Allegations that a Pima County Sheriff’s Department deputy sexually assaulted a fellow officer have evolved from a $900,000 claim against law enforcement officials to a battle over safety at public meetings and calls for an independent investigation into Sheriff Chris Nanos’ management of the department.

At Tuesday’s Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting, multiple people condemned the sheriff’s department’s mishandling of the internal investigation during the call to the audience. Some residents called for Nanos to resign.

“What is going on with our sheriff’s department?” asked Dave Smith, a member of the public. 

That’s a question the county will now begin to try to answer.

After a discussion over accountability, supervisors voted 3-2 to pursue an independent investigation. Chair of the Board of Supervisors Adelita Grijalva and District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott voted no. 

The measure called for a request for an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and/or the office of the Arizona Department of Public Safety “with respect to Sheriff Nanos’ alleged failure to conduct a timely and thorough investigation into the alleged sexual assault of a female deputy,” according to the public meeting agenda.

Addressing concerns over Nanos leading previous attempts at an initial internal investigation, District 4 Supervisor Steve Christy proposed that the Pima Regional Critical Incident Team could possibly lead a new independent investigation. 

“The optics are terrible,” Christy said of the sheriff’s department investigating itself. “The public is demanding this.”

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos

The critical incident team was developed by Nanos to investigate in-custody deaths and deaths involving the actions of an officer. 

The investigation stems from a December Christmas party where Deputy Ricardo Garcia allegedly sexually assaulted an unconscious female officer. Garcia was the woman’s supervisor and worked as a sergeant in the department’s school resources unit. 

He was arrested in January, fired from the department, and now faces both criminal and civil charges.

In early September, the Pima County Deputy Sheriff’s Association claimed that Nanos failed to launch an investigation into how the victim’s lieutenant, captain and chief handled the alleged sexual assault. The association says that Nanos delayed initiating and then put the internal investigation on hold

Nanos responded and called the charges “wild accusations that are furthest from the truth.” 

During the call for public comment at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, resident Chris Conniff identified himself as a retired Pima County sheriff’s deputy who trained more than 45 deputies. He criticized Nanos, blaming the sheriff for an exodus of deputies and called for an in-depth survey of law enforcement officers’ satisfaction with their work culture and leadership.

“The problem with the people leaving is the experience lost is immeasurable. Experience limits liability. Keeping experienced deputies is a must,” Conniff said. “The problem, that I’ve talked to people leaving, it’s not really money anymore. It’s the management styles of Sheriff Nanos, which from what I have been told are apathy, dismissiveness and retaliation.”

“In short, no pun intended, Sheriff Nanos is the pied piper of incompetence,” he added.

The internal sheriff’s department investigation into how the department responded has pitted Sheriff Nanos against the Board of Supervisors.

The controversy comes as Nanos and his department face increasing scrutiny about the rising number of deaths and other abuses in the Pima County jail. Nanos has disputed the number of deaths in and related to the jail. Discussions between Nanos and  county administrators have, for now, succeeded in removing a dashboard counting the number of deaths that take place after a person has been released from the jail. 

Pima Deputy County Administrator Dr. Francisco Garcia told Arizona Luminaria on Aug. 8 that the county is communicating with the sheriff’s department and the medical examiner’s office to find the right way to count deaths related to a person’s time spent in custody. Garcia did not provide a timeline for when the county would return to offering the public information about pre- and post-custody deaths.

Last December, Nanos asked the supervisors to fund a new jail, but public opposition, especially in light of the above-average number of jail deaths, has shut down meetings studying options for a new jail. The county-chartered Blue Ribbon Commission analyzing the feasibility of building a new jail, which could cost nearly $400 million, is expected to offer its recommendation soon. 

Following the sheriff’s association’s request that Nanos launch a full investigation, Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, of District 3, called for a formal independent investigation into Nanos’ handling of the inquiry. She requested the issue be placed on the agenda for the Sept. 19 supervisors meeting as a discussion item. 

Shortly thereafter, Nanos said that his deputies would no longer be providing security at  Board of Supervisors meetings, as first reported by Green Valley News. 

District 3 Supervisor Sharon Bronson speaks during the Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting in Tucson on Sept. 19, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

“It feels retaliatory,” Bronson told Arizona Luminaria of Nanos’ decision to pull safety measures. She added that safety is paramount for such public meetings, and that for as long as she remembers there has been security at Board of Supervisors meetings.

“Especially in this divisive climate we’re in, security is important both for the public and for us,” Bronson said. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, a sheriff’s department deputy was present. However, Grijalva said that, while there may be no deputy from Pima County Sheriff’s Department present at the next meeting, there will be some law enforcement presence. 

“We will ensure that we have ample security,” Grijalva said. “At our next meeting it will be perhaps different, but we don’t have any authority over whether they’re placed here or not.”

The supervisors retreated into an executive session to discuss the possible investigation out of public view. Afterward, Supervisor Scott said at the meeting, “We’re all constrained from what we can say based on the legal advice.” 

Scott opposed pushing for a county-led investigation. 

“The employee in question has been fired, and there is a criminal and civil case,” Christy said, adding that he was concerned such an investigation would have an impact on the legal claims against the county, Nanos, Garcia and other law enforcement officials. 

Next steps include County Administrator Jan Lesher consulting with legal counsel to determine which entity can conduct the investigation.

On Tuesday, following the supervisors meeting, the sheriff’s department issued a press release saying that administrative inquiries, such as internal investigations, typically take place after criminal or civil proceedings. 

“Administrative efforts can interfere with court proceedings if engaged in prematurely,” the statement said. 

The release also said that in all sensitive cases, the department places a “high priority” on the privacy and dignity of victims. 

“The sensational claims covered in the media do not reflect the facts of this case or the decisions of this office,” according to the statement. “We shall proceed with our principles in mind.” 

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...