MESA, AZ — Two unions representing Mesa police officers have initiated a "no confidence" vote against Chief Ramon Batista.
Ballots will cast until May 17 and then votes will be delivered to the Mesa City Council.
Union representatives tell ABC15, morale within the department is extremely low.
Some officers are upset with Chief Batista's response to a high-profile "use of force" case "condemning" the officers to the media before disciplinary investigations were completed.
On Friday afternoon, Chief Batista issued the following statement:
“We are aware that a labor organization — working with a marketing firm — has initiated a poll of our officers. It is important to remember that their agenda does not represent the entire Mesa Police Department.
I’m committed to leading this department and I stand by my officers as they carry out their duties to protect and serve this city. The support from our community could not have been made clearer as they passed a public safety sales tax to ensure we have the staffing and equipment to keep them safe.
I’m also very proud that the backing from our city’s elected officials is second to none. Each member continues to show their unwavering support; most recently, Mayor and council attended our Employee Quarterly Awards and helped us honor our Fallen Officers. As a result of several years of incredible work, Mesa is now recognized as one of the safest large cities in America. Our crime rates are at historic lows.
I am proud to serve the residents of the City of Mesa as the Police Chief, and I am honored to lead the great men and women of the Mesa Police Department, those who work day and night to protect our community, these are the reasons I love my profession.”
Mesa Mayor John Giles also issued a statement Friday evening:
“The Mayor and Mesa City Council fully support the brave women and men of the Mesa Police Department, including Chief Batista and his leadership team. The tireless work of our officers has brought Mesa’s crime level to historic lows and made it one of the safest big cities in America.”
So how did the department get to this point?
When Batista was hired there was a cry to change the culture within the Mesa Police Department by members of the community.
Batista was the choice of city leaders and citizens who were part of the interview process. Community members were invited to meet and interview all four finalists for the job, before Batista got the vote, making him the third police chief in Mesa in the last nine years. His predecessor, John Meza, lasted two years. Mesa Police Association leaders were in support of two internal candidates who were also vying for the job.
Instead, the city hired the new guy from Tucson. Batista previously led a department that is nationally acclaimed for putting mental health training at the forefront. His first time addressing the community, Batista said: "My expectation of our officers is going to be that they go out there and be the very best they can be."
His hire was right on the heels of a controversial officer-involved shooting involving a man visiting from Texas. Former Mesa police officer Philip Brailsfordwas charged with murder, for shooting Daniel Shaver on January 18th, 2016. Brailsford was acquitted of the crime.
For the last few months, many community leaders in the City of Mesa have been calling for a "change in the culture" of the Mesa Police Department.
"This is a culture that has been accepted within the city of Mesa," said Pastor Andre Miller after a questionable use of force incident by Mesa police. Several excessive use of force complaints were followed by marches and protests outside the Mesa Police Department.
"I don't know if the police are just going to roll up on you and just start beating the crap out of you, you know," said one man who participated in the protest.
Batista said rebuilding trust in the community was paramount to him when he took over as chief.
Under his watch, more incidents have continued to take place, where the community has questioned officers' use of force. One involving an 84-year old grandmother who says she was "roughed up" by officers after calling them to check up on her grandson. Another involving a juvenile who was accused of robbing a convenience store.
The one that served as the final straw for many rank and file police officers was an incident involving an unarmed black man who was punched by a police officer for not obeying orders. Nine officers were put on paid administrative leave following the incident with Robert Johnson. Several of those officers have faced different levels of discipline by outside agencies, something the police association does not support, saying officers have to control violent situations, and these officers were just doing their job.
Police association leaders were concerned with statements made by Chief Batista after the incidents were released to the media. They also questioned the chief's actions of releasing body camera video to the media, without an investigation being conducted first.
In interviews with ABC15, Batista said he found the level of force used in the videos troubling, and that those actions represented "the good work done every day" by all officers.
He sent the following letter to community leaders in response to the vote:
I want to start this message by conveying my appreciation for your support of the men and women of our agency and your investment of time and energy with the Mesa Police Department.
I am appreciative that you have chosen to engage the issues of the police department through community forums, the engagement academy, private and public meetings with myself, our chiefs and our officers, you invited me to attend services at your houses of worship and you have taken the time to provide us your opinion and thoughts on the future of policing in the East Valley.
My focus has been on community safety and our members, we have invested heavily in training in communication and de-escalation and we have been successful. Never the less, we are human beings and we will make mistakes; to that end, we increased our training, we are focused on delivering the best possible service, in some cases under very difficult and dynamic situations. I believe many of you would wholeheartedly agree, our refocused energy in Community Engagement, led by Ms. Tara Hall and Charles Cobbs is second to none!
The results have been impressive, I am proud of our officer’s response to new department guidelines and training. Because of the collective work between the Mesa PD and you, I can report that we have not been at the center of a viral, use of force video in over 11 months. The most recent negative stories were in some cases, years-old events. At the same time, our department members have been highlighted for a number of notable and courageous acts where they saved lives and built community trust.
However, in the following days, the Mesa Police Department will be the focus of local media attention. Not for use of force, but because of the labor association’s dedicated effort to sow a divide within the police department and the community we serve. Their negative energy affects our police officers and professional staff and it will impact the public’s perception of our department, at a time when we are making substantial progress and improvement to our image, service delivery, recruiting, hiring and training.
Our department is poised to hire more officers, build a new police station, a new evidence facility and rebuild our driving track; indeed, we feel blessed to be in such a good place to expand our department and our services.
With all the good fortune unfolding around us, the harmful messaging and senseless negative rhetoric are unfortunate and unfair to the hard work that is being done by our members of every rank. This level of achievement could not be attained without the support of members of our community like you.
Rest assured, myself and my staff and our officers will not be deterred, we will stay focused on pursuing a higher level of policing service in everything we do; you and our fine City deserve the very best.
Our men and women in all areas of the department are some of best people in the country, they care about Mesa. I stand proud and firm in my decision to lead our outstanding police department and serve you, the citizens of the East Valley.
We answer to a higher calling of service, it is our oath of office; we will keep you safe and we will do it with care, empathy, courage and competence.
We will get through this period and continue our work of building a better community for everyone.
Chief Ramon Batista
More than 500 Mesa police officers took a survey put out by the Mesa police association, rating trust in the chief and morale within the department is very low. Here is a link to that survey.
ABC15 has removed five pages which list names and badge numbers of Mesa police officers to protect their privacy.