Cops in Arizona Tried a PR Stunt and It Backfired Horribly

Turns out ticketing people for good behavior isn't funny in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's old turf.
Tempe cop
AP Photo/Matt York

Monday was supposed to be just another pleasant day in Tempe, Arizona, where the high was projected to reach a mere 109 degrees. Everything was normal, at least from the outside. But if you were on your way to work and minding your own business, you may have been at risk of being hit up by police. And rewarded.

According to initial coverage from 12 News NBC, a local Arizona affiliate, this was how many residents might make sense of the Tempe Arizona Police Department's new positive ticketing campaign: They would be engaging with people who obeyed the law regarding pedestrians and cyclists in particular, and, instead of issuing normal tickets, rewarding them with a free drink coupon to Circle K. For those unfamiliar, Circle K is a glorified gas station, similar and yet in no capacity superior to Wawa.


"So, basically, if you see a Tempe police officer pulling you over, it may not be a bad thing," an NBC field reporter said early Monday near some Circle K pumps.

The fun, if there was any, did not last. The internet, long weary of allegedly funny cops, erupted. Critics claimed such a program was an awful idea on its face, and the ACLU of Arizona happened to tweet a reminder that "if you are stopped by police, you have the right to ask if you can leave." The campaign, whatever its intent, clearly touched a nerve in a region with a history of aggressive—and illegal—policing, including racial profiling.

"'Today, police are kicking off a campaign to violate people's 4th amendment rights' would probably be a better way to put it," tweeted one Phoenix resident.

It wasn't long before cops felt the need to respond to the furor, clarifying on Twitter that they would not be pulling over vehicles. "Just to clear any confusion related to this event, officers will not be pulling cars over," the tweet said. "This is a campaign advocating for consensual conversations between officers and citizens about traffic laws; specifically about bicycle, scooter and pedestrian safety." Another official tweet also seemed to suggest that, in fact, no one was at risk of being "proactively" pulled over.

Part of the reason for people not being particularly psyched about the idea of cops engaging in seemingly random stops was specific to the locale. Ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio ran what critics described as a spectacularly abusive policing regime that included systematic racial profiling of drivers in Maricopa County, which includes Tempe, for years. (He eventually lost reelection, was convicted of a misdemeanor for refusing to obey a judge's order on racial profiling, and pardoned by Donald Trump.) And the state's 2010 Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, a.k.a. SB 1070, was widely criticized for pressuring cops to ask suspected undocumented people for their papers until it was largely defanged in 2016.


In fact, no matter what the plan was in Tempe on Monday—whether cops ever actually intended to pull over drivers or cyclists or merely saw a potentially fun campaign get misunderstood in light of painful context—it still presented serious legal and civil rights questions, experts said. (At the time of publication, the Tempe Police Department had not yet responded to VICE's request for comment.)

"I'm still a bit dubious about this 'consensual' prong," said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law at Columbia University and leading national expert on "stop and frisk" policing. "Very little is consensual in police-citizen interactions. Even overtly consensual interactions have elements of implicit coercion to them."

Seth Stoughton, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina who tweeted at length about the strange campaign, made a similar point.

"If a reasonable person thinks that they're commanded to stop, this is a seizure, and needs legal justification," he said. "If they're approaching this very carefully, like a casual conversation, then it's a consensual encounter, and doesn't need legal justification. But it would have to be exceptionally clear that this is not a seizure."

"If you don't think about it too hard," he continued, "it's maybe a cute idea."

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