Active shooter

A Nogales Police Department officer prepares to enter the NHS cafeteria during an active shooter training in October 2017 as student actors are moved to safety in the background.

Last week, the Arizona Republic published the results of an investigation that catalogued 600 police shootings throughout the state between 2011 and 2018.

Reporters looked at documents filed with county attorneys, who review law enforcement shootings, and found that 14 of the state’s 15 counties had records of officers shooting civilians.

The only county with none? Santa Cruz.

Sheriff Tony Estrada said that the county is “fortunate” to have avoided officer shootings, noting an incident in January in which a deputy diffused a “suicide by cop” attempt without firing.

Estrada said that incident in Rio Rico was the “closest we’ve come” in recent years to an officer shooting.

In that and several other cases during the period of the Republic’s study, local law enforcement officers have faced situations in which use of force would likely have been justified.

But Nogales Police Chief Roy Bermudez said his department’s officers are trained to de-escalate a wide range of situations before resorting to firing their weapons.

He added that many officers come from the Nogales community and the department is aware of local individuals with a history of mental illness, which can play a role in cases in which officers shoot civilians. When his department responds to a call related to a mentally ill person, Bermudez said, they often know that individual personally.

Many reports of police shootings highlight the race of the victim or the officer.

Both NPD and county sheriff personnel are largely Latino and bilingual, making the departments more representative of the populations they serve than many other departments around the state.

Estrada said that the ability to communicate and understand people – both linguistically and culturally – provides an advantage in high-stress situations.

Still, while local police officers and sheriff’s deputies are not firing at civilians, federal law enforcement agents have been involved in a number of shooting incidents in recent years in Santa Cruz County. Since 2010, Border Patrol agents have shot at least three people and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have shot two drivers at local ports of entry.

Only one of those cases – the 2012 cross-border shooting of 16-year-old José Antonio Rodriguez by Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz – resulted in criminal charges. Swartz was tried by federal prosecutors and acquitted last November.

In recent years, County Attorney George Silva said, local law enforcement agencies have stopped conducting their own investigations when federal agents are involved in shootings. That leaves investigations to the federal agencies themselves, who do not submit their findings to the county attorney.

Estrada said that his department declined to pursue some investigations to save time and resources, but added that there was no explicit or implicit agreement to not investigate shootings by federal agents.

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