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Oro Valley didn’t become one of the safest communities in America by accident.
Just in recent months, local police captured a human trafficker from the Sinaloa Cartel, completed a drone-assisted search-and-rescue for a suicidal woman, and brought an individual suffering a fatal overdose back to life.
We sat down with a 19-year veteran of the force to find out what it’s really like to work for one of the most successful police departments in the country.
OVPD Sergeant Eric Larter grew up in Tucson with several relatives in law enforcement who were “my heroes”. At age 14, he went on his first “ride along” with Tucson PD to see first-hand what police officers do. He was instantly hooked.
Sergeant Larter has now served OVPD since 2005 – a long tenure for a police force that didn’t even have a chief until 1981.
While we are still a long way from Robocop, technology has still had a profound influence on law enforcement.
“Technology has brought a paradigm shift over the years. We now have interactive maps and screens to get where we are going. We have Axon body cameras. Everything is recorded. If you were to tell me this when I joined OVPD 19 years ago, I would have laughed!
“Today, we have GPS, so if we are taken away from our car and can’t get to our radio, the technology is there to see exactly where the officer is. We even have the capability to see through the officer’s bodycam.
“This is one more tool to keep us safe. At the same time, it keeps us accountable.
OVPD depends on the community to keep it informed. At any given time, there may be 2-4 people working in the Communications unit, taking calls and dispatching officers.
“The police department is nothing without support staff. The dispatchers are amazing here. It’s one very well-oiled machine.”
911 calls are given a priority from #1-7, with #1 for serious emergencies.
“We have different markers and goals for different priority calls. We call serious emergencies ‘hot calls’: you need to get there as fast as you can, safely. We would like to see all the priority #1 calls responded to in a certain amount of time. We try to keep it to certain metrics all the way down to priority #7 calls.”
When you hear sirens going right to someone’s front door, that indicates a high priority call. One exception is when there may be a suspect at-large, and officers may want to arrive at the scene quietly.
Oro Valley is organized into four different “beats”, or patrol areas:
“Every day you have a different beat,” explains Sergeant Larter. “ You are responsible for that beat. There’s an old saying, ‘every day your job is to own your beat.’”
Despite technological advances and an overall healthy community, OVPD still regularly has to deal with illegal drugs.
“Drugs are an ever-changing problem. The drugs today are more prevalent and accessible than ever.”
Fentanyl is a major issue in OVPD, as it is nationwide. Sergeant Larter explains that many people get hooked on prescription opioids, and subsequently start using fentanyl because it is so much cheaper.
There is some good news: “Because of the accessibility of Narcan [a quick-acting agent that can reverse an opioid overdose], we are not seeing the overdoses we used to see.” All OVPD officers carry — and are trained to use — this life-saving medication.
“My big thing is that I need to build a connection with the citizens and drivers of OV. I want to come across as a human. I try to approach every situation with empathy.
“There is the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. We as officers have a lot of discretion in many different scenarios. Whether or not to give a citation depends upon the individual officer. I like to look at every situation and every person’s perspective so that I can form a decision.
“I like to educate people about the law. Most times the behavior can be corrected by a warning or an informative conversation.”
In recent years, police departments across the country have been challenged to effectively staff their operations.
“Our biggest challenge as an organization as a whole is in recruiting and retention of officers. We put a lot of resources into this.
“Luckily, OVPD culture is great. Officers are treated well here. We can still maintain high standards for our hiring. We get quality applicants, and quality officers. And with Oro Valley PD, there’s a lot of room for growth. For example, there are many task forces that you can join.”
“We definitely have our eyes on the youth,” says Sergeant Larter.
Local high schools have school resource officers. These uniformed OVPD officers are there first and foremost to protect the safety of the school, but they also serve as a positive presence. They work in the administration office and are around during student recess.
OVPD’s Explorers program allows teens aged 14-20 to volunteer and learn more about a career in law enforcement (participants are referred to as “cadets”). OVPD also participates in annual job fairs at two high schools.
While movie and shows inform our perception of what police work is like, the reality is that police officers get called on to solve all sorts of problems. Sergeant Larter recalls one unusual call:
“My squadmates and I had to chase an emu around. The reason that we cared so much is that it was running in and out of the traffic on Tangerine. And the emu was considered part of its owner’s family.
“We spent three hours trying to corral the emu and divert the traffic. We do have officers that carry lassos, but I’m definitely not one of them! It was a collaborative incident, with another cadre of people trying to find the emu. They finally threw a blanket over its head, and the animal was essentially taken into custody.
“I got kicked by the emu!” he recalls.
Police work can instantly turn physical, and being in shape can make a world of difference in these situations.
This is why Chief Riley allows officers to work out while on-duty at OVPD’s gym or the Community Center. Many OVPD officers are trained in defensive tactics at The Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Center.
Chief Kara Riley took the helm in 2020 after serving OVPD for 20 years.
“I will never turn down a chance to talk about our Chief,” says Sergeant Larter. “She has five pillars of leadership, her core values. She lives these – it’s not lip service. She never forgets where she came from, and what it was like when she was a beat officer on the street. She treats everyone with respect. If I were to design a perfect chief, I couldn’t do any better.”
Last year, the Oro Valley Police Department (OVPD) was assessed by the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement and found to exceed over 170 best practices in policing.
By Tom Ekman, J.D., M.Ed