ROX Interview: Debora Black, Prescott Chief of Police

Interview by Ray Newton

As a youngster growing up in a small community just outside Chicago, Debora Black never really considered a career in law enforcement. She laughingly admits seeing the ground-breaking weekly TV series Police Woman starring Angie Dickinson in the mid-1970s entertaining but didn’t exactly inspire her to the profession. No one in her family had ever been involved in law enforcement. But once she had moved to Phoenix, she took a job as a patrol officer with the Phoenix Police Department in 1980. She decided to pursue a justice studies degree at Arizona State University (ASU), but made a radical turn on her education pathway and hasn’t veered from it since.

Black earned a baccalaureate in justice studies in 1986. She then earned an ASU master’s degree in public administration in 1991. She also has certificates in legal studies from Phoenix College. She attended the Harvard University Kennedy School of Senior Executives in State and Local Government.

Even now, Black is working on another master’s degree, this time in counseling at Grand Canyon University.

She is active in several national, state and regional organizations. Among them:

  • National Police Foundation, Executive Fellow
  • Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, Fifth Vice President
  • Yavapai County Justice and Mental Health Coalition, member
  • National Emergency Responders Assistance Program, advisory board
  • Coalition for Compassion and Justice, advisory board
  • Prescott Area Women Who Care, charter member
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Arizona, board member & chair (former)
  • Yavapai Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Big in Blue to Little Sister Kirra

Black has received several major honors for her law enforcement efforts, including a Medal of Valor, three medals of lifesaving, and two Police Chief’s Unit awards by the City of Phoenix and its police agencies. In 2008, the YWCA named her as Public Service Leader of the Year.

Black has an adult daughter who lives in Reno. Her husband retired from law enforcement after 37 years and has a polygraph business. He also is a licensed real estate agent.

Smiling broadly, Black says that of all the locations where she’s worked, she enjoys Prescott the most. “In Prescott, people come together and work collaboratively to meet the needs of people in the community. It is a special place.”

Prescott LIVING: Thank you for meeting with us despite your busy schedule. Tell us briefly of your background.

Chief Black: I began my law enforcement career in 1980 with the Phoenix Police Department. My parents had relocated to Arizona, so I decided to do the same.

I was able to work in several different roles as an officer and earned promotions when I was eligible. At the same time, I began a four-year degree at Arizona State University and then went right into my master’s degree program.

I was fortunate. In 2000, I was promoted to Assistant Police Chief.

Prescott LIVING: Quite an accomplishment for a female. What were some of your challenges?

Chief Black: The Phoenix Police Department was very diverse particularly with regard to gender. In my time, being the only woman among nine executive leadership team members did have some challenges. I credit my boss at the time, Harold Hurt, because he had faith and trust in my abilities. I was assigned the more challenging bureaus, including special tactics teams, air support, the airport, all the downtown special events units, canine, motor officers. Really, all of neat cool stuff was under my command.

There was a lot of pride, even bravado associated with these units. It was important to establish trust and develop mutual understanding. As a leader, it’s important to rely on the people in leadership positions all around you. Many of them went on to become police chiefs in other agencies.

9/11 occurred very early in my tenure as Assistant Chief in Phoenix. Immediately we realized we had a new threat facing our nation — the threat of terror. That fall, Phoenix hosted the 2001 World Series — the first major sporting event post 9/11. Our focus was on making sure everyone was safe. The Diamondbacks won the World Series. It was a challenging and exhilarating time!

Prescott LIVING: While in Phoenix, you received the Medal of Valor, three Medals of Lifesaving, and two Police Chief’s Unit Awards. Tell us about those.

Chief Black: Two awards were for one event — the Medal of Valor and Medal of Lifesaving. I worked 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. as the Duty Commander. I was responsible for the entire city as the highest-ranking person. A guy on a bicycle rode by me and said, “There’s a guy up on the parking garage, the top floor, and he’s getting ready to jump.” I went to the top of the seven-story garage.

I didn’t look like a police officer. I was not in uniform. He allowed me to get close enough to him to grab him.

Sure enough the guy was fully over the rail, holding on by the crook of the elbow. It was July. It was hot and he was sweating and very distraught. He had just been released from jail and his family turned away from him. He was feeling like he didn’t have any reason to live. I talked with him for a long time. As soon as I took his hand, the other officers came in so he didn’t pull me over.

Another Medal of Lifesaving occurred when I and another lieutenant pulled a woman from a burning car. Her seatbelt was jammed. We had to cut the seatbelt and pull her out.

The third lifesaving medal came after I was eating dinner where a woman choked on Kung Pao chicken. She was not able to breathe. The chicken was lodged in her throat so I administered the Heimlich maneuver.

Prescott LIVING: In your career you went from Assistant Chief in Phoenix to the Chief of Police for the City of Glendale.

Chief Black: After 25 years with the Phoenix PD, I decided to do something different. I left Phoenix in 2006 and took a few months off as a sabbatical. During that time, I ran my first marathon, worked as a consultant, did some teaching and a little writing before I was recruited to Glendale as an Assistant Police Chief in 2006.

