Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, who’s worked for the department for 32 years, spoke about the challenges facing local law enforcement at the January 24, 2022 meeting of Democrats of Greater Tucson. 

Police reform has become a hot-button topic in the United States over the past few years. Conversations over how to keep communities safe — from both criminals and overly-aggressive officers — have been frequent and passionate. There is quite a bit of data to suggest that communities are often safer when there is less police presence within them, contrary to popular belief.

It’s possible that if we rethought the way we conceive of law enforcement and its role in our society, we’d see better outcomes. “That’s where I think the real key is. When I say we’re short-staffed, we can respond to calls for service. But I don’t think that’s what this community wants. I think this community wants us to be more interactive with it, to be a community policing type organization, not just a law enforcement organization.”

Police reform

“We have done a lot with police reform. We’ve got our body-worn cameras. I think those should be pretty much fully out there within the next four to six weeks, where everybody has one, not just the uniformed officers, but those in the jail.

“We have a community advisory board to advise us. I’ve told them I don’t need yes-men. I don’t want to be an influence over them. I want them to have access to our major policies, rules, and regs, and tell us if we can do something different, to go to our discipline panel, review boards and our officer-involved shooting boards and watch and witness and see if there are not some ideas they may have as to how we can do things differently or better. The board has been up and running now for about three months, and they are really just a great group of citizens, just volunteering their time from all areas of the community.”

But Nanos admits it’s not as simple as just throwing more officers at the problem. “I’m not asking for 300 deputies. One, that’s unreasonable. It’s too costly. And two, even if I could hire that many, I couldn’t train them in a year’s time. What I’m asking the Board of Supervisors is to allow me to staff those programs that are directed at patrol community policing programs.”

The role of law enforcement

These are commendable steps towards improving the relationship between the community and the police. But if the last few years have made anything clear, it’s that we didn’t get to this point simply because of a few flawed policies, or anything that can be that easily fixed. There are deeper issues at play, evident in the very way that we think about the role of the police and the kind of power they should have. 

Consider that: 

Nanos seems to work to combat some of this. “I am a very strong proponent that those people who are sick, who suffer from an addiction or mental health issues, shouldn’t be in our jail. They should be in a medical facility and let the medical facilities deal with them. Come and take that $15 million you’d give me every year for my jail, for those who suffer from addiction and mental health and give it to those mental health providers and social services that deal with it. Give them that money to deal with those people who are in my jail and get those people out of there.”

Nanos also admits that there are deeper systemic problems in the behavior of some portion of officers. “Racial profiling — I’d lie to you if I told you it doesn’t exist. It’s like lying to you and saying there’s no racism. It does. And as much as we try our best to screen people and do psych evals and everything, we’re going to miss some.”

Alarming implications

But even with Nanos’ somewhat progressive words, there are troubling patterns. When asked about gun control, Nanos stated, “I support gun control efforts. I’ve always believed that.”

While this on its own would be a statement most readers here are likely to agree with, he went on to say, “I grew up in Texas and I was a cop there. And it was really simple. The only people who were allowed to have guns were cops. If you had a gun, you had to be either moving from residence, traveling, or training for a hunting event. That was it. Any other time, that was a felony. And to me, it made it really simple. If I saw you with a gun, I knew you were either a cop or you’re a bad guy. So, I’m just of the mindset that the only ones who should have guns are cops.”

While on its face a fairly simple statement, this has alarming implications in the context of what has become unignorable these past few years. We’ve seen more than one death, particularly among minority communities, caused by officers making snap judgements based on the presumption of a weapon, which in many cases may or not even have existed. The mindset that any citizen may be abruptly labeled by the officers charged with protecting them as a ‘bad guy’ may make things simple for the officer in question, but does little to reassure citizens of their safety, and has ended in far too many tragedies already. 

Should police be armed?

This statement also conflicts with the common argument in favor of police carrying lethal weapons. America is an outlier among western countries in that its police carry guns at all. When this fact is brought up, a common refrain is that police need guns because citizens have guns, which seems a fair statement on the surface. But statements like this suggest that even in a world in which guns were rarely carried by everyday people, police would still be resistant to giving up their weapons. This is a worrying implication that again, does not do much to build trust in the police as an institution with our best interests in mind. 

Police reform is not an issue that’s likely to disappear from people’s minds anytime soon, and solutions, whatever they may be, are likely to be complex and take time and effort to implement. But it’s not something we should move on from thinking about. In Nanos’ own words, “The biggest expense for any municipality is its law enforcement services.”

It’s vital that we consider whether that expense makes us safer, or whether it just puts our communities in more danger.