Every day in Marana, a web of visible and invisible systems operates behind the scenes. Officers patrol the streets. Engineers plan out the roads. Accountants balance the budget. You, the taxpayer, trust us to keep this machine running. A few times each year, we’ll be sharing how that happens, profiling each of these departments, pulling back the veil to reveal what makes Marana’s government tick. We hope that by taking you behind the scenes, you’ll not only gain a deeper understanding of how your government functions, but also help us improve by sharing your perspectives on these processes. Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy this Marana Newsroom original series, Townies.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016. 2:35 p.m. Marana High School
It’s passing period. Students crisscross the campus, some hurrying to make it on time to their next class, others casually enjoying a few brief moments in the sun. Coleman Hunter, the School Resource Officer, is standing in the quad, keeping a watchful eye over the students as they transition into the final period of the school day.
So far, this has been a normal day at MHS, if any day at a high school can be considered normal. The weather is mild, midterm season is over, and finals are still weeks away. It’s primary day in Arizona, but so far, the fever of the 2016 election season hasn’t affected the school day. The school is a polling place, and has been for years, but the polling booths are kept entirely separate from the students.
In the front office, the receptionist answers the phone that never seems to stop ringing. At the other end of the line, a voice urgently pushes his message through the receiver. There’s a bomb in the library, she hears. And then nothing. The voice is gone. Within seconds, emergency responders are on their way.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016. 3:15 p.m. Sandario Road, south of Marana Regional Airport
“99.9% of bomb threats are false alarms,” explains Sergeant Chris Warren, Public Information Officer for the Marana Police Department. “But we still treat every threat as if it were that 0.1%”
This is good news not only for Marana High School, but also for the other government agencies across the state which also received bomb threats on March 22. Both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office got them, and both took hours to investigate and resolve. By the end of the day, every threat would prove unsubstantiated. But at 3:15 p.m., the Marana Police Department doesn’t know that yet.
Sergeant Warren is currently driving down Sandario Road towards Marana High School in an unmarked police cruiser. Don’t mistake his calm demeanor for a lack of urgency, though. The odometer ticks above 70 miles per hour. The speed limit is 55.
Minutes earlier, he’d been listening to the police radio traffic in his office. His door opens into the Dispatch Center for the Marana Police Department. At all hours, this communications hub buzzes with activity. If you call 9-1-1 in Marana, this is where they pick up the phone.
Grace Neal has just answered a call. Immediately, she begins punching codes into her elaborate computer terminal. “1089 at Marana High School.” “Bomb threat.” “Officer Hunter on the scene.” “Sgt. Terry Evans en route.” Undercover officers, Sergeant Steve Johnson, and Lieutenant Tim Brunenkant will quickly join them. Grace coordinates all this without leaving her seat.
“As a dispatcher, you have to communicate an incredible amount of information in practically no time at all,” explains Sheila Blevins from over Grace’s shoulder. “You have to simultaneously listen to the caller, evaluate the appropriate response, and start alerting the right officers.” Sheila is one of the telecommunications managers of the Dispatch Center, and she should know about communications. She’s been at this job for 29 years.
“I started out as a pre-school teacher,” she said of her decision to enter the field. “The parent of one of my students was an officer, so I decided to go on a ride-along one day. As we patrolled and listened to the police radio, I started to think I could be a dispatcher.”
One skill from Sheila’s teaching days transferred usefully into dispatching: tone. “The tone of your voice at the beginning of the call lays the groundwork for the rest of the interaction. It sets the framework for that caller’s whole experience. If they don’t think I’m taking them seriously, then they’ll channel that frustration onto the responding officer. That can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation. As dispatchers, our voices need to convey neutrality and composure.”
Unsurprisingly, it turns out, tone is just as important for officers on the ground as it is for dispatchers in the Communications Center.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016. 2:37 p.m. Marana High School
The crowd of administrators and staff is growing thick. In the middle of it, Officer Hunter confers with Principal David Mandel and his senior leadership team. What’s the next step? Miles away, Grace Neal is starting to dispatch officers and Chris Warren is getting ready to drive to the school, but right now, this group needs to make a decision. Should they evacuate the school?
Yes, urges the school leadership team. At 2:40 p.m., they pulled the fire alarm. Students started pouring out of the campus.
“It’s such a difficult decision,” explains Officer Hunter several hours later. “I’m here to serve as a resource, to provide that law enforcement perspective.”
For Officer Hunter, this was far from his first brush with high pressure decision-making. In fact, this day’s events at MHS occurred almost exactly a year after he faced an entirely different kind of emergency.
