During an interview program on local radio station KMOG Tuesday, Mayor Ken Murphy made a statement about the Payson Police Department that has increased tensions at Town Hall.
In a phone call to the radio station, Murphy stated, "We're getting lawsuits filed against us for some things. I mean we're having officers charged with crimes for other agencies."
The Roundup has sought to clarify what lawsuits had been filed against the police and with what crimes police officers have been charged.
Gartner says no charges
In response to the allegations, Police Chief Gordon Gartner told the Roundup that while he could not comment on any lawsuits, he knew of no pending criminal charges against any of his officers. "Obviously if there were, they would be on suspension or whatever ... Did (Murphy) really say that?"
When asked to clarify his comments, Murphy responded that he did not say there were charges against any officers.
"What I meant was, there were charges by the police department against (Gila County Narcotics) task force officers. The point is, there are allegations of criminal misconduct."
As for the lawsuits, Gartner provided the Roundup with information on claims and lawsuits filed against the department from material prepared for the council's February departmental review of the police department.
From 1998 to 2002, there were a total of six claims and four lawsuits against the department. No payouts had been made on any of these.
Harlan Green, who Murphy said is handling most of the cases against the police department, told the Roundup that he has only one lawsuit pending against the police department.
"The only lawsuit that's filed is the Sam Maripas case involving the flash bang grenade," Green said. It was filed just this month.
This case involves a woman who allegedly suffered a foot injury when police threw a distraction device, called a flash bang grenade, into her home during the service of a search warrant.
According to the officers, the woman kicked the grenade, causing her injury.
Green contends the grenade was thrown and rolled up on her leg and went off.
However, Murphy said Green told him the two task force officers, against whom the police department had supposedly made charges, had just filed lawsuits against the town as well.
Green said this was inaccurate and the two officers only have a pending claim -- which is not a lawsuit.
About the ‘charges'
The charges being alleged by Murphy arise from multiple agency investigations into concerns put forth by the police department that task force agents Ken Wortman of the Gila County Sheriff's Office, and Jim Oestmann of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, may have deliberately compromised the service of a search warrant in a drug manufacturing case.
The GCSO responded with a letter stating that if anyone was guilty of criminal conduct it was the Payson Police Department. However, a DPS internal investigation found one of the task force agents "was not acting in a manner consistent with our department policies and procedures," and the DPS officer received a letter of reprimand in his permanent file.
Another investigation sought
Murphy's accusations of criminal charges on the radio talk show were in response to published criticism over continued efforts by Murphy and Councilor Robert Henley to have the police department investigated.
While both have been vague about what has prompted them to seek an external audit, Henley did tell the Roundup that it, in part, was due to the GCSO report on the task force issue in which the sheriff's office accused Gartner and his staff of criminal misconduct in the incident and making false criminal accusations.
When the Roundup contacted the town's legal department to inquire as to how many lawsuits have been filed against the police, Assistant Town Attorney Tim Wright confirmed there have only been four in the last five years.
Calls to two Arizona municipalities of comparable size to Payson show: Douglas has had two suits filed in the last five years; and Florence has had four to five.
Town Manager Fred Carpenter has been working with Gartner to examine current policies and procedures in an effort to improve the department.
Murphy is still not satisfied.
"Things aren't perfect. There is an attitude (about the lawsuits) of ‘We're not worried about them. We'll win them.' We need to look into what is precipitating the lawsuits and what can we do to improve. We need to look into the underlying reasons, and figure out a way to get them addressed. No one in their right mind can ignore them," Murphy said.
"I'm not the one who is bringing these forward. Everything I've been told has been by extremely reliable sources," he said.
The mayor said the situation with Oestmann and Wortman would have never come up if the police department was not serving a search warrant in Star Valley. The flash bang case took place in Mesa del, and he said that would not have happened if the police had not gone into county jurisdiction.
"Why are we running around northern Gila County serving search warrants when there's a multi-agency task force already functioning in the county to pursue those types of cases? Those are the kinds of questions we need to answer. They're killing us on overtime. They're always screaming they need more officers. But what are they doing outside the town? We need to be back in the task force. It is cost effective. This has nothing to do with any individual officers in the police department. It's simply discussing policies and procedures," Murphy said.
Responding to the question about going outside the town limits with search warrants, Lt. Don Engler of the police department said, " The drugs sold outside the community are directly related to our investigations and are coming back into the community. Many of the drug dealers have had search warrants served on them while they lived in the town limits and since they have moved out we speculate they think we will not pursue them for drug activities. We follow the drugs where the investigations lead us."