Citing intimidation concerns, Tucson pulls cops from security work at voting sites

Tucson Police said it will instead have roving officers in the general area of polling locations to respond to any disturbances

By Justin Sayers, Jasmine Demers
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. — Tucson police officers can no longer provide security at early voting sites, a decision that prompted the county official overseeing the election here to call Mayor Regina Romero a "dictator."

F. Ann Rodriguez, Pima County's recorder, lashed out at Romero after her office says it was notified late Wednesday night that TPD officers were pulled from the pool of off-duty officers who can help provide security at early polling locations. The city says it made the decision after complaints from several community members and organizations about the presence of police officers at the polls.

Rodriguez said she had hired off-duty police officers to monitor polling sites at all of Pima County's early voting locations after receiving safety complaints from poll workers regarding poll watchers.

She said the county has seen large groups, some of whom have traveled from out-of-state, who have set up shop at multiple Tucson polling sites, remaining outside the 75-foot buffer of the polling site, but chanting, watching and pestering people there to vote.

Some candidates have also brought large crowds with them when dropping off their ballots, followed by impromptu news conferences immediately afterward.

"Every single early voting site, we have observers outside the 75-foot limit. They sit their all day in the folding chairs, their umbrellas. They just watch voters coming in all day long," she said.

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Rodriguez said poll workers, who "were trained to issue a ballot to a voter," have been harassed, and tasked with deescalating tensions outside. The police have been helpful just by monitoring the sites and "just observing so no issue gets out of hand."

"I hired police because I cannot control all of these organizations who are passionate in their beliefs," Rodriguez said. "My job is to protect the people who want to exercise their right to vote in a peaceful manner. I am also trying to protect my employees who are temporary workers."

Rodriguez was notified late Tuesday night by the company that handles off-duty officer management that the city had instructed the company to withdraw Tucson police officers from the pool hired for polling site security "due to the complaints of voter suppression that was received," according to emails obtained by the Star.

Romero said the decision was not made alone, but rather with City Manager Michael Ortega and Police Chief Chris Magnus after hearing concerns from several community members and organizations about the presence of police officers at the polls.

In a letter addressed to Rodriguez and Brad Nelson, Director of the Pima County Elections Department, several organizations came together to offer suggestions that would help "balance the interest of voters in casting their ballot and the interest of the county in providing a safe, secure election."

"Many people, especially those belonging to historically marginalized communities, find the presence of police officers at polling locations intimidating," the letter said. "Moreover, if police presence is excessive and/or not necessary to address a genuine security or safety issue, it can rise to the level of voter intimidation, and could violate state and federal law."

The Arizona secretary of state's guidance on polling place conduct and preventing voter intimidation supports these claims, saying "the presence of uniformed law enforcement personnel at a voting location, whether in or outside of the 75-foot limit, may have the effect of intimidating voters. Counties will balance this potentially intimidating effect with the need to preserve the peace and respond to emergencies."

According to Romero, these are the reasons why she and other city leaders made the decision to remove Tucson police officers from the polls.

"It's important that we balance providing a safe voting experience with ensuring voters do not feel intimidated by an overt police presence," she said. "Unlike the recorder's plan, TPD's approach strikes this balance and is consistent with practices and guidance from the Arizona secretary of state, other county recorders, and respected voting rights organizations."

Rodriguez said she was shocked by the city's move when she found out Thursday morning, saying before noon in the day that she still hadn't heard anything directly from the city. City officials later reached out.

Every other jurisdiction in Pima County understands what she's doing and has expressed support, including the actual Tucson police officers, Rodriguez said. She said the feedback her office has heard from the public regarding the police has been overwhelmingly positive.

"To Regina Romero, who is the mayor, she does not control every jurisdiction in Pima County. ... For her to take a political stand because she disagrees with me is a disservice to the voters in Pima County," said Rodriguez, who is retiring after this term. " Regina Romero has never conducted an election. This is my seventh presidential election. They have absolutely no knowledge of what it takes to do and conduct an election and the possible things you need to prepare for."

In a statement, TPD said it adjusted its plans regarding poll sites, and will instead have roving officers in the general area of polling locations to respond to any disturbances.

"But it will not deter any voters who might be intimidated by a more overt law enforcement presence. Our highest priority is ensuring all Tucson residents have the ability to freely participate in the election," the statement from police said.

Tony Archibald, president of the Tucson Police Officers Association, expressed disappointment in the city's decision.

"TPD officers were hired through an off-duty contract company to ensure the safety of everyone who goes out to a polling place. While we disagree with the decision to cancel security jobs, we want everyone to feel safe as they cast their vote," he said.

Councilman Steve Kozachik, who found out from Rodriguez about the removal of police officers from the early voting sites on Thursday morning, said he was upset with the decision, because he's heard from constituents that "people are legitimately concerned that there will be voter intimidation."

" F. Ann Rodriguez is 100 percent within her right," Kozachik said, adding that he thinks the mayor, city manager and police chief are "100% wrong."

On the other hand, County Supervisor Betty Villegas, who represents District 5, said she feels strongly that the city made the right decision.

"Good for them," she said. "I believe that the perception of having officers on site can deter people from voting. It should be a safe space and we need to believe that the majority of our voters feel that way."

(c)2020 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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