The U.S. Justice Department is starting an investigation of the Phoenix Police Department over its established practices involving the use of force and police conduct toward the homeless and people with disabilities.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Civil Rights Division announced the investigation at an Aug. 5 press conference.
“Today we are announcing that the Justice Department is opening an investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department,” Garland said. “The investigation will determine whether the Phoenix Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.”
This is the third pattern or practice investigation that Garland has announced as attorney general, he said.
“Each time, I have noted that these investigations aim to promote transparency and accountability. This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety,” Garland said.
The estimated yearlong investigation will examine “all types of use of force” by Phoenix police officers, including deadly force.
It will also look at evidence to determine whether Phoenix officers have engaged in “retaliatory activity against people for conduct protected by the First Amendment,” as well as “discriminatory policing.” This includes the unlawful seizure or disposal of property of homeless people.
In addition, the probe will look at the “systems and practices” of Phoenix police for responding to people with disabilities.
“Our investigation in Phoenix will be led by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. It is based on the Division’s extensive review of publicly available information, and it will consider several issues,” Garland said.
Areas of focus will be to determine whether the Phoenix Police Department uses excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, whether the department engages in discriminatory policing practices that violate the Constitution and federal law, whether the department violates the First Amendment by retaliating against “individuals who are engaged in protected expressive activities,” and whether the city and its police force respond to people with disabilities “in a manner that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
“This includes whether decisions to criminally detain individuals with behavioral health disabilities are proper,” Garland said.
Garland said the investigation will also look at whether the department violates the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness, “by seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution.”
“Those last two areas of investigative focus speak to an important issue that is broader than the Phoenix investigation: Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems,” Garland said.
Regarding the investigation, Clarke said: “We have reviewed court files, media reports, citizen complaints, and we also considered factors that we ordinarily weigh in determining whether to open an investigation, including the nature and seriousness of the allegations, the number of allegations, the steps that a department may be taking to address the allegations, and the history of the department. We found that the evidence here warrants a full investigation, but we approach this process with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions.
“As part of our investigation in Phoenix, we will meet with officers and command staff as well as members of the broader Phoenix community,” she said. “We will review incident reports, body-worn camera footage, and other data and documentation collected by the department. We will also review the department’s policies, training materials, and supervision records, as well as documents related to systems of accountability, including how complaints are investigated and how discipline is imposed.”
Clarke alluded to similar investigations into police conduct following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
“If we conclude that there are no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the city or Phoenix Police Department, we will make that known. If, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a report describing our findings and then aim to work cooperatively with the city to reach agreement on the best remedies,” Clarke said.
At a press conference on Aug. 5, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams promised the full support and cooperation of her department throughout the investigation.
“Everyone knows I love this city and I am committed to leading our department and protecting and serving all people with dignity and respect. Our community deserves it, and I and my team will not settle for anything less,” Williams told reporters.
Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher told reporters the city and police department will “embrace any opportunity for reform and improvement.” He said that in addition to recently implemented police reforms, this year’s Community Assistance Program budget includes $15 million to hire specially trained experts to help those in crisis.
“I know that good officers do not want to work in a system that allows bad practices,” Zuercher said.
As of June 2020, the Phoenix Police Department employed nearly 3,000 officers and more than 1,000 support staff, although it continues to struggle to recruit new officers. The department serves more than 1.6 million people.
“The top priority of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association is to maintain a high standard of community policing, and promote ethical policies that protect police officers and our community,” Michael “Britt” London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which represents officers in Phoenix, said in a statement to The Epoch Times.
“We are confident in the work of the Phoenix Police Department and our officers on the street, and we will fully cooperate with the Department of Justice investigation.”
Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, a Republican, told The Epoch Times that he’s skeptical about the latest DOJ investigation.
“At this point, everything the DOJ does is suspect in my view,” Finchem said.