Phoenix police have a history of violating civil rights: Justice Department

PHOENIX (AP) — Phoenix police discriminate against blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, illegally detain homeless people and use excessive force, including unjustified deadly force, according to a wide-ranging federal investigation into civil rights for law enforcement in the nation’s fifth-largest city.

The U.S. Department of Justice report released Thursday said investigators found stark racial disparities in how Phoenix Police Department officers enforce certain laws, including minor drug and traffic violations. Investigators found that Phoenix officers shot people who did not pose an imminent threat, fired their weapons after any threat had been removed, and routinely delayed medical care to injured people during encounters with officers.

The report does not specify whether the federal government is pursuing a reform plan imposed by the courts known as a consent decree – an often lengthy and costly process – but a Justice Department official told reporters that in similar cases this method had been used to carry out reforms.

Acting Phoenix Police Chief Michael Sullivan said in a statement that they need time to thoroughly review the findings before considering next steps. A senior police union official, meanwhile, called the Justice Department’s investigation a “farce” and warned that a consent ruling would hurt officer morale.

“The Department of Justice is not interested in improving local police departments and the communities they serve,” said Darrell Kriplean, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which represents about 2,200 officers. “This action demonstrates that they only want to take control of local policing away from the communities they serve through consent decrees. »

Attorney General Merrick Garland called the report “an important step toward accountability and transparency.” He said in an email that this underscores the department’s commitment to “meaningful reform that protects the civil rights and safety of Phoenix residents and builds trust between police and the community.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement that city officials will meet June 25 to get legal advice and discuss next steps.

AP correspondent Norman Hall reports on a federal civil rights investigation into Phoenix police.

“I will review the results carefully and thoroughly before making further comments,” Gallego said.

The Justice Department said Phoenix officers enforce some laws — such as minor drug and traffic violations, loitering and trespassing — more harshly against blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans than against White people engaging in the same behavior.

Black people in the city, for example, are more than 3.5 times more likely than white people to be cited or arrested for failing to signal before turning, the report said. Hispanic drivers are more than 50% more likely than white drivers to be cited or arrested for speeding near school zone cameras. And Native Americans are more than 44 times more likely than whites – per capita – to be cited or arrested for alcohol possession and consumption.

Officers investigating drug offenses were also 27 percent more likely to release whites in 30 minutes or less, but Native Americans accused of the same offense were held longer, the department said. And Native Americans were 14 percent more likely to be convicted of trespassing, while officers cited or released whites accused of the same offense.

There is “overwhelming statistical evidence” that the disparities are due to discrimination, the Justice Department said.

Phoenix has 1.6 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Race and ethnicity figures show that 2% of the population is Native American, 7% is black, nearly 43% is Hispanic, and 41% is non-Hispanic white.

Of the more than 2,500 officers who work for the Phoenix Police Department, 68% are white, 21% are Hispanic and 4% are black.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, criticized Phoenix for “overpolicing” the homeless, including arrests without reasonable suspicion of a crime. More than a third of the Phoenix Police Department’s misdemeanor arrests and citations involved homeless people, the report said. The DOJ The investigation began in August 2021.

Litigation is an option if the Justice Department’s efforts to obtain a consent judgment fail.

“We are hopeful that we can build on the successes in other jurisdictions across our country and put in place a consent decree containing the powerful remedies needed to address the serious violations identified,” Clarke said.

Similar Justice Department investigations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baltimore and elsewhere have found systemic problems related to excessive force and civil rights violations, some of which resulted in costly consent decrees that lasted years.

In Phoenix, a 2020 case accusing 15 protesters of belonging to an anti-police gang was dismissed because there was no credible evidence; In 2017, a “challenge coin” circulated among police officers depicting a protester wearing a gas mask being shot in the groin with a projectile; And in June 2019, cellphone video was released showing officers pointing guns when they confronted an unarmed Black couple with two young children who they suspected of shoplifting.

Poder In Action, a Phoenix group that advocates for people of color and workers, said the results were not a surprise.

“We never needed a DOJ investigation to tell us that,” the group said in a statement. “Data and resident testimonials have been telling us this for years. »

The report said some police shootings occurred because of officers’ “reckless tactics” and that police “unreasonably delayed” helping people they shot and used force against those who were unconscious or otherwise incapable.

In one case, police waited more than nine minutes to help a woman who had been shot ten times, the Justice Department said. The woman is dead.

The investigation focused on the city’s 911 operations. Even though Phoenix invested $15 million to send non-police responders to mental health calls, the city failed to provide necessary training to 911 call takers and dispatchers.

Officers assume people with disabilities are dangerous and use force rather than de-escalation tactics, leading to criminal consequences for people with behavioral disorders, rather than finding them care, the department said of Justice.

City Manager Jeff Barton said in a message to city staff Thursday evening: “We take all allegations seriously and plan to review this lengthy report with an open mind. »

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Associated Press reporters Rio Yamat in Las Vegas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; and Alanna Durkin Richer Washington, DC, contributed to this story.

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