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Department of Justice report sends shock waves through Phoenix City Hall, local police department

photo of Phoenix
The Department of Justice in August 2021 announced a Civil Pattern or Practice investigation into the claims of excessive force at the Phoenix Police Department, which federal prosecutors say is a result of systemic failure of the local law enforcement entity. (Photo: Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress)

DOJ hosts community Zoom call to explain Phoenix police findings

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

The findings of the United States Department of Justice investigation into alleged civil rights violations at the Phoenix Police Department and municipality of Phoenix are beginning to reverberate throughout the community.

The Department of Justice in August 2021 announced a Civil Pattern or Practice investigation into the claims of excessive force at the Phoenix Police Department, which at the time marked the 71st investigation of the nature since the Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Phoenix leaders published its ‘road to reform’ document available HERE, which local policymakers say sought a technical assistance letter from the DOJ rather than a formal consent decree.

City leaders published the request that was made public this past January, which was drafted by Steptoe LLP that was delivered to DOJ officials on behalf of the city of Phoenix.

The litigators of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice hosted a 60-minute webinar 6 p.m. Thursday, June 13, to outline the findings of the 126-page report published earlier that day.

Maureen Johnston, an attorney who serves as a deputy chief of the Department of Justice, led the discussion on DOJ findings.

“We spent a lot of time in Phoenix,” she said outlining the feet-on-the-ground investigation conducted by DOJ attorneys. “We heard from hundreds of community members. Thank you all for sharing your time with us — thank you for sharing the stories that are often hard to share.”

Ms. Johnston — along with six other DOJ attorneys and officials — outlined to those who attended the Zoom call how the investigation was conducted and data models used to ascertain civil rights violations in certain situations, like traffic enforcement.

“We spent over 200 hours riding with police officers,” Ms Johnston said. “Despite our findings there are many dedicated officers serving admirably every day and are trying to provide [police] service with thoughtfulness and respect.”

However, Ms. Johnston, along with her DOJ colleagues, over about 45 minutes explained how they came about their official findings that can be read HERE. These are the findings reported and published yesterday:

  • The Justice Department reports the Phoenix Police uses excessive force, including unjustified deadly force and other types of force.
  • The Justice Department reports Phoenix Police and the city unlawfully detain, cite, and arrest people experiencing homelessness and unlawfully dispose of their belongings. This is the first time the Justice Department has found a pattern or practice of conduct that focuses on the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
  • The Justice Department reports Phoenix Police discriminates against Black, Hispanic, and Native American people when enforcing the law.
  • The Justice Department reports Phoenix police violates the rights of people engaged in protected speech and expression.
  • The Justice Department reports Phoenix police and the city discriminate against people with behavioral health disabilities when dispatching calls for assistance and responding to people in crisis.

DOJ officials yesterday outlined concerns around how police interact with children — pointing out there are no provisions for how to deal with children therefore they are often treated the same as adults, one DOJ official said.

“I also want to point out we have discussed our concerns about how the Phoenix Police Department treats children,” she said following the explanation of no provisions in place to handle interactions with children. “These findings are not based on a single incident … these are long-standing problems at the police department. We believe the systemic issues need reform.”

Phoenix City Manager Jeff Barton addressed the DOJ findings yesterday.

“We are taking all allegations seriously and are planning to review this lengthy report with an open mind,” City Manager Jeff Barton said in a prepared statement to employees yesterday. “Self-reflection is an important step in continuous improvement, and our Police Department has demonstrated a commitment to reform by making improvements to policy, discipline, internal investigations and training.”

City leaders point out the Phoenix Police Department has instituted its own reforms, created new policies and elected leaders in the last month have brokered the tenets of establishing a citizen review committee for police matters — a pursuit of the Office of Accountability and Transparency.

Ms. Johnston explains these efforts are common when a DOJ investigation unfolds at a local police department.

Interim Phoenix Police Chief Michael Sullivan says he is looking to better understand each incident reported by DOJ attorneys.

