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Families, officers 'in limbo' as MCAO backlog grows for officer-involved shootings

Phoenix Police
Posted at 5:27 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 22:48:53-04

PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Attorney's Office currently has a year-long backlog of officer-involved shootings waiting to be criminally reviewed.

The office's 'Critical Incident Review Team' has 59 submitted cases where families, officers, police departments, and the public are waiting to find out if the officer will be cleared or charged.

"To those that are involved [like] the victim's family...My gosh, waiting for such a long period of time just creates more anguish, which is horrible," said Rick Romley, who was the Maricopa County Attorney for more than a decade.

"Also...the officer is in limbo. He doesn't know if charges are going to be forthcoming, or if he's going to be cleared...It makes no sense not to review these in a very timely manner and make decisions as quickly as possible."

"There has been zero accountability"

Anthony Cano's family has been waiting for the phone call for more than 16 months.

"I think about it every day," said Eva Cano, Anthony's aunt. "He should be going to prom and graduating this year."

On January 2, 2021, Anthony Cano was shot in the back by Chandler Police Officer Chase Bebak-Miller.

The 17-year-old took off running after the officer tried to stop him for not having a bicycle light.

As Cano was running through a park, he dropped a gun. When he went to pick it up and throw the extended-magazine pistol, Officer Bebak-Miller fired his first shot. Roughly two seconds later a second shot was fired. At the time of the second shot, Cano was face down and the gun was more than 10 feet away.

Officer Bebak-Miller was back on the streets in six months.

More than 16 months later though, he still has not been criminally cleared or charged.

"If it was a family waiting for a stranger on the street who shot their 17-year-old, this would have been closed a long time ago," said Eva Cano. "We've met tons of families in this same situation, waiting for closure."

"They've got to get caught up"

As of April 14, 2022, MCAO has not made decisions on any of the officer shootings in the prior 14 months.

The office's "Critical Incident Review Team" meets just once a month, despite the backlog of 59 submitted cases, including one from May 2019.

"They can be complicated, but a year is just extraordinary," said Romley.

ABC15 reached out to MCAO asking what is being done to address the backlog, if certain controversial cases are being put on hold, and if the team will be meeting more than once a month. We have not heard back yet.

The Critical Incident Review team and interim County Attorney Ken Vick have also cleared some shootings from January 2021, including multiple shootings that happened before and after the Cano incident.

Romley says while Cano's may be more complex and difficult, the fact that it has not been addressed is telling.

"Sometimes they worry about the political fallout from whether you go forward or you decline it. So maybe there's a hesitancy to make these tough decisions," said Romley. "That's a cop-out...If you don't make the tough calls the public is going to have an inherent distrust that you're willing to make an objective call."

Allister Adel's resignation in March means a new County Attorney will be appointed in the coming weeks and then elected in November.

Eva said she does not care if the current decision makers are not elected. She is just tired of waiting.

"I would rather there be a decision made," said Eva.

"What if it doesn't go your way?" asked Zach Crenshaw.

"I mean, it already didn't go our way."

In a response to questions last week, a spokesperson for MCAO said:

"The work of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office continues during this transition. Critical Incident Reviews are ongoing. These are very detailed investigations, and they take time to fully review and consider. "

Another ripple effect of the backlog is that the department's internal investigation and potential discipline does not move forward until after MCAO issues a criminal decision.

According to Chandler PD:

"The criminal investigation of an OIS takes precedent over the internal investigation. The internal investigation is initiated immediately after any OIS. The first steps of the internal are completed and then the internal is on hold until review from the MCAO."

Experts say that is problematic because the behavior of the officer, if it violates policy, is not formally addressed before they are put back on the streets. In the case of Officer Bebak-Miller, ABC15 learned that his father was on a ride-along with him the night of the shooting, but he did not fill out any of the required paperwork.

Where the candidates stand

ABC15 reached out to the four candidates hoping to be the next Maricopa County Attorney.

We asked the following questions:

Do you think the timetable for reviewing of these cases needs to be addressed?

If elected, would addressing this backlog be a priority?

Would you convene the current 'Review Committee' more than once a month?

At this time, we have not heard back from Anni Foster.

Gina Godbehere (R):

"The current backlog of cases at the MCAO is a serious concern. It puts the officer under added stress, places a cloud over the police department and leaves families waiting for answers. As an experienced prosecutor who has worked in the trenches of our criminal justice system, I understand the complex problems facing the office. Rebuilding the trust of the employees, improving the work culture, and hiring as many skilled employees as quickly as possible are the first, but critically important steps, to avoiding problems like this in the future."

Julie Gunnigle (D):

"The MCAO has failed in almost every way in its responsibility to the people, to victims, to taxpayers, and career public servants. For every one of those 59 critical incidents, there is at least one human being and millions of taxpayers who have a right to answers. The county attorney's office should be ensuring reviews are conducted and answers given to the public within communicated, transparent timelines based on national best practices so that the community will never have to guess whether the timing of a charging decision is political.

Delivering answers, safety and justice should be this office's top priority...When I'm in office, I'll do a complete audit of activities, timelines and services to ensure public safety and government accountability are at the center of everything we do...Backlogs, incidents, and cases in this office aren't just numbers in a database - they're people's lives. Safety and justice are my top priorities."

Rachel Mitchell (R):

"I believe that every case deserves a thoughtful and thorough review of the facts and evidence in a case. While I will not allow expediency to overshadow thoroughness, I do believe that a review of the status of these cases needs to be a priority.

I will expect that cases be reviewed on a regular basis and will determine an appropriate timeline once I have had the opportunity to assess the current process.

I am aware that unnecessary delay impacts those involved and affected by critical incidents of this nature. I consider a thorough and timely review of these cases to be a priority."