Can it happen here? An exclusive interview with Tempe’s top cop

In an exclusive interview with Wrangler News, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir discussed police officers’ use of force, racial discrimination and how the Tempe police department is navigating the current crisis rocking the country. 

By Lee Shappell

A nation reeling from an unprecedented pandemic has been rocked once again. Outrage over the death of a black man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer using inappropriate force while colleagues stood by and did nothing has been manifested in protests from coast to coast, including here in the Valley.

The pain is real. Racism lives. Police brutality lives. Opportunism that turns peaceful grieving into violent confrontations also exists. Our nation hurts. People are angry, about this, about other societal slights, and they’re venting years of perceived systemic wrongs.

It has not turned violent in Tempe, yet. That might be due to the community being, perhaps, more progressive and diverse than others.

It might also be due to a unique police chief who, while not overseeing a perfect department, hasn’t lost sight of the sanctity of human life.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir

Sylvia Moir, who has presided over the Tempe PD for three years, is unlike many other police chiefs.

In the wake of the activities of the past two weeks, Moir, whose professional background is mostly in California, agreed to a wide-ranging interview with The Wrangler News.

Some of her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: What protocols do you have in place that might avert a situation like that in Minneapolis and the response to it in other cities across the country?

Answer: I can’t even begin without commenting that the circumstances that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis are jarring and reprehensible, not as just words but as genuine emotions about what I saw. And seeing all those uniform police officers taking inappropriate action, seemingly standing around and not taking the initiative to safeguard a human being, is troubling, jarring and renews my commitment to do the tough work that is necessary to really address systems.

So part of that is what are we are doing in Tempe. As a police chief, I am responsible for strengthening the system and influencing the policing culture in my organization. While we don’t and can’t ignore or dismiss individual officer behavior for accountability and the way they interact with folks, I suggest that today’s police executives cannot hyper-focus on officer behavior. We don’t ignore it, but we can’t be hyper-focused on it because it may just blind us to our responsibility to strengthening the systems that impact policing outcomes. As a chief, I create a strategy and policy to influence an organizational culture, our climate, because I’m the one who recruits and hires and trains and equips and creates accountability measures for our officers. They simply operate within that system. So remaining dual-focused is essential. We do not hire officers who are substandard and we have very strong screening tools to get the right people in. Is it foolproof? No, but we strengthen systems through accountability in hiring and training to reduce the probability that something like this will occur.

What most people saw in Minneapolis was an apparent absence of humanity. And it is so jarring to see apparent apathy.

Q: What about the fellow officers who just stood and watched and took no action to prevent this outcome?

A: That is unacceptable in Tempe. We teach initiatives. We praise it. We hold it up as an example when officers take initiative. Our policy guides us to render aid after force is used as immediately as possible. It is embedded as part of our training. What we saw in Minneapolis didn’t reflect those highest ideals of the sanctity of human life, which argues that we render aid even after force is used. That is part of our training in Tempe and essential to who we are.

Q: Is a knee on the neck an accepted practice in Tempe?

A: I have not seen where it is an accepted practice anywhere. In fact, we train to safeguard people from these circumstances where you’re fighting for your life. We do not teach a knee to the neck, a strike to the neck, the throat or the groin, protected places where more harm can come than good. There’s two things: It’s not acceptable, and individually it’s equally unacceptable for officers to stand by and to dismiss or accept poor tactics and poor behavior.

What would happen here would be immediate accountability measures and we would be very vocal about what our plan is for the individual, and then we in Tempe will focus on the system to strengthen that, to reduce the probability that something somewhere occurs again.

Q: Is Tempe’s reputation as a progressive, inclusive community a factor in being spared the rioting of your neighbors to the north in Scottsdale and to the west in Phoenix?

A: Our approach really afforded us an advantage. In Tempe, we planned and deployed folks very early. We had more assets than most people would think are reasonable but what we found was we did so much advance planning and deployment that when the protestors broke off of some of the more violent protests in Phoenix and they were looking for opportunities to loot, we had such as presence. They’d sent scout teams and we recognized that they were looking for opportunities, and we just didn’t provide those. Largely, our reporting and our finding was that their efforts didn’t take hold here because of our approach. We will continue that posture for several days just to safeguard our people, and the community and the businesses.