“We want to see not only what these individual incidents are that the Department of Justice refers to, but we also want to see whether it included policy change or whether it possibly included discipline, or other changes within the department as far as practices go,” he said in a prepared statement.

Phoenix Councilwoman Ann O’Brien at the local dais in City Council chambers in downtown Phoenix. (Photo: Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress)
Soundbites and stances on DOJ findings in Phoenix

Phoenix City Councilwoman Ann O’Brien remains in steadfast support of the men and women of the local police department.

“Throughout the Department of Justice’s nearly 3-year investigation, Phoenix remained fully transparent and compliant,” she said in a statement sent to the Digital Free Press.

“We provided over 179,000 documents, 20 terabytes of data, 22,000 body-worn camera videos, and 220 recordings of 911 calls. We also facilitated more than 200 hours of ride-alongs and 130 interviews with police department and city staff, including our Police Chief and City Manager. We opened the doors to our training academy and facilitated 8 field visits with the DOJ.”

Councilwoman O’Brien, who represents District 1, is co-chair with District 6 Councilman Kevin Robinson of the Public Safety & Justice Subcommittee at Phoenix City Council.

“While we remained transparent with the DOJ, it was clear they were not willing to reciprocate,” Councilwoman O’Brien said. “After having asked for adequate time to review the findings report and for a fully translated Spanish version to be released concurrently to ensure our entire population was able to access the report, we were denied multiple times.”

Councilwoman O’Brien contends a formal consent decree administered by the federal government on the Phoenix Police Department will be costly and create new burdens to equitable police service.

“A consent decree would impose significant financial burdens and bureaucratic hurdles, as seen with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “Under a consent decree since 2015, MCSO must run every decision through their court-ordered monitor, which hampered their effectiveness. This ineffective oversight, combined with $250 million costs, recently led to Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone’s resignation from office. Seattle and Detroit have faced similar financial strains, spending $100 million and $50 million respectively.”

Paul Sheldon, president of the 9,300 member Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, did not mince words.

“The Department of Justice has once again released an allegedly ‘fair and impartial’ report about a police department and its ongoing efforts in the community,” he said in a prepared statement provided to the Digital Free Press.

“Strangely, as one reads their 126 pages of ‘fair and impartial’ reporting regarding the Phoenix Police Department, you find not a single example of PPD officers performing heroically, being injured or ambushed in the line of duty, saving lives, or being empathetic to the community they have committed to serve. Instead, the DOJ has microscopically focused on a handful of situations handpicked from literally thousands of police contacts on a daily basis in the fifth largest city in the United States.”

Mr. Sheldon points out there is no mention of any of the heroic acts of community service carried out daily by the men and women of Phoenix law enforcement.

The report discusses the legality of officer-involved shootings. DOJ investigators point out that since 2018, there have been 149 officer-involved shootings in Phoenix,” he said. “They then deconstruct seven examples they believe were handled incorrectly. Cherry-picking about four percent of cases to argue for a ‘pattern or practice’ of officer misconduct seems dubious at best.”

Mr. Sheldon says the report does not accurately depict discipline upheld at the Phoenix Police Department.

The DOJ also claims Phoenix officers are given a free pass and never face discipline,” he said. “The DOJ analysis, in fact, documents multiple cases of discipline — before arguing that officer appeals and arbitration are a bad thing. Are we to understand that the Department of Justice believes police officers are guilty until proven innocent and should not receive due process?”

Mr. Sheldon says he is in contact with the Department of Justice and will work to resolve allegations leveled by the federal government.

“In fairness to the Department of Justice, I have already been in direct contact with the Assistant Attorney General, Kristen Clarke,” he said. “While I stand by everything I’ve said here and already explained to AAG Clarke, I also know there is common ground that can be achieved if we work together. Slamming doors and walking away helps no one. If we truly work together, we can achieve greatness for everyone.”

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