Saturday, March 14, 2015. 10:00 p.m. Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead, Catalina Foothills
374 days before Officer Hunter helped manage a bomb threat at Marana High School, he parked at a dark trailhead north of Tucson. A few hours later, Pima County sheriffs contact the Marana Police Department. A County deputy had just read a note left on his car indicating that Officer Hunter, off-duty, had gone up the trail to assist hikers who had become stranded on the rocky, rugged path. Limited reception prevented him from using a more sophisticated communication channel to alert others of his whereabouts, but the urgency of the moment prevented him from delaying any longer. One of the stranded hikers was his mother.
Pima Canyon Trail is a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts. It challenges hikers to wind their way up the steep canyon walls in a front-range pocket of the Santa Catalina Mountains. A narrow path cuts through thick groves of thorny foliage; one step off the path and a careless hiker risks embedding painful spines deep under the skin. In just over four miles, the trail climbs over 3000 feet, ending near the summit of Mt. Kimball. Elevation: 7300 feet. At this altitude, the mild temperature of a March night in Marana drops rapidly, putting tired and hungry hikers at risk of hypothermia. Officer Hunter knew all this when he had arrived at the trailhead and he knew there was no time to waste. As the sun set behind him and as the canyon gradually receded with the light, he began his ascent.
At 11 p.m., Officer Hunter’s wife received a text message. Her husband had located his mother and her friend, and the group was making its way off the mountain. The two hikers had been on the trail since 6:00 a.m. that morning. Seventeen hours later, they still were. At 2:00 a.m., Officer Hunter’s wife received a second message: “It looks like it’s going to be an all-nighter.” MPD attempted again and again to contact their officer, but it soon became readily apparent that his cell phone was now entirely out of range.
By this time, Marana Officers Kevin Trapp and Renee Huerta had arrived at the trailhead. Concerned for their colleague’s safety, they requested permission to venture into the canyon. At 5:00 a.m., they received that permission and started their journey.
Within hours, Officers Trapp and Huerta had located the exhausted group, provided them with food and water, and relayed their position to their sergeant via police radio. They then slowly and carefully escorted the group down the trail. At 11:00 a.m., 29 hours after the hikers had originally set out, they returned to safety.
Officers Hunter, Trapp, and Huerta made a series of challenging decisions in those dark hours. In the fleeting moments of indecision, they had no time to analyze all the costs and benefits of waiting for back-up versus heading up the trail. They depended on their training to make the right choice quickly. For an officer, it’s a tremendous responsibility. Sometimes, they’re wrong. More often, they’re right. How Marana prepares its officers for these moments is of the utmost importance, and it doesn’t happen quickly or easily or automatically.
For many officers, it starts while they’re still in high school.
Monday, July 20, 2015. 4:12 p.m. Marana Municipal Complex courtyard
“One, two, three, four.”
Hands grip the hot soil. The sun bears down, testing their commitment. Nothing could possibly be worth this level of exhaustion.
“Five, six, seven, eight.”
The exercise is more a test of mental resilience than physical strength. Can they keep up? Do they have what it takes?
“Nine, ten, eleven, twelve.”
They’re counting desperate gasps for air as much as they’re counting push-ups.
“Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.”
Drops of sweat pool on the grass.
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.”
Down. Finished. Shaking. Exhilarated.
The summer routine for the Marana Explorers Post #77 can be punishing. By the time the young men and women are a couple weeks into the program, it feels anything but voluntary. Did they really choose to sign up for this of their own free will? What could have possessed them to pursue this extracurricular? Was it for fun? Is this fun? This is not fun.
Every year, the Marana Explorers program accepts a new class of aspiring law enforcement officers. Participants are as young as 14 and as old as 20. They want to learn more about what it means to be a public servant. They like the idea of ensuring the safety of their community. They love the camaraderie that’s inherent to this kind of work. All that sounds great on paper. But how does that work out in practice?
It turns out, the life of a police officer can be excruciating. Doing twenty push-ups under the hot summer sun is one thing. Doing twenty push-ups, followed by crunches, pull-ups, and long-distance running is quite another. Knowing that every day, for weeks on end, that’s all you’ll be doing? Therein lies the true test of endurance. Not everyone makes it through. At the end of the summer, their class has fewer participants than they did at the beginning. Sometimes, that’s what happens.
