By Danae Snell
PHOENIX, AZ – Law enforcement nationwide has a long history of killing people without facing criminal consequences and the state of Arizona stands as a key example.
In fact, a public analysis from 2018 found “that police kill someone every five days in Arizona and prosecutors have failed to convict them of criminal wrongdoing 95 percent of the time.”
Democratic nominee for Maricopa County Attorney Julie Gunnigle, Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia, Executive Director Lola N’sangou, Director Viri Hernandez, and Senior Legal Counsel at The Justice Collaborative John Mathews II discussed via Zoom last week how law enforcement can be held accountable and why their actions continue to go unpunished.
Senior Legal Counsel Mathews opened the discussion by acknowledging that, “Police have killed 28 people in Maricopa County since County Attorney Allister Adel took office in 2019, but she has not charged a single officer involved. This is consistent with her predecessor’s practices; he did not prosecute any of the 212 police officers involved shootings.”
The death of Antonio Arce who was shot in the back and killed by police officers at age 14 years old stands as a prime example of prosecutors failing to charge officers for misconduct, he said, adding police officers shot at Arce from “more 100 feet away while he was running away.”
Although County Attorney Adel has received the endorsement and thousands of dollars in financial support from the Phoenix Sergeant and Lieutenant Association, candidate Gunnigle still continues to advocate for the community and challenge Adel.
Gunnigle addressed this issue by stating, “It is a day one priority for me that we start to restore trust in this office. At this point we cannot have trust in this office until we can have a process that we can be proud of, which means we need to have someone who is truly independent.”
She believes the community needs “an independent unit to evaluate use of force cases” and also needs “to make sure this unit is community evolved and transparent.”
The current process established by Adel “has made the process worse than her predecessor by installing folks from the community who make decisions behind closed doors and sign nondisclosures,” Gunnigle said.
Gunnigle’s idea of independent units for evaluating police use of force “is to take these decision away from our prosecutors who spend day in and day out working alongside law enforcement and be able to provide some real objectivity to the process by utilizing not just experienced prosecutors, but also drawing in the perspectives of civil bar and defense bar as well.”
It is important to do this because “as a prosecutor one of the things you are tasked to do when you prosecute a crime is to cooperate with officers,” she added.
Gunnigle maintains this cooperation leads to really close relationships between prosecutors and police officers, which causes prosecutors to be less objective and “unable to hold these folks accountable when needed.” This lack of accountability along with the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants plays a role in the level of trust citizens have towards prosecutors and law enforcement.
Gunnigle showed her support to ban the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants and said, “We need to look at some of the police practices that we know are killing disproportionately Black and Brown people inside Maricopa County.”
“No knock warrants were originated from our war on drugs and were the brainchild of a 26 year old Congressional staffer who had no business making policy when it came to police because they thought it looked cool to able to knock down doors in the dead of the night…it is killing folks” Gunnigle noted.
Executive Director N’sangou joined the conversation by noting, “It is not coincidence that there are racial disparities across the board in that office. That office has a legacy of brutality and indifference. It kills people as much as if not more than police do. While we are outraged by police killings, we should be even more outraged by prosecutors.”
“Police kill us in the streets with guns, prosecutors kill us in courtrooms with pens. So when it comes to accountability it comes through charging policies, legislation, and the culture of that office.” Accountability is not just needed by police officers, but multiple individuals in the criminal justice system, she said.
It is “not a surprise she (Adel) does not hold police accountable” considering “she has been bought and paid by police unions,” N’sangou added.
Current County Attorney Adel’s lack of actions to charge the officers not only affect the individuals physically involved, but also their families, who wait up to two years for full reports of the incident, updates in the investigation, or even their loved one’s belongings while police officers involved are given updates on a monthly basis, according to Director Hernandez.
Along with this wait families also “have to think about ways to honor their loved ones because both the police and the county attorney makes a goal to villainize and criminalize our loved ones without even doing proper investigation, said Hernandez.
Councilmember Garcia pointed out that, “Police unions have established three narratives that make it difficult to hold them accountable. The first one being that they can do no wrong…the tragedy of 9/11 tied police officers as heroes. This is then followed by the rotten apples theory that the officers themselves believe ‘it is a couple of folks’ and ignore the issues of systematic racism.”
Secondly, added Garcia, “they are able to do is tie their funding to individual people’s safety. No money is never enough. Unless they are fully funded you are not safe yourself,” explaining that police union endorsements play a huge role in accountability insofar as “if you do not get the police union endorsement there is no way to win” at least in Arizona, he shared.
Communities throughout the nation have voiced their concerns and joined the conversation by engaging in different movements like the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Nominee Gunnigle shared that “More than 60 percent” of calls going into her office have asked about how she “plans to hold police more accountable when there are police use of force issues.”
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