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State law reconfigures composition, effect of Phoenix police civilian review board

Photo of Civilian Review Board
A view of Phoenix City Council. (Photo: Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress)
New policy emerges at envisioned Phoenix police civilian review board
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

The composition and marching orders of the Phoenix Office of Accountability and Transparency is evolving at City Hall.

Phoenix City Council at its public policy work session during the afternoon hours of Tuesday, March 19, was briefed on how new state law —- introduced as House Bill 2721 by Arizona Rep. John Kavanagh now emboldened in state statute —- is dictating the scope and composition of the envisioned civilian review board for police oversight.

The 2022 state law dictates how police civilian oversight investigations can be conducted, who can conduct them and the mechanism necessary —- the amount of affirmative votes needed at the review board level —- for a formal investigation into police behavior to commence or repercussions for misconduct to be implemented.

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 seeks a technical assistance letter from the DOJ rather than a formal consent decree. City leaders published the request that was made public in January, which was drafted by Steptoe LLP that was delivered to DOJ officials on behalf of the city of Phoenix.

Throughout the public policy work session discussion impassioned commentary was provided by members of the general public — and members of Phoenix City Council.

Phoenix Councilwoman Betty Guardado did not mince words.

“All I can say is, ‘I am sorry,’” she said during the March 19 public hearing. “We can continue to hide behind the state but we know why this is happening the way it is. I think this is just going to be another check mark to just say that it is there. I think we are coming together but this is not what the community wanted.”

Phoenix Assistant City Manager Ginger Spencer briefed Phoenix City Council on the latest updates to the existing operations at the Office of Accountability and Transparency.

“We stand here today with 11 of 15 positions filled,” Ms. Spencer said of staffing levels at the Office of Accountability and Transparency.

On the heels of the Department of Justice investigation into excessive force, Phoenix City Council established the Office of Accountability and Transparency in 2021 to perform independent civilian oversight of the Phoenix Police Department, city officials say.

The focus of the municipal oversight entity is to monitor police administrative investigations of incidents involving sworn personnel seeking to provide community members afflicted with an avenue for complaints, commendations without fear of retaliation.

At the March 19 public hearing, Ms. Spencer outlined how state law has changed the vision and scope of the 12-member of citizen review board, which requires amendments to Phoenix City Code 20-1 through 20-13.

While there was no formal action taken during the March 19 policy work session discussion, Ms. Spencer outlined new proposed language to establish a 12-member civilian review board with the following tenets:

  • The 12-member civilian review board would include nine (9) voting members and three (3) non-voting members;
  • The mayor would appoint each voting member to three-year terms with an option to reappoint for one additional term;
  • The three non-voting members would be direct appointees of the city manager and chief of police.
  • For any action to emerge from the civilian review board a majority vote (5 votes) would have to be rendered.
  • Before any monthly meeting findings of every investigation would be presented to Office of Accountability and Transparency and Phoenix police leadership prior to the civilian review board announcing its findings.

In her annual 2023 report, Shannon Johanni, interim director at the Office of Accountability and Transparency, pointed out staffing grew nearly 200% and municipal staff at the oversight office continue to make community connections.

“During 2023, the monitoring team worked diligently to build processes and protocols to begin actively monitoring police department administrative investigations,” she said in the annual report.

“The team coordinated information sharing between OAT and the department, held monthly coordination meetings with Professional Standards Bureau (PSB) leadership and officers, and began reviewing evidentiary disclosures from the department to determine if each monitored PSB investigation was thorough and complete and identify areas for improvement in future investigations.”

Ms. Johanni points out the OAT community engagement team made more than 85 new community outreach contacts and participated in 30 local events to help spread awareness of the police oversight efforts at City Hall.

New policy emerges at envisioned Phoenix police civilian review board

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego offered a positive sentiment.

“We hope this will build trust between our residents and our officers in uniform,” she said noting she would like to see a focus on emerging technologies affecting the law enforcement community. “Emerging technologies and some of the implications that we may not appreciate without a larger community discussion.”

Mayor Gallego explains the city of Phoenix is in compliance with state law regarding the development of a civilian review board for police oversight.

“We are making changes to conform with state legislation,” she said. “Some of the changes are not wanted or expected but we are making them nonetheless.”

Phoenix Councilwoman Ann O’Brien called into question the curious charge of the mayor appointing all voting members of the civilian committee.

“I am concerned about having the mayor having the ability to appoint all the members to the civilian review board,” she said of the Carte Blanche provision spelled out in state law. “I would like for us to have the mayor and council offer appointees then a super majority vote for those members.”

Following impassioned commentary during the call to public portion of the public hearing, Phoenix Councilwoman Laura Pastor offered her thoughts on the situation.

“There were good intentions with the creation with OAT,” she said toward the end of the March 19 public hearing. “That was pulled and taken from us as the legislation came about — this is something families have had to deal with over decades … I am not sure where we are today.”

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