Supes OK new Pima County constable, plus Tasers, vests & body-cams
Board puts off decision on 'expensive' deputy constables & delays threats of pay cuts
Pima County constables will be equipped with Tasers, body-worn cameras and bulletproof vests after approval by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
A new constable for Justice Precinct 10, in the Marana and Picture Rocks area, was also appointed to replace former Presiding Constable Michael Stevenson, who resigned in October.
The county board added $10,500 to the constable’s current year budget to buy a Taser and camera for each of the nine constables serving in 2023 and $78,000 to be paid out over the next 5 years for replacements. The gear will be replaced every five years.
The State Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board, the main oversight body for Arizona’s constables, also awarded Pima County a $1.2 million grant to buy bulletproof vests, which the board accepted Tuesday.
The hope is that the new equipment will provide some security to the constables in light of the fatal shooting of Constable Deborah Martinez and two others in August. County Administrator Jan Lesher also noted that the cameras will “be beneficial in encouraging and proving consistency” in the constables’ work.
The body-worn cameras are supposed to automatically start recording once Tasers are drawn from their holster, Lesher notes in a county memo. This “can help reconstruct the scenario” and “provide the county with data to help against claims should a situation arise,” Lesher wrote.
In addition to extra equipment, Constable Bill Lake, who currently serves JP5 and is the acting presiding constable, asked the supervisors to create two deputy constable positions with a salary range of $55,000 to $108,000 a year. The deputies would help with everything in the office, including serving evictions, according to a county report.
Lake was expected to speak at the Tuesday meeting because he requested the Tasers and deputies, but he was ill, Lesher said. The board delayed the issue with the hopes that Lake will show up at the next meeting.
The deputies would be required to be certified by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which trains the state's law enforcement officers. They would also be required to have at least three years of law enforcement experience.
According to the county report on the new positions, the deputies would be responsible for helping the constables serve all legal documents, including restraining orders, property seizures and evictions. They would also be asked to make civil arrests as needed, help the constables find people who need to be served documents, organize the order in which documents need to be served, along with some clerical and map reading skills.
The deputies would also research potential threats to the constables, implement security measures, know how to safely interact with "potentially hostile" people and when to call for help. They would also have to know how to use defense tactics, batons and pepper spray, according to the county report.
The hiring of two deputy constables will cost the county $133,000 over the next seven months if each deputy receives the minimum suggested salary of $55,000 a year along with $33,000 in benefits. Each deputy would cost at least $88,000 for the rest of the 2022-2023 budget year if the county board decides to create the positions.
The deputy position could pay as high as $108,000, however, and the county would have to budget for their salaries each year.
Supervisors Adelita Grijalva and Sharon Bronson, the chairwoman of the board, voiced their doubts about hiring deputy constables. Bronson called hiring deputies “a permanent and expensive solution to a temporary problem.”
“I just don’t see a need,” Bronson said.
A troubled past
The constables were beset with criticisms even before Martinez’s death. Mark Napier, a former assistant county administrator, called them “a fractured group” who distribute their work disproportionately and without an agreed set of standards.
The former constable for JP8 and Martinez’s predecessor Kristen Randall, known as a “rebel” for giving people a head’s up of their upcoming eviction days before kicking them out, resigned in January citing “archaic” practices and “a great divide in the office.”
Martinez, who was the newest constable in the county at the time of her death, called for “unity” in the office when she was appointed. However, she was also in hot water in her first few months on the job. She was under investigation by the CESTB for criminal fraud, forgery and perjury as she was accused of using fake signatures on her petition to run for election this year. Martinez always maintained that the accusations were false.
Constables Oscar Vasquez and George Camacho have also had their troubles. Vasquez was suspended for refusing to serve an eviction last year, and also reportedly followed someone home and made threats. A restraining order was taken out against Camacho after he allegedly harassed his former primary opponent, Joe Ferguson.
Since Martinez’s death during an eviction in August, two constables have resigned, two have gone on medical leave and one, Constable Esther Gonzalez, “basically quit,” Lake said.
The office has been thinned out and is overwhelmed by the workload that’s built up by the absent and gone constables, he said.
The supervisors were able to start the process of re-staffing the office again with their 5-0 vote Tuesday to appoint Anton Chism as constable for JP10.
Chism told TucsonSentinel.com he was also inspired by Martinez's death.
“What got me asking questions about the constable position was the unfortunate events of August,” Chism said. “I never even knew constables have a dangerous job.”
Chism, who rents out a single family property, said what happened to Martinez caused him to ask more questions about the kind of work constables do. That led him to Constable Lake, and later to apply for Stevenson’s empty seat because he has “deep ties with the Marana and Picture Rocks community.”
Chism has owned the Marana company Innovative Signs, which makes professional signs, since 2008 and sits on the Marana Chamber of Commerce.
Chism also served in the U.S. Army for more than four years as an intelligence and security officer in Ft. Lee, Va. The last two constables appointed by the board have been veterans, including Martinez, a former Army interrogator, and Lake, a former F-16 pilot.
Chism told the Sentinel that he plans to give soon-to-be-evicted residents advanced notice like Constable Randall did. Lake is also adopting an approach that he considers “identical” to Randall’s.
Recommendations for reform
Last month, Lesher made recommendations pressing the constables to share their workloads evenly, dress similarly, adopt a constable’s policy manual and keep track of their work. To give the recommendation some teeth, the county board discussed slashing the pay of constables who refuse to comply.
Lesher wrote in a memo that the recommendations are the result of Martinez's death, which brought attention to “how the Board of Supervisors might lawfully engage in the management of (the constables’) operations.”
Supervisor Steve Christy opposed the idea of threatening the constables’ pay, saying “cutting constables; salaries or budgets is defunding police.”
Christy also opposed standardizing the constables’ style of working, saying “constables, like justices of the peace, are elected to their precincts and reflect the values and needs of their specific community.”
“Two precincts, even within the same county, can have radically different views,” Christy said. “To require all counties to conduct their business in the exact same way is not realistic.”
All the current constables are paid $67,000 a year. If they refuse to agree to the new policies, their pay would be reduced to $48,000 at the start of the next term. Talking with TucsonSentinel.com, Lake rightly pointed out that salary changes can’t take effect until a new four-year term starts, which would allow a constable to simply not run for reelection if they're unhappy with the pay cut.
Lesher told the Sentinel that she thinks the county board will be better suited to make a decision on her recommendations once the final vacancy, for JP1, is filled in mid-December. The deadline for applications to fill the vacant seat left behind by former JP1 Constable John Dorer is set for this Friday. Once the appointed and elected constables are all together, they may decide to adopt policies and standards on their own, Lesher said.
Lake sees the arrival of new constables and the departure of the more veteran constables, an “opportunity for a fresh start,” he said, as he hopes that the constables now have a chance to learn the job together.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.