WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the City of Phoenix and its police department, to review whether law enforcement officers there have engaged in a pattern of excessive force and discriminatory practices, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday.
The investigation is the third in a series of similar police probes that also are underway in Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., after residents in those cities were killed by police officers.
Part of the probe will examine whether police officers have violated the rights of people who are experiencing homelessness, as well as the city’s and the department’s practices for responding to people with disabilities, Garland said during a news briefing announcing the investigation.
“Our society is straining the policing profession, by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems,” Garland said. “Too often, we ask law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system.”
The federal government also will review whether officers have retaliated against protesters. The city has faced a number of lawsuits from protesters who have claimed that their constitutional rights have been violated, according to the Arizona Mirror.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the sweeping probe will involve meeting with officers and police staff, as well as with members of the broader Phoenix community. Investigators will review incident reports, body camera footage and other department records and policies, she said.
DOJ officials said they informed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, and other city officials of the investigation.
In a statement, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said she welcomes the DOJ investigation, and that “comprehensive reform of policing in Phoenix” has been her priority since she was first elected to the city council in 2013. She was elected mayor in 2019.
“Public safety reform is an ongoing process in Phoenix, and now, with the help of the USDOJ, this robust reform program will continue,” Gallego said. “I pledge to continue this work to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
But Viridiana Hernandez, leader of Poder in Action, said the city and the police department would not be facing a DOJ probe if they had seriously listened to the stories and solutions proposed by victims of police violence.
“This, for us, is also on the leadership of Kate Gallego and the city council that has refused to do anything to actually work with the families, to meet with the families and to find solutions and to actually believe the families and the victims and the survivors of police violence when they show up,” Hernandez said.
Poder in Action is a community group that pushes for more oversight and accountability of local police departments and often advocates for the families of people who have died at the hands of law enforcement.
Hernandez added that the DOJ investigations signals to community groups, neighborhood leaders, activists and families impacted by police violence that their calls for accountability have not fallen on deaf ears.
“The (DOJ) investigation acknowledges the violence of this police department and the stories and the families we’ve worked with that have talked about the trauma, the violence, the lack of humanity and also the history of this being one of the deadliest police departments,” she said.
She wants the DOJ probe to result in solutions to “root cause violence and racism of this department” not on reforms that fund more trainings on mental health calls or cultural competency or an expansion police cameras, which are changes that she said direct more funds to police departments and have not been effective at resulting in accountability and transparency.
“More training is not going to make them more ready… It’s not that they are not competent in our cultures, but it’s just that they don’t see us as human or worthy,” Hernandez said. “At the end of the day there is a lack of discipline, and a lack of consequences and a lack of enforcement,” she said.
Poder in Action is among the community groups that has pushed the City of Phoenix to establish a civilian review board with authority to investigate complaints and issue recommendations on disciplinary action or policy changes. In May, the city established the Phoenix’s Office of Accountability and Transparency, a new city agency led by a full-time director and staff with the mission to provide an independent review of the Phoenix Police Department.
The DOJ probe also comes at a time where Phoenix, Chief of Police Jeri Williams and many members of the police department are facing multiple lawsuits alleging that they violated the constitutional rights of people who police arrested last year following protests denouncing the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. One of the lawsuits involves police’s targeting of Black Lives Matter activists and the unfounded felony arrests of people that police and prosecutors claimed belonged to a non-existent gang.
In 2018, Phoenix ranked first nationwide for the most police shootings. In recent years, the police department has been under public scrutiny for its use of force, including an incident in which a Black family was held at gunpoint for allegedly shoplifting from a dollar store in 2019. In 2020, The Arizona Republic found that Phoenix police disproportionally use force against people of color. Phoenix police officers were also found to sell and exchange a “challenge coin” based on Neo-Nazi imagery that made fun of police shooting a protestor in the groin in 2017.
City Councilman Carlos Garcia said the DOJ probe is an acknowledgement that “this department is unfit to serve our community and further validates the violence and mistrust that our community has been experiencing.”
“As the DOJ stated today, we cannot continue to use the police department to solve societal ills,” Garcia said in a press statement. “The Council continues to disproportionately fund our police department more than other important services for our community. Again, I’m calling for us to invest in our community’s healthcare, mental health, trauma care, childcare, affordable housing, employment opportunities, and other everyday essentials our community needs.”
On Thursday afternoon, Williams said her department “welcomes” the investigation, and that it has reformed itself since last summer using the “8 Can’t Wait” guidelines.
Laura Gomez and Jerod MacDonald-Evoy contributed to this report.
***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include additional comments and information.
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