Justice Department uncovers Phoenix police brutality and bias

The Justice Department on Thursday harshly criticized policing in Phoenix, finding severe discrimination against blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, systematic violations of the rights of the homeless and excessive use of strength.

The review is one of the toughest ever undertaken by the Biden administration in its efforts to investigate policing for systemic problems. It’s also the first time a civil rights investigation into police practices has found the rights of homeless people were violated.

“Ultimately, our findings reveal evidence of a long-standing dysfunction,” Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general who heads the department’s civil rights division, told reporters Thursday. She added: “The fundamental problems reflect the lack of effective supervision, training and accountability. »

City officials said in a statement Thursday that they would take the findings seriously. But they told the Justice Department that the city has already enacted police reforms since the investigation began in 2021, and that today’s Phoenix police “are significantly different from the department you investigate.”

Phoenix bristled at the idea of ​​federal involvement in its politics. But the department’s findings were so harsh, Ms. Clarke said “this is a case where we cannot rely on the police to police themselves.”

She said the agency has no immediate plans to sue Phoenix and its police force to force changes. She said a first step would be to reach an agreement with Phoenix officials to enter into a consent decree — a legally binding improvement plan — or place the department under an independent monitor, as it has done in similar situations.

That could potentially set up a tense showdown between the Biden administration and the largest city in a swing state. Last month, former President Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, appeared to have an advantage in the state, according to a poll of registered voters. President Biden narrowly won Arizona in the 2020 election.

The findings are contained in a 126-page report, released Thursday, after a 34-month investigation into allegations of abuse in the department between 2016 and 2022. The report also includes cases from 2023 and 2024.

Unlike other federal investigations into municipal policing, no single incident triggered the review, which focused on the period 2016 to 2022. But Phoenix had the highest number of fatal police shootings in the country in 2018 — 22, according to the Justice Department report — and Critics have cited a history of mistreatment of minorities, people with disabilities and the homeless.

Phoenix has reported 12 fatal police shootings in 2023, and has reported eight so far this year.

The Justice Department under Mr. Biden has moved toward greater oversight of policing, after four years of little action in the Trump administration. It has opened nine investigations and is in the process of executing 12 consent orders. It’s a welcome change, said Hernandez Stroud, senior adviser at the Brennan Center for Justice. But an often overlooked challenge, he said, is the “rollback” when consent decrees or other federal surveillance measures end.

Critics of Phoenix police said the report validated years of unaddressed complaints about police shootings, arrests and traffic stops that disproportionately affected minority communities.

“It’s even worse than what we’re saying,” said Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a community group that has studied policing in Phoenix’s working-class neighborhoods. “The families whose children were killed have paid the price for police violence, and the city council and mayors have long allowed it. »

Investigators said officers routinely used unreasonable force as a de-escalation tactic. They said officers shot, used stun guns or physically restrained people in mental or emotional distress who posed little immediate threat.

In one case, police officers knelt on the neck of a suicidal man who was sitting alone in his car in a parking lot and had injured himself. In another, officers fatally shot a suicidal resident at a group home after he pulled out a “small pocketknife” and disobeyed an order to drop it and stop. Police also shot a man who held a knife to his throat. When they threatened to shoot him, he told the officers, “This is what I want.” »

Particularly when responding to people with mental health issues, Ms. Clarke said, “The Phoenix police’s sudden tendency to use indiscriminate and overwhelming force is both pronounced and harmful. »

When officers saw a man throwing rocks at their vehicle in 2022, they stopped in the road and called for a police officer to come to the scene with ammunition designed to arrest, but not kill. Instead of waiting, the report said, the officers returned to the man and asked him to drop the rock. They shot him as he started to throw another one. Phoenix settled a wrongful death lawsuit with his family for $5.5 million last year.

The report also castigates the city for how police have handled Phoenix’s growing homeless population, a vexing problem for cities across the country. He said officers unconstitutionally stopped and arrested homeless people, sometimes pushing people who were sleeping outside and sending them to a sprawling downtown tent camp known as The Zone. (This encampment has since been emptied.)

Between 2016 and 2022, nearly four in 10 people arrested in Phoenix were homeless, the department found.

Investigators also found that low-level arrests and traffic violations disproportionately affected Phoenix’s Black, Hispanic and Native American residents. Black people were seven times more likely to be cited for marijuana offenses than white people, and Native Americans were 44 times more likely to be cited for alcohol offenses than white people.

Jared Keenan, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said the report was a damning account of abuse. The group sued Phoenix for its use of force to break up protests and raids on homeless camps.

“They relish violence,” he said. “They degrade the people they interact with. It’s just hard to read.

The investigation revealed deep divisions in Phoenix over policing and officers’ use of force.

Police held a series of community meetings to inform people about the investigation and the department’s revised policies and changes, where they faced skepticism from family members of those killed by law enforcement. Police reform activists say Phoenix police have failed to vigorously implement needed changes. The director of a new city oversight office resigned in January, citing a lack of independence.

At the same time, police supporters have pressured the city to resist a consent decree, advertising on a highway sign and launching a website that attacks the Justice Department.

Phoenix became increasingly vocal in its criticism of the Justice Department as the investigation dragged on for nearly three years, costing the city more than $7 to produce millions of documents and data and comply with investigators’ requests.

Phoenix said she cooperated fully throughout the investigation and would “welcome additional information” from investigators. But city officials said they and police did not want to hand over their changes and control to “a consent adjudication process that is complicated, expensive and cedes control to the DOJ.”

Phoenix says it has carried out an “extraordinary wave of reforms” in the nearly three years since the Justice Department began the investigation in August 2021, including using body cameras, banning chokeholds and shootings of moving cars, and creating new standards for the use of deadly force. . A new acting chief, Michael Sullivan, also tightened the department’s use of force policy so that it would only be used when “it is truly essential, not just when it is justifiable.”

City officials criticized the Justice Department for failing to explain precisely why it was investigating police and accused investigators of a lack of transparency.

Phoenix City Councilwoman Ann O’Brien said she only received the report Thursday when it was made public, and expressed frustration that federal investigators had moved forward sooner to detail the ‘one of their conclusions with the city.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” she said. “If we were violating people’s civil rights, why not talk to the city manager, police department leadership and the city council so we can start making changes?”

Several cities, including Baltimore, Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, have agreed to accept federal oversight rather than be dragged through the courts.

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