August 5, 2023

What’s it like being police chief in the hottest city in the country?


PERF members,

Phoenix just experienced its hottest month on record, with an average temperature of 102.7°F. The daily high temperature was greater than 110°F for 31 consecutive days, and the high reached 115°F on 17 days.

I spoke with Interim Phoenix Chief Michael Sullivan on Wednesday about what it has been like to police the city during this heat wave. Chief Sullivan rose through the ranks with the Louisville Metro Police Department, becoming deputy chief in 2015. He received PERF’s 2018 Gary Hayes Award, which is presented to up-and-coming police leaders. In 2019, he joined the Baltimore Police Department as a deputy commissioner, and he has served as interim chief in Phoenix for the past 11 months.

We’ve also recorded this interview as a podcast if you’d prefer to listen to our conversation:

Chuck Wexler: What’s it like being police chief in the hottest city in the country?

Chief Michael Sullivan: It’s something that we have to think about every day in just about everything we do, from training at the academy to scenes on the street. I think we get really, really good at trading out special assignment unit or SWAT unit team members. But [for] those folks on the perimeter, if they’re out of their cars for any amount of time, you have to have a plan to make sure they’re getting relief on a regular basis. Otherwise you put yourself in a real bad position.

Wexler: You’re not from Phoenix. What has this been like for you?

Chief Sullivan: The unrelenting piece of it is what’s incredible. We’re talking over 110 [degrees] for 31 days, and then there’s nights that it barely dips below 100. And while we broke that streak [of days over 110 degrees], we’re getting ready to go back into it for at least another 10 days.

Wexler: You have a sizeable homeless population in Phoenix. How is that community affected by this? How are you working with other city agencies to help that population?

Chief Sullivan: That’s a challenge before you add the heat. A lot of the homeless population also deals with mental health and addiction problems, so that complicates matters even more. We have an area with a large homeless population and they have tents set up. We’ve found that they don’t want to leave. We’re finding people dead in their tents because they don’t want to leave their belongings. So we started pulling buses into those areas as cooling centers. We’re seeing them used, because people can get onto the bus close to their stuff and they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their stuff. I know it’s saving lives.

Folks who are unhoused and addicted to different types of substances are finding themselves passed out and end up with third degree burns from the radiant heat on the pavement. Our burn units are full down here from people being down on the pavement before we or fire/rescue reach them and get them to the hospital. You can fry an egg [on the pavement] when it’s 115 degrees outside.

Wexler: How have officers been managing during this heat wave?

Chief Sullivan: I’ve spoken with a number of officers about this, and they’ve told me “hydrate” and “Gold Bond,” otherwise you get pretty significant rashes under your vest. We see a lot of officers use exterior vests. And officers at the range and some of our crime scene techs wear vests packed with ice packs when they go out to work.

We push education out to the officers directly, and we expect supervisors to pay attention. Everybody carries a water bottle here — not a plastic water bottle but a thermos with 32-40 ounces of water. To keep yourself hydrated, you have to drink all the time, all day, and then all night when you get home to rehydrate before the next day.

We started physical activity at the academy at 5:30 in the morning to try to avoid the extreme heat. We had a recruit drop out last week during some physical activity with a heat injury. Since then we ceased academy operations. We want to make sure we’re keeping people safe.

At the range we have cooling tents set up, and we can only use the range in the mornings. In between lines at the range, we’ll bring people into the cooling tents.

Wexler: How does the heat affect crime?

Chief Sullivan: Thankfully we’re not seeing an increase in crime this year. But when we do see events happen, whether it’s road rage incidents or disputes that spiral fairly quickly, we see people with very short fuses because they just don’t have the patience in this extreme environment.

Wexler: How do you work with other agencies to look out for the elderly during a heat wave?

Chief Sullivan: We have strategic plans and heat mitigation plans across the city. We have a PPD safety unit that works with the Human Services Department, the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, public transit, and private partners.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chief Sullivan: This is my first summer down here, and they’ve turned up the heat for me. I guess if you can survive this, you can survive any summer in Phoenix.

One of the things I saw when I first got here — and this was during the winter — was people with carpet tiles in the back of their patrol cars. I asked what those were for, and was told that if officers have to get out and direct traffic at an accident scene, they throw the carpet down so the soles of their shoes don’t melt to the pavement. Those are the types of creative ways officers deal with problems you’d never expect to encounter.

But it’s seven months of absolutely perfect weather for a couple months of really buckling down. So Phoenix is a good place.


New PERF podcast series

As I mentioned above, my interview with Chief Sullivan is also available as a podcast. This is a new way we’re trying to reach and expand our audience, and we kicked it off last month with the release of our podcast series, “Building Public Trust.”

This six-part series features some retrospective episodes, including an interview with Chuck Ramsey and Laurie Robinson about their work leading the 2016 White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing and interviews with Chief Gabe Rodriguez, former Chief Scott Thomson, and community members about the transformation of Camden, New Jersey’s police department. Other episodes are more prescriptive, offering views on the obstacles to building trust and ways to overcome those challenges.

This project was led by Senior Research Associate Rachel Apfelbaum, who mapped out the series, conducted interviews, and narrated the episodes. And Communications Associate Dustin Waters provided technical know-how and editorial guidance.

I’d like to close with a big thanks to the Motorola Solutions Foundation, which supported this project and the nearly 50 others in our Critical Issues in Policing series over the past 18 years. They are a fantastic partner as we work on new ways to reach our membership and the profession.

Thanks to Chief Sullivan for taking the time to speak with me. I hope you all have a cool weekend!