The three-hour departmental review of the Payson Police Department went quite smoothly Wednesday evening. Police Chief Gordon Gartner and his key staff people were well prepared.
The department is to be congratulated in particular for its great success in curbing meth and other drug activities during 2002.
Clearly, Payson has a very good police department, and their presentation met that standard.
By and large, the questioning by town council members was comprehensive and non-confrontational. However, some overtones, which became less subtle as the evening wore on, left me uneasy. Councilman Henley, the mayor and, to a less extent, Councilman Siverson seemed to be playing the same tune in two movements:
1) That Payson's law enforcement has been, in some respects, too rigorous. Mayor Murphy suggested his office received a lot of complaints about that and noted: "I know people in Christopher Creek who won't come to Payson any more." The subtext was that it's bad for business when the police concentrate their attention on the nightspots, certain rodeo-related gatherings and other places that might have a higher-than-normal incidence of drunkenness, fights and the like. Since Henley seemed to be calling for more rigor in traffic enforcement, one was left wondering what offenses the police should ease up on.
2) There were three police cases in the past year that were referred to outside law enforcement authorities because of potential conflicts of interest and, presumably, their sensitive nature within the town. There was recurrent urging by the same council members that such matters should be discussed with the town manager and/or town counsel before such action is taken. Fortunately, the chief appeared to reject that approach.
On these issues, I don't think I'm alone in saying, I'm glad we live in a town where the laws are enforced "without fear or favor" and in a rigorous manner, and I hope it stays that way. As a former police and courts reporter for newspapers, I saw intrusive back-room politics produce crude attempts to sweep criminal offenses under the rug. I don't want to see the operations and ethics of our police force compromised by political intervention.
It is the council's right and responsibility to oversee the police department's budget, and to gauge its effectiveness and level of professionalism; there are many objective measures for doing that. It is not appropriate to subtly tell them to ease up on enforcing existing laws or to hold back on targeting crime-prone areas. It's also clearly an impediment to quality law enforcement to urge that sensitive cases be passed through a political filter outside the criminal justice system before they are passed on to higher law enforcement authorities.