Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl. Photo by Kyle Norby

After seven years on the job as Maricopa top cop, Chief Steve Stahl talked with InMaricopa about the challenges of policing a growing community, trends he finds the most disturbing, the use of on-body cameras, fiscal responsibility and what he considers the department’s biggest failure last year (it may not be what you think.)

How is Maricopa Police Department adapting to the growth of the city?
We have people who come with preconceived notions. They come with a set of expectations that they’re used to in their prior jurisdictions. Those are challenges sometimes to us to educated them on, “That doesn’t apply here in Arizona,” or “That doesn’t apply in Maricopa.” The biggest challenge regarding growth is the set of expectations that we are, one, trying to address, trying to meet with these citizens, but also trying to educate everyone on what is a realistic goal for us to accomplish together.

How many officers do you have?
We have about 1.3 officers per thousand. Seventy officers, 53,000 people.

What was the most frequent crime in 2019?
The most frequent crime is still property crime, these series of property crimes – thefts, shoplifts, vehicle burglaries, things like that, commercial burglaries, going onto people’s property, trespass, things like that. It’s still the No. 1 thing here in the city of Maricopa. We still have a long way to go to educate the people on how to properly secure their properties, their vehicle – lock the door, raise the windows, don’t leave anything in your vehicle you want to be there the next morning. Turn coach lights on if you’re going to park your car in your driveway. Those types of things that help us. Policing a safe community can’t be done just by having police officers do everything. It has to be the community working together in concert with the law enforcement officers out there, so we can accomplish the same goal together.

Do you find the nature of crime changing in any way?
I think the nature is just, again, new people coming to the city of Maricopa. We are actually seeing a whole lot more visitors exploring the city of Maricopa, visiting their friends, people from out of town, out of state, trying to determine if they want to live here in Maricopa and/or hide here in the city of Maricopa because they are coming with a history or background that they’re running from in their other jurisdiction. So, they may or may not be used to being identified right away by our law enforcement officers, and our motto still is, get out of the car, introduce yourself to people, good people and criminally oriented people. We want to introduce our officers to all those people and make sure that our community stays safe.

On that vein, your police officers have to deal with a wide array of people every day. How would you describe the diversity within your ranks?
We are very fortunate with diversity amongst our ranks. It’s going to take years to get the female population in law enforcement where it needs to be, but we are well ahead of other jurisdictions when it comes to female population. We have approximately 13% female population amongst our ranks in a notoriously male-dominated occupation. We understand that, we recognize that. They are great officers, regardless of male or female persuasion. They do a great job. Each and every person, regardless of what their gender is, brings a certain, unique talent to this profession that each and every one of them should be proud of. We’re doing very well in the African American population. The Latinos within our police force are doing really well, staying right with the population demographics within our city. Also, we have two Native American officers, and that, again, fall right in line with the demographics in our city.

For the past year, what has been the crime that has concerned you the most?
Along with what we talked about before, which is the property crimes and people failing to secure some of their property, the thing that concerns me the most is the juvenile – and I won’t refer to it as criminal activity, but I’ll refer to it as dangerous behavior that could easily turn into criminal activity. They – and you could talk to some of our partners, Be Awesome Coalition and those types of entities – they recognize that young people are getting alcohol and/or drugs from their own home, with or without parents’ permission. I do not believe that we’ve done a sufficient job in educating parents and children about the dangers of vaping. It is deadly, it is serious and it still such a new thing that people haven’t had time listen to or research the scientific studies. And all the scientific studies say it is a dangerous thing. So those are some of the dangers. I worry about our youth because it leads to other activities with our youth. Vaping won’t give them the sufficient high, so they have to go to a different drug, which may be marijuana. Today’s marijuana is nowhere even close to the marijuana concentrations that were out there when I was growing up. It is much stronger, it is much more dangerous. I just read it in a post over the weekend where someone was talking about, “Why do you care that a young person or a person is using marijuana. It makes them mellower.” We now know – you can talk to our officers – marijuana usage does not make a subject mellower. In fact, the concentration levels make them more paranoid and that means they’re paranoid of even people that they know and they love much less when they have to talk to a law enforcement officer.

Let’s talk about the body-cam program. You were kind of pioneers in that as far as local law enforcement. How many cameras are in use now daily?
Every one of our officers is equipped with an on-body camera.

How is it affecting police work?
I think it’s affecting it greatly to the positive. In fact, if you polled our police officers, if you went out and rode with them on the street, you won’t see them go out on the street without their on-body camera. They want to have that protection. It serves a couple different purposes. They can use it as a tool to de-escalate an angry or upset person. They can remind that person that they’re recording this incident, and that usually calms the situation down. Our officers use it for report writing so they are able to remember certain details they might forget, so our report-writing is better. And we’ve heard that both from our city prosecutors and from our county attorney. Finally, I think it’s a great training tool. Our officers can watch themselves and our training unit can watch the video and formulate some training scenarios from that video so we can learn and be better at what we do.

