Back in March, an undercover Mesa police detective was asked to speak at the state Capitol about how the national immigration debate was providing fuel for hate groups and violent extremists in Arizona.
Detective Matt Browning, recognized as one of the top investigators of extremists and racism in the state, also said he believed certain border activists were involved in “domestic terrorism.”
It turns out Browning spent almost eight months under investigation by his own department for comments he made that day.
The investigation began after several border activists, including at least one former member of the Minutemen Project, wrote letters and e-mails to Mesa police Chief George Gascón to complain. They said Browning used his badge to support a political cause and in doing so, broke rules of police conduct.
On Thursday, the department released its full investigation to the Tribune. It shows Browning was eventually cleared of all such accusations.
But at more than 100 pages, it also shows the heavy scrutiny this detective underwent after speaking at the Capitol.
What began it all was a March 13 meeting titled “Improving the Tone of the Immigration Debate.” It was organized by two Democratic state lawmakers: Reps. Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix and Phil Lopes of Tucson.
Besides Browning, it also featured two speakers from the Anti-Defamation League, which regularly monitors hate groups.
Browning told the handful of lawmakers and spectators he had gone undercover in six white-supremacist groups and three border militias during his career.
“Every meeting, every discussion, everything revolves around immigration,” Browning said during his presentation. “Every meeting has started with somebody spouting off something about stopping the 'dirty Mexicans,’ stopping the 'wave of the browns,’ stopping it from happening.”
He said members of the National Alliance, one of the largest, most active hate groups in the nation, had been cooperating with the Minutemen. He also said some had been trained with assault weapons and were looking to start a border war.
“It doesn’t matter what you want to call it; it’s the same thing,” Browning said near the end of his remarks. “It is terrorism. It is domestic terrorism.”
Through a police spokeswoman, Browning declined to speak Thursday about the investigation.
But on May 1, he told an investigator that Gascón, his boss, had personally given him the OK to make the presentation, according to the documents.
The investigator, Sgt. Chuck Trapani , formerly the department’s head spokesman, said Thursday he did not question Gascón’s role in the case, instead letting the higher ranking city attorney’s office do that if it chose to. An attorney’s spokesman said late Thursday he did not know if anyone in the office questioned Gascón.
April 8 was when the first complaint reached the chief, coming in an e-mail from vocal border activist “Buffalo” Rick Galeener . On his Web site, Galeener claims to be the “commander” of the Front Line Warriors , a group recruiting and providing weapons training to volunteers wanting to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border.
A former radio talk show host, Galeener told Gascón he was “astounded” Browning would “label Patriotic American citizens as 'Domestic Terrorists.’” Browning, a 17-year veteran of the force, should not be a police officer, he wrote.
From there, more letters and e-mails came to the chief’s office, eight in all.
S.J. Miller’s was the longest. The Ahwatukee Foothills resident made her complaint in 12 pages and included several news articles.
“We objected to what he did,” Miller said when reached by phone Thursday. “We recognized the impropriety of what he did and we weren’t going to sit by quietly and do nothing.”
Miller used to be a member of the Minutemen Project, but said she never saw extremists like those Browning mentioned in his presentation. She also said she’s never been a part of extremist groups but because of her stance on immigration, she has been called names like “KKK” and “racist.”
Her complaint centered mostly on Browning’s involvement in what she called a “partisan event,” one organized by Democrats.
She also said she believed the meeting was meant to intimidate border activists like her.
“Basically, what they’re trying to do is shut us up,” she said in an interview.
The complaints first came to light in June when several of the letter writers, including Miller, went to a Mesa City Council meeting to say they felt they were being ignored.
Weeks later, Trapani conducted interviews with four of the letter writers, including Miller and Galeener.
The rest , he said Thursday, did not return calls or acknowledge letters he sent them.
On Nov. 14, Trapani wrote a memo to the police chief and city manager, concluding the investigation: “Browning’s performance ... was within policy.”
Though the investigation is over, the debate on Browning’s comments has continued.
Lopes, the House minority leader, said by phone Thursday he was angry the activists sent letters in the first place, even using an expletive to describe the writers.
Sinema was similarly upset about the complaints, calling the writers “extremists” and their claims “rubbish.” She said if anyone was trying to silence the other side, it was the border activists.
On Thursday, the police department stood behind its decisions, including letting the undercover officer go to a meeting being videotaped and posted online. ”