Those who do make it, though, experience far more than tests of strength and stamina. In 2015, Officers Kevin Litten, Jose de la Torre, Kevin Madden, and Renee Huerta (of the trail) organized “Night Moves,” a scenario-based nocturnal event for the Explorers. As “officers,” these young men and women responded to high-risk traffic stops, civilians in distress, and various other police scenarios. They had to use law enforcement radio codes to communicate. They were expected to know the protocol for every threat. They had to remain steady while everything around them shook.
“It’s a powerful experience for the Explorers,” remarks Officer Litten. “It gives them the chance to use the training we have given them in a real-world situation. It also gives them a small taste of what their lives could be like if they continued down this path.”
“Because I went through the Explorer program myself,” explains Officer Gabe Tapia, “I knew what this culture was like from the get-go. This gave me an edge in the academy. Other recruits didn’t have that experience, but I did.”
Officer Tapia is referencing an idea that comes up frequently in conversations about police. He tries to describe the culture of this environment. When people describe police culture, they’re often talking about many different things. When Officer Tapia references that nebulous concept, one thing he means is the notion of chain-of-command.
“When I was a leader with the Explorers, I had to tell some of the younger participants to shine their shoes better, or march in a straighter line. The first time I had to do that, it felt weird. But what that experience did, though, was prepare me to function within the internal hierarchy of the Marana Police Department.
“Take small unit tactics, for example. That’s when we have to execute a maneuver as a small team quickly, accurately, and automatically.” Officer Tapia sees a number of connections between what he learned when he was younger and the work he’s doing today.
“Let’s say a suspect is running from an officer. We’ve got to set a perimeter, and each officer must contain his or her section. In that moment, I need to do exactly what my superior tells me, and if I’m the superior, I need my team to follow my instructions without hesitation. If I’m not comfortable with telling them what to do, I put the whole team in danger. The biggest thing here is connecting teamwork with discipline. It started when I had to tell an Explorer to shine his shoes better, and today, that translates into a meaningful skill which I rely on.”
In 2015, the Explorers won a number of awards at the Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Explorers Competition.
The experience of Officer Tapia speaks to the considerable training which police must undergo. It is that training which prepared Officers Trapp and Huerta for their trial in Pima Canyon. It is that training which prepares Officer Hunter to know how to handle a bomb threat at a school. That training continues throughout an officer’s career, and can occur both in a formal classroom and through lived experiences.
An often overlook result of officers’ training is their ability to communicate with those outside the profession. Through years of collaboration, Marana Police have established a strong bond with Marana Unified School District, and it is that relationship which enabled Officer Hunter to work so effectively with the administrators at Marana High School when a bomb threat upset the carefully planned structure of a high school day.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016. 10:17 a.m. Marana Middle School.
As she strides through the hallways of Marana Middle School, Officer Melissa Larkin is connected. She’s got two radios on her belt (one for police, one for the school) and three phones in her pockets (police, school, and personal).
“Pretty much anyone can get a hold of me here, which in a way is exactly what my job at the school is all about. I’m here to be a resource, to be accessible to students, parents, and teachers.”
In her two years at Marana Middle, Officer Larkin has largely succeeded at making herself accessible. The federal grant which funds her position requires that she teach 180 hours each school year. Last year, she blew through that requirement, clocking a total of 240 hours. Not bad for a rookie.
“I teach an internet safety class which every seventh grader will take at some point. There are over 500 seventh graders at Marana Middle, and every one of them will spend time in my classroom.”
While internet safety is hardly a new topic for schools, rarely is it taught by a uniformed law enforcement officer. Officer Larkin’s unique position has informed how she structures her curriculum.
“We talk a lot about the legal ramifications of cyber-bullying and sexting. We address how to avoid predators on social media. Overall, I want my students to be informed users of the powerful tools available online, not scared of them. I try to use a debate-based approach in my instruction, so that students can grapple with the challenging questions around using the internet appropriately.”
Sexting? In middle school? Officer Larking nodded knowingly, almost wearily, when she started discussing how young adolescents are unwittingly violating the law.
“I always tell my students that when they sext, they’re distributing child pornography. That gets their attention. Since I started teaching this class, the incidence of sexting has declined among our student population. And of course, parents are often caught off-guard when their kids tell them about my class, but when I talk about this content with the parents directly, they’re always supportive.”
Officer Larkin is a constant presence at Marana Middle School, a fact which students and teachers are quick to point out.
“Officer Larkin really helps kids stay out of trouble,” explains David Lion, Dean of Students at Marana Middle School.
As she circulates through the lunch room and out on the playing fields, her familiarity with the students is evident. Energetic throngs of adolescents quickly assemble around her, ready to spill their guts about the latest middle school drama. Dispassionately, Officer Larkin lets them tell their story, and fortunately, that’s almost all she’ll ever need to do. By the time the students have reached the end of the saga, they’ve found a resolution. Case closed.
