AZ Republic 01.23.09: MPA Defends Officers in Shootings

Mesa police shootings doubled in 2008

While overall crime was on the decline last year, shootings by Mesa police more than doubled from 2007.

Twenty-two officers used their firearms in seven incidents in 2008, killing five people who approached police with knives and guns. The year before, police were involved in three incidents and used deadly force in each one.

Mesa Police Chief George Gascón considers the number of shootings “small” compared to the 26,000 arrests and the 300,000 phone calls officers responded to in 2008.

“Our arrests have increased 21 percent from two years ago,” Gascón said. “A real successful operation for us is when everybody walks away without getting hurt.”

While officers are usually cleared of wrongdoing, Gascón said each case is carefully reviewed.

Department officials methodically go through every investigation to determine what officers could have done differently and if additional training could be used.

“We are spending a lot of time training our people in how to use force as well as how to protect themselves and the community,” Gascón said.

The department is always seeking different tactics and new non-lethal weapons such as guns that fire rubber bullets and Tasers.

Police averaged nearly one shooting per week in February 2008 and eight officers were involved in three shootings. Two suspects were killed.

“We have analyzed every one of those shootings and none of them (has) created concerns for us to the level we think the officer acted in appropriately,” Gascón said.

In 2006, 12 officers fired and killed four suspects in six incidents. The year before, police were involved in five shootings.

The way an incident will end is typically up to the suspect, said Sgt. Fabian Cota, president of the Mesa Police Association.

“It usually falls upon a decision the suspect makes,” Cota said. “Our officers for the most part are reactionary – they have to respond to a perceived threat.”

While some shootings may lead to a lawsuit against the city, Cota said he would never settle out of court.

“If were up to the MPA, we would fight them tooth and nail because the officers in those cases were justified,” he said. “If it were my call, we would not have settled a single one.”