Nogales police

The Nogales City Council moved last week to ban municipal police from using chokeholds and adopt a “duty to intervene” policy that requires NPD officers to step into a situation in which another officer might violate rules of conduct.

The new mandates, which came in the form of amendments to the department’s existing use-of-force policy, were related to “what has been going on nationally,” said Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr., who sponsored the amendment.

The country has been shaken in recent weeks by high-profile incidents of police violence against people of color and protests against police brutality. But Varona’s reference was the closest the councilmembers came to mentioning the national context for the move.

And, Varona added during the council’s July 1 meeting, “I’m very supportive of policing.”

Police use of chokeholds came into focus again after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed on May 25 by a white Minneapolis police officer who held a knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. In another high-profile incident from 2014, Eric Garner, a Black man, died at the hands of a white police officer in New York City who put him in a banned chokehold.

The Nogales council also adopted a de-escalation amendment at the same time in a unanimous vote at last week’s meeting.

NPD’s use-of-force policy, which dates to 1999 and was signed by then-Chief John Kissinger, already instructed officers to avoid using force when possible.

“It is the policy of this department that all officers shall exhaust all other reasonable means of defensive measures before resorting to the use of deadly force. Officers shall use the lowest level of force necessary under the circumstances to properly perform their lawful duties,” the policy states.

“It doesn’t change the fundamental focus of the use-of-force policy, which is that force is authorized, in fact appropriate, to preserve life and property,” City Attorney Mike Massee said at the July 1 council meeting.

“I think this is a good addition to our current use-of-force policy,” said now-Acting City Manager John Kissinger.

But it wasn’t clear exactly how the policy would change NPD officers’ work.

Councilman Jose “Joe” Diaz raised questions about how NPD would train officers on the policies. And while Kissinger expressed confidence that the department would handle it appropriately, no representatives from NPD participated in the July 1 discussion.

Police Chief Roy Bermudez didn’t respond to a voicemail and email from the NI seeking comment and asking whether NPD officers had used chokeholds.

And while other police departments have made public statements addressing the national turmoil, NPD has remained relatively silent.

Protests around the country organized by Black Lives Matter activists have called for police reforms and, in some cases, “defunding” police activities that might be better carried out by social services.

But the few demonstrations in Nogales have generally distanced themselves from calls for reform. Organizers have said they wanted to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and raise awareness about issues, but they didn’t have a problem with local cops.

Santa Cruz County was the only county in Arizona that didn’t record a shooting by local law enforcement officers between 2011 and 2018, according to a 2019 investigation published by the Arizona Republic. (Federal officers from the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, however, shot multiple people in Santa Cruz County during that timeframe.)

NPD is also notable for its largely Hispanic and bilingual force, making it more representative of the local community than other law enforcement departments around the state.

Outside funding

Also at the July 1 meeting, the city council approved a federal grant awarded to NPD and authorized the department to apply for two grants.

The applications both seek money from the Southwest Border Rural Law Enforcement Assistance Program, according to the council’s meeting agenda. One would pay for vehicle computers and hardware, and the other would cover interview room equipment.

“What I like about this is, this grant that the chief of police is seeking is something that he was seeking from us on our regular budget. So he’s going out to find other financial resources during these financial(ly) strenuous times for us,” Varona said.

The approved grant comes from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and will fund up to three new officers.

According to a DOJ news release, grant applicants were required to identify a specific crime and problem focus area, and explain how the funding would be used to implement community policing approaches to that crime/area.

Bermudez hasn’t responded to repeated questions about purpose of the grant and a public records request submitted to city officials for the grant application was not returned.

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