Tucson puts brakes on motorcycle escorts for Trump car parades
By CAROL ANN ALAIMO | The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson | Published: October 17, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — A motorcycle escort business that stopped traffic throughout Tucson last weekend for an hourslong Donald Trump parade did so illegally, authorities say.
In a spectacle that outraged some Tucsonans and delighted others, hundreds of cars and trucks flying MAGA and Trump flags crisscrossed the city last Saturday accompanied by uniformed private motorcycle officers who held up traffic at intersections in violation of state law, the Pima County Sheriff's Department and the Tucson Police Department said.
Some citizens mistakenly assumed the uniformed escorts were TPD officers engaged in a political event while on duty, sparking complaints to the mayor and police chief, public records show.
The motorcycle escort business – which provided more than a dozen drivers who dressed in dark blue uniforms and drove white motorcycles, similar to TPD's – blamed the situation on a "misunderstanding."
State law allows nonpolice motorcycle escorts to halt traffic only for funerals and authorized military events, not for political events, PCSD Deputy Sheriff Byron Gwaltney told the Arizona Daily Star.
"If it's not for a funeral or the military, it's illegal. They can't escort anyone else," Gwaltney said.
Gwaltney said he has contacted the company, Southwest Rangers Traffic Control Services, to let management know employees can be charged with obstructing traffic or other offenses if they try to stop traffic again as they did for the Oct. 10 Trump motor rally, and a smaller similar event Sept. 5.
"The situation was due to a misunderstanding on our part," Lawrence Brothers, a co-owner of Southwest Rangers and a retired military police officer who once worked at Fort Huachaca southeast of Tucson, told the Star.
Brothers, who said he bought the company a few years ago, said he mistakenly "thought we had a verbal agreement with the sheriff to do special events."
Gwaltney said such an agreement, had it existed, would have been flat-out illegal.
"This is 2020. There is no such thing as 'verbal agreements.' We don't do verbal agreements," Gwaltney said.
Republican Martina Romero, a co-organizer of the Trump motor parade, told the Star she was mystified as to how the traffic escort could have been illegal because the idea came from local police officers and sheriff's deputies who support her organization.
"That's who gave us the suggestion," said Romero, co-organizer of the Tucson Trump MAGA Meetup Group on Facebook.
"We're definitely going to look into this. All we were trying to do is keep traffic moving and keep everybody safe."
Tucson attorney Brian Chase was aghast at the noise level in his neighborhood when the first of the two Trump motor rallies pulled into his neighborhood on Sept 5.
The motorcade came through with sirens blaring on a Saturday morning, he said.
"I heard such a commotion from police sirens blasting I thought there must have been a shooting in front of my house," Chase wrote in a complaint email to Mayor Regina Romero and TPD Chief Chris Magnus, obtained by the Star under the state public-records law.
"Living near Santa Rita Park, I'm no stranger to hearing sirens – but I have never heard anything like this," he wrote. The park is south of downtown along East 22nd Street.
"I ran outside to see a Trump motor parade driving by my house, escorted by uniformed TPD officers who were blocking traffic and blasting their sirens, clearly in support of the parade."
"I write to you in the hopes that you address this misuse of city funds."
Chase promptly received a response from the police chief telling him TPD had no involvement.
"It must be frustrating for him (Magnus) that the rangers dress like TPD and drive vehicles that look so similar to TPD vehicles," Chase told the Star.
Tucson resident Tiffany Powers also saw the Trump rally go by and thought TPD was providing the traffic escort.
"I would like to understand why my taxpayer money that supports your police force is using my taxpayer money to direct traffic for a political rally," she wrote in an Oct. 10 complaint to the police chief, in reference to last Saturday's event.
Powers could not be reached for comment.
The county sheriff is responsible under state law for registering motorcycle escort services and ensuring their uniforms and equipment make it clear that they are not law enforcement.
Gwaltney said PCSD has never had a complaint of mistaken identity until now.
In light of complaints that Trump parade escorts were mistaken for TPD officers, "we will be reviewing the approvals," for Southwest Rangers uniforms and equipment, he said.
'We want to play by the rules'
Last Saturday's Trump parade began in the park Church on South Columbus Boulevard near East 29th Street.
A pastor gave a blessing to the overflow crowd of cars, pickup trucks, vans and SUVs before the caravan headed out, said Romero, co-organizer of the rally.
Organizers expected 200 vehicles, but 500 showed up, she said.
For Trump supporters, it was a chance to promote their guy in the companionship of like-minded people, she said. Organizers stressed the importance of staying calm and not doing anything to cause trouble, she said.
"I was proud of our people for showing class," she said, even when some passersby tossed eggs at the Trump procession, sparking a complaint to TPD.
At one intersection, Romero said, an anti-Trump person got out of their vehicle and started trying to rip down MAGA flags from nearby vehicles.
Romero said organizers were planning to hold another motor rally close to the election, but the plan is on hold given the concerns that arose last time.
"We want to play by the rules," she said. " We want to do everything by the book."
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