What is the cost?
The cameras are right around $1,000 per camera. The most costly part of cameras is the storage for For our communication with the county attorneys and the prosecutors, it’s a necessary thing for them to be able to look at that on-body camera footage and be able to determine whether they want to proceed with the case or whether they would like to plead that case out or dismiss the case.

So, you think it’s worth the cost?
It definitely is. It’s the future. It’s definitely the future of law enforcement. If you look at the world, it is a digital world that is communicating digitally right now. If you want factual information, then you want it to be as factual as possible, and that camera provides that.

What is the department policy on initiating the use of the camera? Is it when they get out of the car? Is it when they talk to someone? Or is it left to the discretion of the officer?
It’s a great question, and it is left up to the discretion of the officer. Many of the officers have taken the philosophy of as soon as they receive the call for service, they will turn their on-body camera on. There are a lot of people who will call us and say, “Hey, we saw one of your officers speeding. They didn’t have their lights and siren on.” If the officers turn the camera on, as they’re en route to the call, it documents their speed, it documents the radio traffic that is coming across the radio at that time. It either justifies or condemns, so to speak, the officer for not obeying the traffic laws or justifies their having a little expedited response to that call.

Are there any new programs or projects MPD will initiate in 2020?
We’re always exploring new things. One of the things that we’re really excited about right now is that we’re changing our computer-aided dispatch. We’ve used a company since I’ve come here, and the company, while it does some good things, it is not as user-friendly, it is not as customer-service-friendly, and it’s not preparing for the future. It is not adapting to the world of law enforcement as quickly as we would like it to happen. So, we’ve been working with a company who will remain unnamed for a while longer until after the first of the year. We’re excited about that partnership. They’ve actually sat with our dispatchers. They’ve sat with our officers, and they’ve made the product from sitting down with all of our people. It is really designed for law enforcement by law enforcement.

Following that, the same company is exploring the world of record-management system, our police reports, our citations, things like that. That same company, hopefully in years to come when I’m retired, that same company will be able to take what’s on that on-body camera footage and translate it into a police report without the officer having to write the police report or type the police report. It’ll decipher all of that language and it will put it right in the police report for the officers to view, correct and things like that before it’s actually submitted. We’re evolving into what I hope is a more efficient police department, and I believe that is what is demanded by the taxpayers right now, a responsible use of their funding so when we ask for more officers, if we need more officers, it is absolutely justified because we have taken all the steps necessary to ensure that our officers are efficient. Once those steps are all taken, the only recourse is to add more resources, more officers.

What do you think were the department’s biggest successes of 2019?
I’m going to brag about our family advocacy center, first and foremost. They have done a phenomenal job. Mary Witkofski has done a phenomenal job there. They have given service to more than 40 criminal cases already in the short period time that they’ve been in existence. Now, that’s both a sad thing and positive thing, because you never want to say, “Oh, we really need this. We can’t do without it.” And yet at the same time, if you talk to those victims, most of them children or their parents, they will agree that service is absolutely necessary to start rebuilding that child, to start making them whole again from the horrific crime that they have either witnessed or suffered through or anything like that. Mary has done a great job. All of our community partners have done a great job with it.

We keep exploring new ways to deliver service. One of those ways is Maricopa Police Department has a DVIRT program, its Domestic Violence Incident Response team. By team I mean we have one victim advocate who reviews all the cases and then they will go out the next day to the victim’s home with an officer and they will ask if there are additional resources that they can give them. In the heat of the moment when it’s really emotional and they’re in the middle of that domestic-violence situation, decisions aren’t necessarily sound decisions by the victim. So, if they’ve had the night to think about it, the day to think about it, there may have been some resources that they have forgotten about that they really want to explore and ask about. So that Domestic Violence Incident Response team goes out and answers those questions for them, gives them the option of additional resources, makes them know that the police department cares about them, the safety of their future and what’s going to happen in the future so they do not become a repeat victim of domestic violence. Unfortunately, if you look nationwide, the repeat [offenders] of domestic violence progressively get more and more violent every time.

I would add another big win for 2019 is the men and women out there who do this each and every day. There are not enough accolades in the dictionary to be able to give to the men and women out there who do that job. They are understaffed. They are doing the very best job they can. They are responding the calls. They are stopping and talking to people. They are preventing, even though it sometimes it may not look like it, they are preventing traffic crashes on a regular basis just by being visible and/or doing traffic enforcement in certain areas of our city where most of our crashes happen. They are doing it each and every day. They are doing it with a purpose of keeping our community safe, and I couldn’t be prouder of all of them.

The other thing that we did last year was we re-accredited once again. We did that in 2018, but now accreditation is different. We have to every year to a digital load of all of our policies. And every year CALEA [Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies] selects 25% of those policies to make sure we have the proofs of compliance. So now when year four comes around it’s just a very smaller snippet of making sure we’re abiding by our policies, and then in year four they actually come and do an onsite. That will allow the accreditors, the assessors, to come out actually and ride along with our officers, see how things are done versus sitting in a conference room looking over proofs of compliance. They will actually get to physically see proof of compliance.

