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Smuggling dispute brewing in Eloy (Arizona)

By Edythe Jensen
The Arizona Republic, September 15, 2000

An Eloy police union wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the city and its Police Department for what one union leader said are practices that protect lucrative illegal immigrant smuggling operations.

The union scheduled a press conference in front of the police station this morning to air its "no confidence" vote against Mayor Ben Cruz and Acting Police Chief Barry Pritchett.

The vote, said union leader Sgt. Bob Jordan, was unanimous, and the majority of the town's small police force are members.

"Smuggling (of illegal immigrants) is big in Eloy," Jordan said. "We're a drop-off point."

Jordan said city personalities and policies are hampering officers' efforts to stop the smuggling. He said the union plans to demonstrate today how the police chief and mayor have been "bullying" officers into overlooking smuggling operations.

Jordan also questioned a new city policy that limits when officers can detain individuals for immigration officers.

But the mayor and city manager defended the new policies. They said the procedures are modeled after larger cities' policies and designed to protect Eloy from lawsuits and accusations of racial profiling like those that occurred after a roundup in Chandler more than two years ago.

All agree that the smuggling of illegal immigrants is a problem in Eloy.

What aroused the ire of police officers in this small central Arizona city, Jordan said, was the June termination of former police chief David Martinez.

Martinez, who now lives in Bullhead City, said he was fired. Acting City Manager Mike McNulty said he resigned. But Jordan and the union say the former chief ran a tough operation that increased arrests of illegal immigrants and was exposing smuggling operations tied to prominent families.

His departure signaled new law enforcement policies that are making it more difficult for officers to turn aliens and smugglers over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Jordan said.

McNulty said Eloy recently adopted a policy on police stops similar to those now used in larger Valley municipalities.

The change was made to prevent accusations of racial profiling that led to lawsuits in larger cities.

While Cruz acknowledged that his city has a problem with smuggling, he said Martinez went too far and his officers may have been involved with racial profiling and unauthorized traffic stops.

"We even had a former city manager who was stopped twice for no reason because he was a Hispanic driving a nice car," Cruz said.

Jordan said no officers engaged in racial profiling and an outside investigation will prove that. But police did come across evidence of large-scale smuggling operations during routine traffic stops.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said the smuggling of illegal immigrants is a statewide problem and not unique to Eloy.

But Russell Ahr, spokesman for the Phoenix INS office, said immigration enforcement can be a challenge in image-conscious small towns.

"Even if they knew about (immigrant smuggling), they might want to keep it to themselves," he said.

McNulty said the union's "no confidence vote" is "just a couple of people trying to create something that isn't here because they blew the thing in Casa Grande real bad."

He referred to the union's backing last month of two Casa Grande officers who were suspended for making racially charged prank calls to their own department. Their appeal of the suspension was denied.

Two Eloy council members - Byron Jackson and Manuel Salas - said Thursday that they support the police union's push for an investigation.

Jackson, who is Black, said he heard no complaints about racial profiling under Martinez's leadership and praised the chief's crackdown on crime within the city. Jackson said he believes the chief was fired because he may have stepped on the toes of some members of influential families.

Salas called accusations of union muscle-flexing a "smokescreen." He said he supports the call for an outside investigation.

"If there is dirty laundry, we better wash it," Salas said.