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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DOJ: Phoenix police used excessive deadly force, violated civil rights

The city says it needs “several weeks” to craft a response to the Department of Justice’s findings that the city discriminates on the basis of race and against those who are homeless and mentally ill.

PHOENIX (CN) — After a nearly three-year investigation into reports of misconduct amounting to civil rights violations, the Department of Justice said the Phoenix Police Department used excessive and unjustified deadly force and discriminated against Black, Hispanic and Native American people.

The department released a 126-page report Thursday detailing its findings in five major categories of misconduct first purported in August 2021, when it began investigating Phoenix and other major city police departments in the aftermath of high-profile police killings in 2020. 

Department officials were looking for evidence of excessive deadly force, racial discrimination, unlawful treatment of homeless people including unwarranted disposal of their belongings, mistreatment of protesters and mistreatment of people experiencing mental health crises. 

Investigators say they found evidence of all five accusations following the 34-month investigation, which included more than 20 terabytes of data, 22,000 body camera videos, 200 hours of ride-alongs and 130 interviews with Phoenix police officers.

“Phoenix residents deserve nothing less than fair, non-discriminatory, and constitutional policing,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a Thursday press release.

“Our comprehensive investigation revealed unlawful and unconstitutional practices in the Phoenix Police Department’s enforcement activities that impact some of Phoenix’s most vulnerable residents," she continued. "The police also used excessive force, delayed necessary medical aid, and infringed on the civil rights of those engaged in First Amendment-protected conduct, including demonstrations and protests.”

Clarke said at a press conference that the police regularly violate the First and 14th Amendments as well as the Safe Streets Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“For example, Phoenix officers shot a man, and after he fell, fired multiple projectiles at him and then sent a police canine to drag him back to them,” Clarke said. “The pain they inflicted was extraordinary. But for nine minutes, officers failed to provide medical aid. Tragically, that man died.”

The Justice Department provided the city with a briefing on the findings Tuesday morning and urged it to enter into a consent decree that would require the city to abide by department-recommended reforms enforced by a federal judge and independent court-appointed monitor. 

City officials in January decried the potential consent decree, saying a court order would only increase costs and bureaucratic hurdles without meaningful change to policing. 

City Council member Ann O'Brien called consent decrees “a broken model for fixing and reforming police departments across the country” in a Thursday statement. She cited violent crime increases in Seattle and in Albuquerque, New Mexico — two cities that have operated under Justice Department consent decrees since 2012 and 2015, respectively — as evidence. 

The city told the Justice Department in a letter Thursday morning that it needed “several weeks” to thoroughly review the report and craft a more detailed response.

“Just a few moments ago, at the same time as the public, the city of Phoenix received the federal government’s findings report,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in an email to Courthouse News. “The city council will meet this month — in executive session on June 25 — to receive legal advice, better understand the report, and discuss next steps. I will carefully and thoroughly review the findings before making further comment.” 

Darrell Kriplean, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, also criticized the lack of notice before the release of the report.

“We are frustrated and appalled by the Department of Justice's decision to release the findings report to the public and the media before allowing the decision makers and the department to review it,” Kriplean said during a press conference. “This tactic is nothing more than an irresponsible and unprofessional smear campaign against the men and women who have continued to courageously serve the community amidst dangerous inflammatory rhetoric by political activists and violent attacks from criminals.”

Phoenix says it has already enacted reforms in the areas of focus in the Justice Department's investigation.

City attorney Julie Kriegh wrote in the city’s letter that Phoenix has implemented full use of body-worn cameras, spent millions on homelessness and mental health treatment and increased salaries for 911 operators, among other actions to improve police-community relations.

She pointed back to a 53-page report titled “The Road to Reform” that the city first provided to the Justice Department in January to break down its efforts to get out ahead of the findings. 

Kriplean also emphasized the police department's reforms, claiming the federal agency had called for similar actions from other police departments that were "bullied into federal oversight."

“The Department of Justice is not interested in making local police departments and the communities they serve better," he said. "This action demonstrates that they are only interested in removing control of local police from the communities that they serve through consent decrees that only enrich the monitors that are generally DOJ insiders.”

American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona Director Jared Keenan dismissed the report in January as an inadequate rebuttal to the police department’s “egregious” abuses of power. 

Executive Director Scott Greenwood said Thursday the report "reflects a failure of leadership by prior chiefs over the last decade and a city government that has neglected or refused to hold them accountable."

Phoenix is one of 11 major cities investigated since 2021. It would be the largest city in the country to refuse federal oversight if it declines a consent decree, opening itself up to legal challenges by both the federal government and civil rights groups.

Greenwood said in an email to Courthouse News that the ACLU is considering intervening in the civil suit the Justice Department will likely file against the city as an amicus party.

"Any separate, independent action against the city concerning its unconstitutional and ineffective police practices is a question for another day," he said.

In its report, the Justice Department found that Black drivers in Phoenix are 144% more likely and Hispanic drivers are 40% more likely than white drivers to be cited or arrested for low-level moving violations. It also found that Black and Hispanic people are seven and three times more likely than white people to be arrested on marijuana charges, and Native Americans are 44 times more likely to be arrested for possessing or consuming alcohol. 

“I stand firm behind the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department and trust our leadership to continue to improve and elevate the service we provide Phoenix families, businesses, and visitors,” City Council member O’Brien said. “Phoenix can and will make necessary changes — independently!”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Homelessness, Regional

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