Ten years with Glendale was a good run. The police department was not as big as Phoenix but still very large. Challenges were significant. There was a lot of violence in the community. In the time I was there we had two officers, Tony Holly and Brad Jones, shot and killed in the line of duty. That takes a tremendous toll on everyone. As Chief you feel responsible for everyone, and it’s devastating to lose an officer.

I was there for about 10 years and left in July of 2016 before I came to Prescott.

Prescott LIVING: What prompted you to leave Glendale to accept the position in Prescott at a lower compensation?

Chief Black: My husband Tim and I had bought a home in Prescott in 2012. We knew we wanted to retire here. When then-Chief of Police Jerry Monahan announced he was going to leave the position, I did a lot of research. I talked to people, looked at what the community issues were. What was the nature of the department? What were the needs within the department? What was the community perception of policing in Prescott, and how could we improve on that?

I came to the decision, almost at deadline, to submit for the position. I didn’t know if Prescott was ready to have a Police Chief like me — a woman with experience from two very large agencies from the Valley.

As the recruitment process went on, I felt I really understood the challenges. At that time, Prescott was dealing with the sober-living home impact to the community. Recruitment of police officers was very difficult. Prescott had a lot of officers leaving to go work for other agencies because they were not getting what they needed in the department at that time.

Certainly, for me, there was a difference in salary. In Glendale as the Police Chief, I had 450 officers serving a population of 250,000. Prescott PD has just less than 80 officers and population of 43,000. The work is the same, but the scope is different.

The reality — the paycheck is less, but the quality of life in Prescott more than makes up for the difference.

Prescott LIVING: What originally attracted you to law enforcement as a career?

Chief Black: In the late ‘70s there were very few women in law enforcement, so there were no female role models. I knew I wanted to help people, I wanted something active, and I wanted to see that I was making a difference for people. In policing you definitely have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Some impacts are big, many are small.

It’s very satisfying when you solve a case, when you make an arrest. But mostly, when you help someone move toward normalcy after something bad has happened to them; that is gratifying.

Prescott LIVING: What did your family think of your decision to make law enforcement your career?

Chief Black: My mom is a pharmacist and worked outside the home my entire life. She went on ride-alongs with me on several occasions. Typically when you have someone riding with you, it’s slow, it’s quiet, and it’s boring. Every time she came with me it was one thing after another, after another. She never let on how nervous she was (laughs). I think she’s pretty happy I primarily work in an office now.

Prescott LIVING: Shifting topics, County Attorney Shelia Polk has talked about the opioid crisis. How prevalent are addiction problems for the area? How does that impact law enforcement?

Chief Black: Nationally, it’s a huge problem across all communities, all demographics. At one time, Prescott had a large number, 200 or so, rehab centers and then sober homes coming in from about 2014 to 2016. I credit the Legislature and City Council for putting regulation in place that caused some of the bad actor operators to leave town. About the same time, insurance companies started to put in better controls, and we were able to manage the problems more effectively.

At the heart of this crisis — the people who came here to get help and weren’t getting it. Thankfully, those unethical operators are no longer here. We have a very good relationship with many of the leaders in the rehabilitation industry.

I think it is important not judge people who are suffering from addiction because it is a disease. When you hear some of the stories about how people fall into addiction, whether they began taking pain medication for a surgery or an injury and became addicted, or they are suffering from mental health issues and started using to suppress some of those symptoms, it is heartbreaking.

There are as many stories as there are people. Almost everyone knows someone directly who has overdosed or who is addicted. It is that widespread in our community.

We were the first law enforcement agency in Yavapai County to issue naloxone, a nasal inhalant of NARCAN®. We’ve had several lives saved because our officers are able to administer the antidote and get them to medical care.

We are part of a regional task force known as PANT — Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking. It is countywide. We have a squad that focuses on Prescott and Prescott Valley. We want to stop the supply of drugs in Prescott. This has never been more important because of fentanyl being added to many of the substances people are buying off the street. A very small amount of fentanyl can be deadly. It’s that dangerous.

Today, we are dealing with the opioid crisis. This time next year, it could be the methamphetamine or some other drug. It’s an ever-changing environment, which is why prevention and the work that MATFORCE does is so important.

We can do a lot with enforcement. When we arrest someone for a drug offense, whether it’s the first, second or fifth arrest, we know the prosecutors and the courts can help the individual get treatment. Sometimes that kind of accountability is the motivation someone needs to get help, to get well.

Prescott LIVING: You had mentioned earlier recruitment of police officers is an issue. Is that across the board for law enforcement? Or does Prescott have disproportionate hiring difficulties?

Chief Black: It is more challenging here, but we work to attract people familiar with the area. We like to attract young people coming out of the military or who are completing college. It’s not our objective to compete with agencies in the Valley. Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale police departments’ pay and benefits are on a completely different scale from ours in Prescott.

What we can offer is a wonderful quality of life and a great place to raise a family. We love to hire people who have roots in the community. That’s where we usually find our best candidates. If someone is going to relocate here, their spouse or significant other also needs to find work. Sometimes that works out great. I know that Joe Howard (Superintendent, Prescott Unified School District) has the same challenge with teachers. He could hire wonderfully qualified teachers but what about their spouses? Are they going to be able to find the kind of work they’re trained in? That’s part of the challenge.

