Tucson police chief opens up about off-duty officer takedown

Protocol changes in department and the city pays thousands to the two women involved
KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 10:36 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 2, 2022 at 12:37 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The startling video of off-duty officer Robert Szelewski of the Tucson Police Department pinning down two women while another woman involved jolted the community late in 2021.

KOLD dug deep to reveal different perspectives of what happened through security footage, TPD reports, and interviews on police body cams.

We reported that the Pima County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Szelewski saying the women had a hand in escalating the situation.

You can watch that video below, but the story doesn’t end there.

More has happened since then, including internal changes to improve how officers deal with the public.

Security footage sets the stage.

Three women, Michelle and her two daughters, Nicole and Brittney, walked across the parking lot of the Culinary Drop back in November of 2021.

Szelewski, who was running late, drove in.

Nicole reported to police that “He was very intimidatingly speeding in.”

Her sister, Brittney, said, “We jumped to the side and I went (raise arms up) like this to him.

And that’s when it all began to spiral down.

This happened shortly before Chad Kasmar took over as TPD chief and he’s had to deal with the aftermath since.

KOLD asked what he first thought while reviewing the case.

“I was pretty unhappy, disappointed” in Szelewski, he said.

He first points to how Szelewski reacted to the women before driving past them.

Szelewski had told an officer on scene, “I slow down because they’re in the middle and the one in the camo turns, and she’s like ‘What the f***?’ I’m like, ‘Move, walk get out of the middle of the parking lot. I’m trying to pass.’”

“The first thing I think of is why do I have an officer that’s behaving like that on his day off at that level of anxiousness or being that upset for something that’s insignificant,” Kasmar said.

He explained that expects more out of his officers holding them to a high code of ethics, that includes self-restraint from on and off duty.

“I don’t think that would have been the response in nine out of 10 of the officers that work at this department,” Kasmar said.

Surveillance video shows the three women approach Szelewski near his car.

Brittany told officers, “I get in and go ‘what are you going to do. We’re crossing the street. I literally – I’m not going to touch you -- I went this far.’”

Szelewski had said, “She gets into me and she goes, ‘oh you’re going to do something about it – you’re going to do something’ and goes boom and chest bumps me and pushes me. So I, boom, take her down.”

“Now I don’t expect my officers to be assaulted,” Kasmar said, but he does expect them to try to diffuse the situation like they’re trained to do before it elevates to the level of a takedown.

At times, Szelewski temperament seemed to be in question, like when he barks orders to his wife.

“Disappointment. This was a preventable situation if either party had just had a cooler head,” Kasmar said.

He did not expect his officer to lose his cool.

“So that’s where we start first and we look. Okay, did we miss something? So does the department have some ownership of was this preventable though a lens of let’s look through the history. I also think okay what type of experiences has the officer had lately at work or at home,” Kasmar said.

He explained the cop culture for many years didn’t talk about struggles.

“You went to a tough call, you sucked it up and you went to the next call then nobody asked and checked on you, and you didn’t meet with the department psychologist,” he said.

Now that’s changing.

The new chief realized it was time to reexamine how the department handles the mental health and wellness of its staff.

He said around the same time of the takedown, an officer, Ryan Remington, shot a shoplifting suspect in a motorized scooter nine times at a Lowes.

And in the same year, two TPD officers took their own lives.

So over the past eight months, Kasmar tripled mental health and wellness resources, restructured the department to add a fifth bureau that has a full division focused on it, and mandated new all-staff training designed to encourage self-awareness, peer monitoring, and support.

“It really focuses around being vulnerable, letting people in your life know when you’re struggling,” Kasmar said.

Another protocol added -- when mental temperatures checks run high on any given day officers will be pulled from patrol or assigned duties that don’t involve community engagement.

So there’s less risk of officers losing their cool.

Kasmar disciplined Szewleski for “major misconduct with a 20-hour suspension.”

And he had pulled him off the streets.

“So if I have somebody operating at that level of intensity on their day off with their family on a Sunday afternoon, then no, I’m not deploying them back out in a uniform to interact with the community until I’m very confident that we’re not going to have that problem again,” Kasmar said.

Szewleski has yet to return to DUI patrol.

The story still doesn’t end here.

Tucson city attorney Mike Rankin tells KOLD the women in the takedown served a notice of claims, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The two sides reached a settlement of $15,000 each, $30,000 in taxpayer money.

He said there is no admission of liability or fault and that the city is simply avoiding the cost of litigation.

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