Officer Larkin firmly believes in the power of just listening to what her students have to say.
Occasionally, though, she will have to intervene.
During Spring Break, as Officer Larkin caught up on her departmental responsibilities, she got a call from the school. A student had recently been posting troubling comments on social media, and the student’s friends were worried. Quickly, Officer Larkin jumped into action.
“It turned out the student was upset because of comments on social media. What became clear, though, was that the student just needed someone in authority to talk to. I was able to provide that resource. We discussed how to handle these situations in the future, as well as general strategies to build self-esteem.”
It’s easy to imagine a far worse outcome. Officer Larkin’s immediate presence, though, prevented that escalation. That’s the role that a School Resource Officer can play. They can interface between the school, the parents, the students, and the police department itself. They are able to judge what is best handled informally and what should proceed to a police investigation.
Whether she’s helping sort out middle school drama or addressing serious threats to kids’ safety, Officer Larkin’s role in the education environment makes a big difference to the community she serves. Police officers and teachers are natural allies, but that doesn’t mean they always understand each other. At Marana Middle, though, they do. Everyone, from the receptionist who has worked at the school for 17 years to the principal who just started last August, knows and trusts Officer Larkin. She’s part of the “Falcon Family,” as they like to say. And if the need arises, she’s ready to fiercely defend that family.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016. 2:55 p.m. Marana High School
Sergeant Chris Warren arrives at the corner of Sandario and Emigh Roads, where Marana Police are blocking traffic from accessing Marana High due to the bomb threat. Seven police vehicles create a highly visible barrier. Several hundred yards down the road, students can be seen outside the school, curiously looking back and forth between the officers at the corner and those at the school.
Soon, Sgt. Warren is driving toward the school, where a cadre of Marana PD’s senior leadership has gathered to talk through next steps. Orbiting around them, hushed gaggles of high schoolers whisper and speculate about what will happen. All eyes are on the men and women in uniform, but in focusing attention on this group, it’s easy to lose sight of the vast network of behind-the-scenes personnel who lay the groundwork for effective policing.
A 9-1-1 dispatcher handled the initial call. A regional bomb squad waited on standby in case they were needed. Plainclothes officers circulated around the building, their eyes searching for anything suspicious. Soon, detectives would begin combing through evidence to catch the individual who threatened the school in the first place.
As a whole, the department functions as a well-oiled machine that focuses on public safety from all angles. They work to prevent crime, assist victims, and catch perpetrators. Uniformed personnel can’t do all this alone, though, which is why they rely on their support staff.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Arizona Pavilions
As she stands in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, it would be easy to mistake exactly what Barbara Govostis is up to. Her cart is overflowing with stuffed animals; bears and giraffes and tigers spill over the sides as she carefully works her way to the cashier. These aren’t gifts for spoiled grandchildren, though.
Barbara is an unheralded member in the well-oiled machine of the Marana Police Department. In April 2015, after a long career with the FBI, she started volunteering at MPD’s Ina Road substation. At a time when she could have enjoyed the peaceful repose of retirement, Barbara made other plans. In her late 60s, she decided to join MPD as a Volunteer in Policing, or VIP. She also didn’t mind the acronym’s other definition.
Marana Police Volunteers, or VIPs, support officers in Marana by checking in on homes while occupants are on vacation, providing event support, and even buying stuffed animals.
“I signed up because I’ve always felt like law enforcement was where I belonged. I worked in corporate America for a number of years, and my situation was such that I was in a position to change careers and move to Tucson, where I eventually wanted to retire. I called all the local law enforcement agencies to see if any were hiring at the time, and no one was. Then, I thought of calling the FBI, and to my surprise, they said they were hiring. I applied, and a year later I found myself doing my dream job in my dream city.
“After retirement, I still wanted to be involved in law enforcement. An officer from the Marana PD suggested I check into volunteering for the MPD. I was sold and haven’t looked back since.”
When she first started volunteering, her scheduler assigned her to Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Quickly, though, she realized that the needs of the department far exceeded these time slots. What if a delivery of office supplies arrives when she’s not there? Will anyone be there to accept the package? In a profession celebrated for heroics, someone also needs to handle the details. For many hours every week, that someone is Barbara.
Over several months, Barbara’s responsibilities gradually expanded. Officers carry lots of supplies in their vehicles, but tucked away in the trunk is an unexpected item. It’s soft and furry, and when a child needs comfort during a police incident, it’s the perfect remedy.
