Police agencies target fugitive felons

by JJ Hensley -
Apr. 20, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic .

An election-year issue in 2008 may have sparked a conversion in local law enforcement's behavior when it comes to clearing felony warrants in Maricopa County.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and others began talking publicly in 2008 about a pile of 40,000 unserved felony warrants sitting on Sheriff Joe Arpaio's desk.

In May 2008, there were 42,711 unserved warrants, an all-time high. But the problem was nothing new, as the number of fugitive felons whose crimes originated in Maricopa County had been increasing annually through the decade.

While critics and supporters were making political hay of the number of felons roaming the streets of Maricopa County, police agencies were quietly working to create partnerships to target those fugitives. It appears to have paid off.

As of the end of March, there were 38,114 unserved felony warrants in Maricopa County, the lowest total in five years.

Approaches to clearing the warrant backlog have varied by agency.

The Sheriff's Office disbanded its warrant-apprehension unit after administrators found it was more efficient for patrol officers to arrest fugitives as they find them.

Phoenix police consolidated investigators who target warrants in the major-offenders bureau, and focused on arresting fugitives, said Phoenix Police Commander Geary Brase, who oversees the Phoenix Police Major Offender Bureau.

The unit now registers more than 200 arrests a month, he said.

At the same time, Mesa police partnered with the U.S. Marshals Service to create a unit dealing with murderers, thieves, rapists and other serious criminals who had ducked warrants.

"We don't call it a warrant unit because they're not just tracking down warrants, they're tracking down fugitives," said Mesa Police Sgt. Ed Wessing. "If they're a wanted fugitive and we think somehow we have 'intel' of where they're going to be, we go get them."

Criminals who are arrested by all three agencies and subsequently fail to show up for court hearings or skip bail make up the largest chunk of the 38,000 warrants remaining open in Maricopa County. Wessing said tracking those fugitives down is the responsibility of every law-enforcement agency- not just the agency that made the original arrest or the Sheriff's Office, which serves as the repository of warrants in the county.

The increasing use of officers pulled together from multiple agencies with one focus reinforces that point.

"Suffice to say that there have been efforts on several fronts: partner with U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI, where that is our focus," Brase said. "The concept really is to arrest the right people. If you're doing that, then it's going to have a positive impact on your crime numbers."

A news conference Monday by the U.S. Marshals Service instilled that message. Representatives from more than 20 agencies came together to highlight efforts this month that resulted in the arrests of 239 fugitives, which cleared 357 warrants.

It took more than 100 officers to make that kind of a dent.

Opportunities to bring together those resources are rare, but the impact is hard to overstate because many fugitives commit other crimes while avoiding arrest, said David Gonzales, U.S. Marshal in Arizona.

Four of the past five Valley police officers killed in the line of duty died at the hands of fugitives.

http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/ ... elons.html