By David M. Greenwald
Phoenix, Arizona – The Justice Department announced on Thursday that it was opening a pattern and practice investigation into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department.
This marks a major development in a city that has seen a number of complaints against the police for excessive force and police killings. The Justice Department under the Trump Administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had largely stopped conducting such pattern and practice investigations and the use of consent decrees.
Earlier this year, a local ABC investigation found some in the department were circulating “challenge coins” that depicted a protester who had been shot in the groin area with the words “GOOD NIGHT LEFT NUT” on one side and “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN ONE NUT AT A TIME” on the other.
Also this year was an incident that involved a video of a police officer repeatedly striking someone on the ground in a homeless encampment.
Department of Justice officials informed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, PhxPD Chief Jeri Williams, and other City officials of the investigation. As part of this investigation, the Department of Justice will reach out to community groups and members of the public to learn about their experiences with PhxPD.
“I welcome the U.S. Department of Justice review of the Phoenix Police Department,” said Mayor Gallego, a Democrat, in a statement. “Comprehensive reform of policing in the City of Phoenix has been my priority since the first day I took office.”
She added, “For the first time in city history, we will now have an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency.”
This agency will “independently investigation allegations involving police while also creating greater transparency and accountability within the Phoenix Police Department,” the mayor said.
“When we conduct pattern or practice investigations to determine whether the Constitution or federal law has been violated, our aim is to promote transparency and accountability,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety. We know that law enforcement shares these goals.”
The Arizona Republic noted that in 2019, following a record-breaking year where Phoenix officers shot at people more than any other police agency in the nation, the paper compiled details of every shooting and detailed them in a 2019 special report reviewing the Department’s 201 police shootings over the prior eight years.
The paper found “some people involved likely had a history of mental illness or were experiencing some type of crisis and that Black and Native American people were disproportionately shot when compared with their population numbers in the city.”
In addition, “Criminal justice researchers at universities nationwide participated in a study in 2018 primarily focused on examining the record number of shootings that year. The study, paid for by taxpayers to the tune $150,000, drew no conclusions to explain why the Police Department had shot so many people that year, but did recommend changes that could improve transparency at the agency.”
The investigation will assess all types of use of force by PhxPD officers, including deadly force. The investigation will also seek to determine whether PhxPD engages in retaliatory activity against people for conduct protected by the First Amendment; whether PhxPD engages in discriminatory policing; and whether PhxPD unlawfully seizes or disposes of the belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Further, the investigation will assess the City and PhxPD’s systems and practices for responding to people with disabilities. The investigation will include a comprehensive review of PhxPD policies, training, supervision, and force investigations, as well as PhxPD’s systems of accountability, including misconduct complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition, and discipline.
Arizona House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding welcomed the announcement.
Bolding has pressed for policing reforms for the past six years, including outside investigations of use-of-force cases, but in a statement said that he “has been frustrated by resistance from some law enforcement leaders and lack of interest in police accountability among the Republican majority.
“Too many times we have seen what happens when law enforcement officials are accountable only to themselves,” he said. “This investigation of the Phoenix Police Department is a critical step toward accountability for persistent misconduct that has gone unchecked for far too long.”
While, he said, they “strongly support police officers who are committed to professionalism and who put their life on the line to protect and serve our communities every day,” he added that “nobody should turn a blind eye to serious allegations of excessive force, mass arrests of peaceful protestors followed by trumped-up charges of gang crimes and the unwarranted surveillance of activist communities that prompted this investigation.
“These revelations, though shocking, were not entirely surprising to many of us. Too often we’ve seen law enforcement leaders in positions of trust fight back against attempts at accountability,” he said. “Accountability is the key to rebuilding public trust.”
Victoria Lopez from the Arizona ACLU also welcomed the investigation.
“There is a clear need for fundamental change in the agency and that starts with robust oversight and accountability,” she said in a statement.
“For years, local advocates and residents have been demanding an overhaul in the Department to keep Phoenicians safe from police abuse; their experiences and voices should be at the front of this investigation. In 2018, the ACLU of Arizona brought litigation against Phoenix PD to address its use of force against protestors engaging in protected First Amendment activity,” Lopez said.
In addition to lawsuits, Lopez noted that the ACLU was only one of several, where “several, community complaints and media reports point to numerous allegations of police misconduct, harassment, and excessive use force, all of which has eroded trust between the community and the Phoenix PD.”
She added, “This is not a case of a few bad apples—Phoenix PD has deep-rooted, systemic problems with the way it treats community members. It’s time for this to change.”
The investigation is being conducted pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits state and local governments from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives individuals of rights protected by the Constitution or federal law. The statute allows the Department of Justice to remedy such misconduct through civil litigation. This is the seventy-third investigation of a law enforcement agency conducted pursuant to this statute since it was enacted in 1994. The department will be assessing law enforcement practices under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as under the Safe Streets Act of 1968; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, in Washington, D.C., will conduct this investigation.
“One of the highest priorities of the Civil Rights Division is to ensure that every person in this country benefits from policing that is lawful, effective, transparent, and free from discrimination,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. “Police officers across the country must use their authority in a manner that adheres to the Constitution, complies with federal civil rights laws and respects human dignity.”