Police defend designation but won’t say why residence was flagged
A Tempe woman’s 911 call has uncovered widespread use of a police database that flags addresses across the Valley as hazards without ever consulting the people living in the houses.
Local and national law enforcement agencies use the database to collect information about Valley residences. The information, filed into a computer-aided dispatch system, can include prior emergency calls to a home, as well as criminal activity or threats tied to an address.
Valley police departments claim that the databases are “internal” or “private” and that releasing their contents to the public could endanger public-safety officials or residents.
Police call the databases an invaluable public-safety tool.
Civil-liberties advocates acknowledge the system’s usefulness, but they say it has the potential to raise suspicion unjustly about a person.
One Tempe resident has discovered that once a residence is labeled a threat, there is little recourse to challenge the accusation.
Eleanor Holguin discovered her address is on Tempe Police Department’s hazard list when she called 911 for a medical emergency in August.
Holguin’s fight with Tempe had begun months before that 911 call. Earlier in the year, she had criticized Police Chief Tom Ryff in an unrelated matter, going so far as to say he should resign.
Then in August, she found her elderly father on the floor and called 911. As paramedics cared for her father, two Tempe police cars showed up.
Holguin said a paramedic said he wanted to speak to her and an officer outside. She said the paramedic asked if she had recently moved to the address or if she knew of any reason why her house would be “put on a hazard file.”
Holguin responded that her family had lived at the address for 40 years. Not familiar with a hazard file, she said she asked the paramedic to explain the term.
Holguin said the paramedic told her that “whenever we get that (hazard) dispatch on our call log it means we’re possibly going into a hostile situation. That could mean other things like you could be on some terrorist list.”
Holguin was dumbfounded. Then, she recalled the complaints she made against Ryff.
“It’s intimidation … because I spoke out” against the police chief, she said.
Holguin sent an e-mail to Tempe’s city manager and City Council and later met several council members to ask why her address was on the list.
On Aug. 14, Holguin got a response from City Manager Charlie Meyer: “You raised a question about your residence being listed as a potential ‘hazard.’ I have consulted with the city attorney and have decided that any such information related to any address in the city being listed as a potential ‘hazard’ to public-safety personnel is not appropriate to release due to the sensitive nature of such information.”
Holguin has attended three council meetings to express her outrage.
“Who knows how many people are on this list?” she asked. “It’s not bad just for me, but also for the paramedics and the police. The person who did this is . . . reckless and irresponsible . . . that they would put these men and women into a position to be thinking that they’re going into a hostile situation.”
Although Holguin has gotten no response from police, Tempe’s fire chief last month agreed to notify firefighters that dispatches to her address should be handled the same as any other call.
On Friday, Ryff denied Holguin was being singled out.
“I support citizens’ rights to voice concerns regarding any public officials including me as a police chief,” he said. “I can tell you that in my entire career, I have never placed or asked that anyone be placed on a hazard file. I have not retaliated against Miss Holguin indirectly or directly.”
But Tempe police refuse to say what placed her on the list.
Releasing information about why an address is a threat could anger a resident, leaving public-safety officials and the public at risk, Tempe Sgt. Steve Carbajal said.
Some other Valley agencies agreed. Although Mesa, Surprise, Buckeye and Avondale police said they do not notify residents of flagging, they would likely release the reason for flagging to a homeowner if asked, unless doing so compromised an investigation.
Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, acknowledged the system could be a valuable police intelligence-gathering tool. But that should not outweigh residents’ right to address police allegations, she said.
People should have an opportunity to “challenge that information, correct any inaccuracies and make sure that the intelligence being gathered is being done for legitimate purposes … (not) because of someone’s First Amendment activities,” she said.
Police officials said that the system is not abused and that in most cases an officer must have a supervisor’s approval to file a residence as a hazard.
Republic reporters Lisa Halverstadt, Dustin Gardiner, Megan Boehnke, Jackee Coe, JJ Hensley and Ofelia Madrid contributed to this article.