Stuffed animals are an easy win for officers: hand one to an unhappy child, and while the larger problem is not resolved, in that moment, that kid can find some level of comfort. In an ideal world, officers will never need this valuable resource, but Barbara knows this isn’t an ideal world. And so, when officers started to run short on stuffed animals, it was Barbara who went out to purchase more. She is considerate, trustworthy, and dependable. In a work environment that is constantly bombarded with malice, deceit, and unpredictability, Barbara is a rock. Her service is unparalleled, her protection unwavering. She’s not often seen, and that’s okay. That doesn’t make her work any less critical.
Thursday, April 14, 2016. 9:06 a.m. Marana Police Headquarters
Michele Murrieta performs perhaps the least glamorous job at the Marana Police Department. Her office is tucked into a quiet corner, far from the frenetic pace of the Dispatch Center. In a climate-controlled closet adjacent to her office are files dating back to the 1970s, documenting almost forty years of police paperwork. Michele is the Police Records Supervisor, and this is her domain.
“Records is knowing what you have, where you have it and how long you have to keep it,” explains Michele. By maintaining this wealth of information, Marana PD not only ensures that detectives can quickly obtain old case files, but also provides residents quick and convenient access to records.
“One of the hardest parts of my job is knowing what to redact,” continues Michele. Take for example the evolving legal status of marijuana.
“I started working here 16 years ago, long before medical marijuana was a thing. Back then, if someone was arrested with marijuana, then we would include that in the publicly available police record. However, the law has always stated that we can’t disclose private health information in police reports. So now, what does that mean if you’re arrested while high on marijuana, but you have a prescription? Do we disclose that? What if you were driving impaired?”
These gray areas of the law are simultaneously the hardest parts of Michele’s job, but also often the most intriguing. “This is an area of the law that in many ways is still being written, and it’s interesting to be a part of that.”
In a way, Michele views herself as a kind of curator within the Marana Police Department. When incidents occur, it’s up to her to gather reports from disparate sources and arrange them to construct a complete picture of the event.
“During major incidents, you have so many different officers, and each of them will document their involvement. What it does is capture everyone’s unique perspective. One officer may have seen an event differently from the others. As a department, we’re always evaluating how we respond to different situations, and we believe there’s always something to learn. The reports serve as an invaluable tool in this process, surviving for years after everyone’s memories have faded.”
Creating and maintaining a record of police activity may not be the most glamorous of responsibilities within Marana PD, but just like dispatching officers, acting as a liaison with schools, and buying stuffed animals for kids, it’s critically important. Every day, Michele is making history.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016. 4:35 p.m. Marana High School
Sgt. Warren confers closely with school administrators and high-ranking Marana officers. Meanwhile, teams of school staff, teachers, and officers sweep the library, hallways, classrooms. Meticulously, they look for anything suspicious. Is that stray backpack concealing an explosive? Nope, just a bulky textbook. What’s behind that row of books? More books, apparently. After thoroughly combing the threatened area, officers and school staff collectively reached a decision: no bomb. The threat was fraudulent.
Within days, authorities had issued an arrest warrant for Octavio Acosta. Investigators suspected that Acosta was the caller behind several of the March 22 bomb threats, and on April 2, Acosta turned himself into authorities.
Thankfully and predictably, the bomb threat at Marana High School was a hoax. This situation though, demanded an organization-wide response from Marana Police. From dispatch to records, every staff member played a role not only in neutralizing any threat, but also in helping the department improve future responses in similar situations.
More than anything, the bomb threat revealed the incredible complexity of police work. That complexity, though, belies a remarkably straightforward organizational mission. It’s a mission so simple, even an eight-year-old understands it.
A few weeks ago, a wiggly second grader asked Terry Rozema what he did for a living. To the casual observer, Terry’s job at that moment would probably have been obvious, but not to this youngster. The polished badge on Terry’s shoulder didn’t describe his job, nor did his impeccably shined shoes. Terry turned the question around, polling the rest of the class.
Chief Rozema participates in Love of Reading Week at Thornydale Elementary School.
“I think he’s a police officer,” offered one student.
“I think he’s the Chief of Police,” ventured another.
“That’s the name of my job, but what do you think that means?” Terry pushed the students to think deeply about what he does every day. Why do we have police? What role do they play in the community, in these very students’ lives? Tentatively, a boy in the back raised his hand.
“I think you try to help people,” he softly suggested.
Terry smiled. “That’s the best description of my job that I’ve ever heard.”