 2020 from the previous year, according to data presented Tuesday night by Maricopa police Chief James Hughes.

According to Hughes, just .0033% of the 15,025 total police calls last year resulted in use of force.

Use of force is defined as any interaction with a citizen that involves anything other than placing them in handcuffs. The national media has created some confusion surrounding the use of force terminology, City Manager Rick Horst said at the city council meeting.

“The term ‘use of force’ does not imply someone was hurt necessarily, but the national media has led people to believe that the term implies an injury,” he said.

As an example, Horst said an officer’s display of a weapon is counted as a use of force even though it was never fired.

Hughes said MPD uses a broad definition of force when compiling these statistics.

“There is no national standard that requires us to document any use of force or pointing a firearm at someone, including any use of a weapon, baton, O.C. (oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray) or ECW (electronic control weapon, like a Taser),” Hughes said. “But we document any use of physical force including takedowns, impact push or hard hand strikes, and any display of firearms.

“Of course, having been on the wrong end of a gun during my 35 years in police departments, it’s quite a memorable encounter,” he added.

In any use of force incident in Maricopa, MPD policy requires a supervisor to respond to the scene to conduct a preliminary investigation. If the use of force involves an officer-involved shooting or in-custody death, the Arizona Department of Public Safety investigates  to ensure impartiality. The on-scene supervisor will prepare a use of force report and upload body camera footage to investigators.

The city’s last officer-involved shooting was in January 2015.

Hughes said there were 59 uses of force in 2020, specified as:

• Display of firearm – 25
• Takedowns – 13
• Less lethal shotgun –12
• ECW/Taser – 5
• Hard empty hands – 2
• Impact device – 1
• Chemical agent – 1

There can be multiple uses of force in a single interaction, as each element is counted, Hughes said. So, if an officer used pepper spray on a suspect, then had to take that suspect to the ground, that would count as two use of force instances. If another officer displayed a firearm at the same incident, that would be a third instance of force.

“You can see that the actual use of force is very, very low for those serious encounters,” Hughes said. “For the last several years (former MPD) Chief (Steve) Stahl and I have been training our officers in de-escalation with how to use verbal skills, how to really calm the situation.”

Mayor Christian Price said he is grateful for the work Hughes, and Stahl before him, have done.

“I would like to say thank you to the police department,” Price said. “Many, many, years ago I had this discussion with Chief Stahl as we were talking about policing in 2015. We were talking about de-escalation tactics and one of the things we talked about extensively is the ability to do our jobs, but at the same time protecting the people we are serving.

“That includes those that are under investigation, or under arrest, or in our custody. I really appreciate this (data) because I think it’s a good example of what some police departments out there are not doing right and some of the things we’re really trying to focus on here in the city of Maricopa, and what we do right. I think that’s what our public wants – they want to believe in the police.”

Hughes also shared demographic information for those involved in use of force incidents:

Male – 75%
Female – 25%

White – 56%
Black – 22%
Native American – 11%
Hispanic – 5%

MPD did not specify race for the remaining six percent of incidents.

The 59 total uses of force in the city were 10 fewer than in 2019, a 29% decrease. Injuries to suspects also declined in these incidents, from 32% in 2019 to 12% in 2020. But the injury rate for officers rose from 15% in 2019 to 25% in 2020.