SUPERIOR -- David Neuss jokingly refers to his police department as an island of misfit toys.
That’s not to say Superior’s police chief thinks lowly of his officers. It’s rather a term of endearment for an agency that may be the only place an officer can seek employment.
The department that patrols the small mountain town of about 3,000 residents is described by Neuss as a “second-chance agency” — one that may be more willing to overlook a blemish on a cop’s career history.
If an officer’s certification was suspended for breaking policy or poor job performance at another agency, Neuss said he’s willing to let them learn from their past blunders and offer a chance for redemption.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Neuss said. “We are still human.”
It’s a common occurrence for the small police departments along Pinal County’s rural, eastern border. The towns of Superior, Kearny and Hayden, which is across the border in Gila County, most often re-hire cops with checkered histories, according to a statewide analysis by The Arizona Republic.
The Phoenix newspaper found these three towns have hired the greatest number of officers with instances of misconduct on their record since 2000.
Officers terminated from an agency will often be subject to discipline from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. Based on the circumstances of their misconduct, the officers may have their certification suspended or revoked.
For example, a former Pima County Sheriff’s Office deputy had his certification suspended for six months in 2013 after he was caught “kissing and fondling” a friend while on duty. That former deputy now works at the Superior Police Department.
Neuss said he’s willing to take on cops recertified through AZPOST who made “human errors.” Those who have been caught committing crimes are obviously out of the question, he said, as he can’t accept past actions that could jeopardize public safety.
“We’re trying to make the best out of what we have,” Neuss said.
Superior employs nine full-time police officers and has a pool of reserve officers on standby. Neuss often hires a second-chance officer first as a reserve before promotion to a regular officer position. He said it adds a “secondary safety net” for the public in case they didn’t learn from their mistakes.
The reason Superior must rely on hiring second-chance cops is mostly economical. The small town doesn’t have the budget to offer salaries that can compete with bigger police departments in Phoenix or Tucson.
Because towns like Superior and Hayden don’t have a flood of applicants rushing to their police departments, the agencies don’t have the liberty to be as selective.
Hayden Police Chief Tamatha Villar said an agency in Phoenix may get a pool of 500 applicants, while she may only receive five. The reality of the situation forces her to look deeper into prior violations, whereas a bigger agency can easily disqualify cops with a mark on their record.
Villar recently hired a new reserve officer who was terminated by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 for interfering with another deputy’s investigation. According to AZPOST reports, the former deputy was reprimanded for trying to get a colleague to stop investigating an acquaintance of his.
Villar said she was aware of the previous incident but felt it shouldn’t disqualify the former deputy from a second chance.
Some small mining towns have welcomed cops disciplined for a variety of reasons at other agencies.
A former Miami police officer briefly moved over to Hayden after investigators in Gila County looked into suspicions of him having an affair with a teenage girl. The officer resigned from Hayden after only a month and moved to Missouri, AZPOST reports show.
A former Scottsdale officer transferred to Kearny in 2007 after lying about damaging his patrol car. After having his certification suspended for six months, a former Phoenix officer who had been caught driving while intoxicated was hired at Superior.
Another Superior officer left the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office in 2013 after getting into a fight at a Tempe bar while off duty. His certification was suspended for two years.
Prospective applicants are supposed to disclose prior reprimands when applying to a new police department.
A Kearny officer got in trouble in 2015 for not reporting previous misconduct committed at the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. He later had his certification revoked by AZPOST for not telling Kearny about being investigated for threatening remarks he allegedly made toward coworkers.
Kearny’s newest police chief, Wallace Kenney, said none of his five sworn officers currently on duty has prior AZPOST violations. He hired three new officers with clean backgrounds shortly after coming to the small agency in August.
Kenney said he understands why small agencies similar to his hire officers with prior violations. It’s difficult to compete with other agencies that offer higher salaries, he said.
On a Friday morning, Chief Neuss is standing on a sidewalk in Superior, trying to explain to a woman why a search warrant was just executed on her home.
It looks like a frightening scene: many cops huddled around and suspects are sitting on the ground in handcuffs. The chief tries comforting the concerned woman. At one point he attempts to give her a hug.
This type of hands-on police work isn’t in Neuss’ job description, but he’s trying to set a standard for his officers. Strolling around town, Neuss often stops to shake hands with a resident and make small talk. One resident at a Circle K tells Neuss he’s the only cop he can tolerate.
It took awhile to earn that guy’s trust, Neuss said after the encounter, but he finally came around.
The chief has a low tolerance for rudeness and laziness. He expects his officers to take initiative and do things not normally expected of them. Officers working in Superior will get more experience than with the bigger agencies, he said, because they’re forced to take on more responsibilities and duties.
Superior may have a second-chance police department, but Neuss takes pride in providing a place for fallen officers to re-invent themselves. This may be because he knows what it’s like to get caught making a mistake.
Before coming to Superior, Neuss was a deputy for the Pima County Sheriff’s Office. He resigned in 2010 after he sent pornographic text messages while on duty.
Neuss didn’t lose his certification but readily admits his actions were a “huge mistake” and he’s tried to forget the incident.
Superior offered him a fresh start and the chance to oversee the department. When he first arrived as a sergeant, Neuss said there were only three officers, working tirelessly to cover 24 hours a day.
Town Manager Todd Pryor said the whole town was struggling to fill jobs in various departments at the time. The Town Council at one point considered disbanding the police department and outsourcing to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.
The town revised its salaries, and Pryor said it managed to make Superior more competitive with the surrounding towns and cities. But officials know the town will never be on par with Phoenix, he said.
More importantly, Neuss said the police department had to rebuild its reputation with the citizens and the community. And the work has started to pay off, he said. More officers are working on the force than before and he continues to get applications from interested recruits.
Neuss beams with pride as he scrolls through his phone to look at pictures of two Superior officers recently given an award for their law enforcement service. Both of them had come from bigger agencies and had been reprimanded by AZPOST.
It’s an example, he said, of how Superior re-invents officers wanting a second chance at policing.
The police chiefs of Superior, Hayden and Kearny told PinalCentral about plans they have that might elevate their perceived status as a second-chance agency.
Kearny’s chief is hoping to grant pay raises for his officers as an incentive to further keep them on the force. Hayden’s chief is implementing a performance evaluation process, which was nonexistent before, in order to measure an officer’s growth.
Superior recently moved its police headquarters into Town Hall. It’s part of the chief’s strategy to centralize the town’s services in one place.
Town Hall is located in an old schoolhouse. Neuss lives here five days a week. His family lives in Pima County so the chief crashes on a small bed in his office during the workweek and goes home on weekends.
Living out of your office is actually better than you think, the chief said.
It also gives Neuss more opportunities to embed himself in the community, build rapport with the public and get feedback from residents. He wants to boost training for his officers and take advantage of the experience and expertise of his second-chancers.
“We’re going to try to make this place even better,” Neuss said