We started an academy class in July. The academy is 20 weeks long. It’s very demanding, and we are thrilled to have some very talented recruits in this class.

We are also reasonably successful in attracting lateral police officers already serving in similar-sized communities. Many agencies are understaffed or underfunded. That isn’t our situation here; in fact, we added three new officer positions this budget year. We believe we offer a great future for officers here.

Prescott LIVING: What do you think of the new cellphone law? Is that going to be difficult to enforce?

Chief Black: No. I’m thrilled. I really credit the City Council for aligning with Yavapai County, the first to implement a hands-free ordinance. We’ve been talking about this for many years. Distracted driving is a significant traffic safety issue.

People don’t drive as well as they think they do, especially with a phone in their hand. We have always had the ability to stop someone for weaving, going too fast or slow. But this is a new tool. If we find the reason they are driving so poorly is the use of a cellphone, we have the new law in addition to what we’ve always had.

Prescott LIVING: What have been your major satisfactions as Police Chief in Prescott?

Chief Black: It always comes back to the people. One of the things that makes Prescott different is that we with the police department are included in solving issues that aren’t necessarily law-enforcement related.

I’ve worked with Jessi Hans, Coalition for Compassion and Justice (CCJ) and with Carol Benedict U.S. Vets for more than two years. The coalition is addressing the issues and causes of homelessness.

Another example is the creation of mobile-crisis teams to support individuals experiencing behavioral health issues. Having such resources available allows an officer to leave the individual with a professional equipped to provide care in that moment and ongoing if needed. Officers are trained to recognize symptoms and know what they are dealing with. But eventually we have to leave. The only option we used to have would be to either leave the individual or if a crime was committed arrest them. And we know jail is not a good place for someone experiencing a mental health crises to be.

I think what I find the most satisfying is that we at the police department don’t have to solve all the issues — safety, public policy or societal — ourselves. In Prescott, people come together and work collaboratively to meet the needs of people in the community. That’s what makes Prescott so special.

Prescott LIVING: What have been the major challenges or disappointments that you’ve had so far?

Chief Black: (Laughing) Well, related to all of that, nothing seems to happen as quickly as I want it to. Things take time. Even when we have the ideas, the initiative and the support, a piece or two might be missing. It’s important to have patience.

I admit — it’s hard to see people suffering when you think you have the solution. It’s frustrating when you can’t quite get it done. For example, we have a community goal to get to zero homelessness in 2019. And now, it’s becoming our 2020 goal. We, especially, don’t give up on people.

Prescott LIVING: If you could wave a magic wand, what would be your do-over moment when you could make a different choice?

Chief Black: I think when I was new to this level of leadership, I took everything to heart. I expended a lot more energy than I needed to. We in law enforcement do serious work. Many of the issues we face are tremendously challenging. I sometimes lost sight of my role in solving an issue and believed it was entirely my burden to carry. But I learned as leaders, it’s important to allow others to share in not just the successes, but also the roadblocks and failures. That way, we can learn and grow as a team.

Prescott LIVING: When you’re not Chief of Police, what do you do for relaxation? You said you ran a marathon a few years back and are into CrossFit. You said assisting youth is a passion …

Chief Black: Yes, I love being a Big Sister. It’s such fun to spend time with Kirra, my little sister. My husband and I enjoy movies, although it’s been a bit of a drought this year. We did enjoy “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but usually we look for a quality comedy or action adventure film.

We also enjoy travel. We recently were on an Alaskan cruise and look forward to visiting Ireland next summer.

Unfortunately I’m not able to run anymore because of my knees, so I do CrossFit almost every day. It’s an hour I have to focus on the movements —you really can’t be distracted. You have to focus, and I find that very freeing. I really enjoy yoga. I don’t practice in a studio currently, but I do my own asanas — yoga poses — at home. When I pair meditation with yoga, then go to CrossFit, it’s a great way to start my day!

We encourage fitness in the police department. There is a higher prevalence of heart disease and stress-related illnesses in our profession.

I like to read, too, although I have had to make some different choices now because of graduate level school work. (laughs)

Prescott LIVING: What authors do you read?

Chief Black: I absolutely love John Grisham. In that genre I also like J.A. Jance, Patricia Cornwell. Lately, I discovered new authors, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, or Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

I recognize that many of the characters in the fiction I read are police officers or psychologists. I think it’s very familiar, at least on the law enforcement side. When an author creates characters and storylines that are realistic and likeable, I really enjoy reading.

Someday I might write a book. Who knows …

Prescott LIVING: I understand you carry a paper that says, “He is with you and for you. When you decide on a course of action that is within His will, nothing in Heaven or Earth can stop you.”

What does that mean to you?

Chief Black: It’s related to what I just commented. When you are a leader and people look to you for answers, it’s easy to create that self-sufficiency and crowd out other positive influences. That’s why I strive to make sure I don’t lose the ability to feel the presence of God — in big decisions or small decisions. It’s a comfort to have that constant awareness; instead of relying on my own understanding, I rely on God.