I do think perhaps it says something about our manner of policing. We feel very strongly about extending olive branches to people, giving them opportunities to rethink their outcome. But when it comes to criminal behavior, we are relentless but professional. I attribute it more to our policing culture than I do to an external culture of being progressive.

Q: You are highly respected in the profession, serving and holding office on several national policing boards and committees. How helpful is it to be exposed to other departments as you shape culture, transparency, community confidence, and, perhaps most important in this climate, giving voice?

A: Two things there: My presence on national boards and committees is my effort to not only contribute but to learn from those that also serve. It gives me a seat at the table that perhaps others don’t enjoy to both contribute and to be a consumer of smart practices. I was taught long ago while policing in California that if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu, which is interesting and funny but it also guides how we include people in the conversation.

The other piece of that is our folks are seeing how Tempe measures up and identifying gaps. They’re coming back and saying, ‘Look, we do this really well with our training, our use of force, our transparency, how we engage.’ That has really strengthened us.

Culture takes generations to alter in an organization. I argue that climate is a more-rapidly evolving agile thing because climate is how we talk to each other, how we engage, how we communicate — things that are rapidly altered. Culture takes a long time to influence but climate is more agile.

Q: When you got to Tempe, what did you think of the department? Were there things you wanted to change right away as you craft the department under your direction?

A: First thing, I didn’t come in thinking I knew everything, or I had the best answers, or the most experience. I listened to people and I asked people across the organization, either one-to-one or small groups, and then more broadly in what I call ‘peace chats.’ I said, OK, what do we do really well from where you sit? What do we need to strengthen or improve? What do we need to stop doing altogether? And if you were chief for a day, what’s one thing that you’d do right now? So I got the perspective of the men and women across the organization, whether they were serving in a patrol car, on a motorcycle, in a cubicle or at a dispatch console. I listened to them.

I saw an organization that hired fantastic people and had systems in place to hire and screen out those that didn’t possess the qualities or values. I don’t think that Tempe was ripe for wide-sweeping change. We did need to do a few things, and many of those things were about the culture in the organization: one that continues to reject an absence of officer compassion; that increased the probability that bad officers were identified and removed from service; that gave voice to employees internally and to the community externally; that appealed to a broader applicant pool; our transparency; perhaps considering influencing our training differently so that the sanctity of human life was first and foremost of those that we serve and those that are serving.

The remarkable thing that I’ve never seen in any organization that I served is the willingness and openness to try something new. Let’s take something in say, Boston, and try to morph it and mold it to be something specifically Tempe. If it fails, that’s OK. Failure was not accepted very easily when I arrived, but failure is really a launching point for something more enriched in terms of service and this broader policing endeavor in a way that is clearly unique. I can’t put my finger on exactly how we got there, but we are definitely there.

Q: Can you give us an example of something that came out of those one-one-one meetings?

A: Sure. We have made mindfulness part of our culture. We are aware in the moment what is coming up so that we do not react, but we respond. We permit events to unfold before us. We understand the human condition and then we train to what might influence that human condition. People say, ‘Oh, you’re from California and that’s just totally hippie-dippy, tie-dye stuff.’ I argue that, yes, it was born out of some Eastern thought, but it does put us in touch with spirituality. It was also born out of rigorous academic and scientific study of what happens to the brain, what happens to the body. If it’s good enough for those in the military and Special Forces, who are entrusted with complex and high-stakes environments, then it might just be right for those of us in the high-stakes environment of policing, and policing in this time where we are on display for everyone to judge. That is one of those things that came out of, ‘Hey, let’s try it.’ Our folks are reporting back that they feel healthier, feel like better decision makers, and I think we’re going to find in science that it really lends itself to us engaging with the community in a way that has been remarkable in how it is received.

Q: No system is perfect, and despite your best efforts, there have been a couple of high-profile issues with officers under your watch, specifically in the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Antonio Arce, who was running away from an officer, and the Tasering of Ivaughn Oakry, as he was holding an infant. Have new measures or training been put into place as a result?

A: Every isolated incident gives us opportunities to examine where the system or the individual failed. We are still in litigation, I believe, on both, but I can say what we have publicly talked about in the Arce case, that our officer acted outside of his training. He did not act in alignment with our values. What led to that action, I’m sure we may never totally know.