What was MPD’s biggest failure last year?
This is a hard one because you have to self-reflect. You look at things you think you should have known or if you had a crystal ball, what would you do. I still think one of the failures that we still need to address, all of us, not just the police department, is the seriousness of domestic violence. We have to get beyond, “This is a private matter and should only be addressed as a family.” We have to get ride of our ego and we have to get rid of our self-pride and we have to reach out for help. I don’t mean that I want us as a police department to criticize and/or be the state officials of domestic violence. What I mean by that is we now have a service available. We have a family advocacy center that you don’t have to report a crime to, but you can call for services and that system will set you up in the services so that you don’t have to be involved in the system. That’s what I’m hoping we can do a better job of. As a police department, as a community, we had one death, and that was a domestic violence situation. One is too many. It’s unacceptable. We still need to address that collectively.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. Community members, if you have some things you would like to contribute, I’m all open. People know how to get ahold of me via email; they know how to get ahold of me on the phone. I’m an open book. Give me some ideas and we’ll explore them and see if we can’t continue to do a better job in that arena.

I would say one other thing, we still need to get children to understand the dangerous behaviors they’re doing out there. I spoke briefly about the use of vape and the use of marijuana and/or other drugs. There comes a point in time when the use of the drug is not enough, and teenagers, young people, are turning to suicide as a possible option for the pain that they’re going through. To me, that’s a failure. That’s a young person who has a bright future ahead of them. And I want them to understand that bright future is exactly what we want also. In that same vein, I believe our family advocacy center can help in that educational component as well. I’m hoping we can do that as a community.

What is the difference in what training tells you to do if officers are called, “Hey, we hear some screaming at this house,” and on the way there, they’re informed they’ve had previous calls from this same house, how does that change their response?
Every call is different. It’s really hard to pigeon-hole anything. What it does is, if you’ve had prior calls there, it puts the officers on a little bit more of an alert because they know the same statistics. They’ve been to the same trainings where we try to instill in them, the more frequent it happens the more violent it gets. So, it puts them on a little bit more heightened alert. It may cause them to explore other avenues rather than just walking to the door and knocking on the door and saying, “Hi, how are you? We’re here to stop a domestic violence situation.” It may cause them to gather up down the street, formulate a plan and then carry out the plan. If we know there’s weapons in the house, it’s going to change the dynamics as well. We do live in Arizona, so we can assume that every house has a weapon until otherwise proven.

This is something we touched on earlier. MPD and the fire department take up 50% of the city budget. How do you stay fiscally accountable?
That’s an interesting question. I believe, and I’ve said this before to our city council people, we are if you compare us to other police departments throughout the state, we are well under most of those police departments. If you look at Oro Valley PD, who prides themselves on being the second-safest city in the state of Arizona, they have 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents. They have 43,000 residents, and they have 108 police officers. I could do a lot with 108 police officers. But I also understand if I were to get greedy and ask for even more of the budget, which, if you look nationwide, police and fire do take up 50% to even more of city budgets, if I get greedy then that leaves potholes un-taken-care-of in the city, that leaves less room for our libraries for a our kids and grandkids to go, that leaves less money for parks and recreation where we do want our kids to go. So that’s that fine balance of let’s not get greedy and ask for the world; let’s make sure that we are being responsible. We have given back and we’ve stayed within budget. We’ve given back mostly through employee savings. But that’s because we’re always understaffed. It takes time to fill a position when someone leaves. During that time the position is unfilled, there’s savings, there’s employee savings. It takes about 18 months for us to catch up to that. For somebody to go through the background process, to be hired and then go through the academy and then go through field-training, it’s about an 18-month process. I think we’ve been very, very responsible with the budget. Anything we know we can’t get, we’re looking at grant-funding, we’re looking at other ways of doing things. The family advocacy center was put together and continues to operate without a penny of the city’s general fund. I made that promise that for five years, we would not use a penny from the general fund, and as of yet we have not.

What’s the department’s No. 1 need for 2020?
Safety. That could go in a myriad of different directions. I could use the standard caveat of I need more officers, I need more calls or I need more that. Our need is for accountability on everyone’s part. On our part, on citizens’ part, on businesses’ part. That’s going to lead to safety. If we’re accountable, it’s going to lead to a safer community. There’s never been a time in society when the slogan “See something, say something” means more than now. “See something, say something” applies to our kids. “See something, say something” applies to our schools. “See something, say something” applies to domestic violence. It applies to traffic, and it applies to possible terrorist activity. We try to pigeon-hole “See something, say something” to just terrorist activity, but it applies to everything in a safe community. I hope that we take that saying seriously. Use our police department ap. You can report anonymously. Stay involved with us. Come to Coffee with the Chief. We want to communicate with you and we want to help this community be safe.