For most of its 26 years of existence, the Marana Police Department was viewed by many citizens and officers as an insulated culture where citizen involvement with the department was limited. Problems in the department were handled internally, with few people outside the department aware of exactly what was occurring within the MPD.
But a sea of change toward Community Oriented Policing is underway, with the MPD recently kicking off a new 15-member Citizens' Advisory Board and quarterly meetings of police commanders and Marana Town Council members.
The department has begun work on a host of new programs such as auxiliary patrols and a police volunteer program designed to increase civilian involvement with the department.
Plans also are in the works for citizens to participate on police disciplinary, promotion and accident review boards and a type of merit commission to hear grievances and appeals filed by MPD employees.
The MPD has even begun sending six-page "community surveys" to people who have had interaction with the department's employees asking them to rate its officers in terms of courtesy, helpfulness and promptness.
"We're creating new areas of citizen involvement that this police department has never seen before," said Sgt. Bill Derfus, who oversees MPD's community resource efforts. "This is a radical change from how we operated in the past."
The new spirit of transparency and inclusiveness at MPD comes in the wake of a survey of MPD officers by the Arizona Department of Public Safety completed in February and the appointment of MPD Police Chief Richard Vidaurri shortly before the results of the survey were made public.
The survey revealed deep-seated dissatisfaction among MPD employees with the administration of Police Chief David R. Smith, who led the department for 12 years before announcing his retirement two day before the survey results were released.
In addition to detailing low morale in the department, the survey also disclosed concerns from MPD employees about the lack of fairness in disciplining officers charged with wrongdoing, revealed a split in the department about MPD's community policing efforts and a lack of communication with town hall.
As one of the first steps in repairing the fractures in the department, Vidaurri and his command staff have begun meeting with Marana Town Council members to open lines of communication and garner ideas for citizen participation, Derfus said.
Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. said he often sits down with Vidaurri to discuss plans for the department and fully supports his efforts to open the MPD to civilian involvement.
"What he's doing is finding people who are concerned about the issues and allowing them to help find ways to get them dealt with. It makes it more of a community effort rather than a force-it-down-your-throat kind of a thing," Sutton said.
The core of the push for citizen participation is the Marana Police Department Advisory Board, which was formed last month.
The board, which draws on volunteers from Continental Ranch, Dove Mountain and several other Marana neighborhoods, also includes two high school students and Rick Lesko, who takes over as Marana Unified School District superintendent next month.
Derfus said the MPD hopes to draw on members of the board to place civilians on the department's committees dealing with disciplinary matters, grievances, accident reviews and promotions. Board members also will help the department develop new volunteer programs.
At its meeting March 10, Vidaurri told the board that citizen involvement had been lacking under the previous police administration.
"I think when you don't provide the opportunity for citizens to participate, it lends to that air of trying to hide something - that it's just the police investigating themselves. When that participation doesn't occur, people ask what you have to hide. As far as I'm concerned there is nothing to hide. Here it is and let's talk about it. That's what I want to accomplish.
"Since I've become chief, there's been incidents and issues that I've dealt with by involving the command-level staff, and they've been very appreciative of being part of the decision making process. I've seen the benefits of opening things up and what I want to do is kick it up another notch by introducing you in the process. I like seeing a different perspective. Sometimes we can be too close to the issue and don't really see what the root problem may be. A fresh set of eyes looking at it can often put things in a fresh perspective," Vidaurri told the board.
Jack Noble, president of the Sunflower Homeowners Association and a retired FBI employee, said he agreed with Vidaurri's plans to open the MPD's review process to citizens.
"My philosophy has always been when police are investigating police, some of the public will not give it as much credibility as they would as when there is some civilian involvement. I think it's an issue we need to look at," Noble said.
In addition to planning citizen participation on review panels, the board discussed topics that included Marana's burglar alarm response policy, MPD's agreements with other law enforcement agencies for services such as SWAT teams, and how best to target police patrols to areas where speeders have been reported.
Lesko said he hoped his participation on the board would allow MUSD and MPD to take a proactive approach to issues affecting youth.
"My hope, and what I would like to see from the Marana Police Department, is to help us know what's coming next. If we know there's a trend coming, we can help each other. What's the next street drug? What's the next gang problem or affiliation? If we can see down the road and gather statistics and work with other agencies, it would really help us stay heads up and better informed to deal with it," Lesko said.
Roger Forrester, a retiree living at Heritage Highlands and a member of the Dove Mountain Civic Group, has been working to get a patrol car from the MPD that trained members of his community will use to cruise the neighborhoods of Dove Mountain as an auxiliary patrol.
In an interview after the meeting, Forrester said he believes citizen participation is vital for the MPD and the town as a whole.
"I think it's essential. If they are going to be responsive to the needs and concerns of the community, they have to ask us and we have to be at the table for that to happen. And the chief seems to be very sincere about that," Forrester said. "I hope everybody in the entire town of Marana supports this endeavor because I think we have to think of the good of the whole community, not just the little areas we live in. We all have work together for the good of the town."
The Marana Police Department offers community programs that include Neighborhood Watch, a Citizens Police Academy and D.A.R.E. and G.R.E.A.T programs that teach drug and gang resistance to school children.
The department is formulating a volunteer program. An orientation for the recently developed Community Emergency Response Team, which trains citizens in disaster preparedness, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., June 19 at the Marana Operations Center, 5100 W. Ina Road.
For information on CERT or any other department programs, contact MPD's Community Resource Office at 544-4948.