With Mr. Oakry, we saw officers engaging with him. We saw a very short interaction. In that case, the officer used a less-lethal device, a Taser, when he was holding a child. We knew through rigorous testing and science that there is no conduction from human to human. That was the very best they could do under bad circumstances. Officers took action to safeguard the other two children. Mr. Oakry made a choice, apparent on the video and by the assertion of those who were there, to pick up that child and use him as a shield. Our officers were put in an untenable situation. They had to make a very swift decision in that moment.

We don’t ignore individual officer behavior and action but we also examine system and take advantage of those opportunities to strengthen the system. In both of those cases, and in thousands we don’t see, I see over and over officers using the very best of what tools they have and inserting humanity.

We don’t look for what’s broken and research how to fix it with any greater weight than perhaps looking at what is done really well. We examine and deconstruct and reconstruct, to replicate it elsewhere. That perspective opens my research brain and my soul to considering an outcome that may be very different than what we believe it is going to be. Behavior signals underlying conditions. We have the capability to simultaneously examine these things from the crisis to what led to the individual’s action, to deconstruct their entire portfolio and look at the systems that led to it. And then we strengthen the system.

We have experienced tragedies. We own them. We will not forget them, and we will not forget what damage might have been done to the trust we have built in the community.

Q: I have been to City Council meetings where inside and outside there were many people who believe that Tempe police use excessive force. How do you regain their trust?

A: I hear some of them say we don’t have a use-of-force policy online. Well, we do. I don’t try to change peoples’ minds, I try to lay out the facts and let them discern and discover. And if they don’t, I just continue speaking truth. I just request that they give everybody grace in this endeavor because it is not easy. Engaging with people is not without peril.

Q: As rioting and violence spread across the country, where peaceful daytime marches against racism and the technique used by the Minneapolis PD give way, do you believe this is all really about Mr. Floyd?

A: The tragedy and the pain and the anguish of those moved by Mr. Floyd’s death is very real, and that calls on all of us to examine equity in action and equity in government service and how we engage there. I’m not in the position of those who are marginalized but I certainly can understand their anguish and pain.

But at night, it’s a criminal element that is opportunistic. I entered policing in July of 1988. Much of the social anguish is in my DNA, my history. And being in California, I’m informed by the Rodney King riots, when LAPD gave up ground at Florence and Normandie. We learned from that. Their focus was it’s just property crime, let’s focus on people. What we learned is that when one property crime is ignored the symbol of the institution is on fire. To give up ground and you don’t protect property empowers and emboldens a criminal element. People died after that. Businesses were lost after that. There was harm done for days after that.

I clearly see the distinction between our constitutional imperative as police officers to give people space and safety to protest, and we have done that over and over. But to examine them through the same lens as those rioting at night is improper and it is a trap. I’m arguing that we employ tactics that are different. We hold them accountable to the rules. The peaceful people deserve that.

Q: Did the Minneapolis PD cede credibility when it backed off and essentially sacrificed its 3rd Precinct building?

A: The symbol of the institution is gone and what is the result? I’m very concerned socially about what is occurring. And we’ve seen signs of it even in Tempe about giving people time and space to vent in places where it’s inappropriate. I don’t think we can just allow people to vent grievances and frustrations in ways that lack dignity and respect.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have worked closely with police departments in. Phoenix, Scottsdale and for the last thirty years of my career, in Tempe. My experiences were unique, in that I worked with all levels of the departments. I know Chief Moir and many of the members of the Tempe Police Department. As a fifty year resident and retired city employee, I am very confident that our police were screened and have been well trained. What people may not understand, is that every single day, these officers face situations that are unexpected. Their lives are on the line, requiring instant reactions. While they have been thoroughly screened and trained, no one can predict what they will do in life threatening situations. We have seen too many situations that are unacceptable, resulting in abuse and even death. I am also aware of police officers losing their lives because of unanticipated events. Much needs to be done to make sure the events, like we have seen dont happen. The solutions are not simple. We are dealing with human beings and spur of the moment situations. What we can and must do is to stop the racism that has been the cause of much of our problems.

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