Washington, DC – U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had launched an investigation into whether Phoenix police have been using excessive force and abusing homeless people.
Garland said the probe would include an investigation of whether the Phoenix Police Department has engaged in discriminatory policing practices, the Associated Press reported.
The “pattern or practice” investigation is a sweeping review of the entire police department that will explore whether Phoenix police have a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.
The attorney general said DOJ would also investigate allegations that Phoenix police officers have retaliated against people engaged in protected free speech activities such as protests, the Associated Press reported.
The police reform push has been underway in Phoenix for some time.
Maricopa County’s top prosecutor in June permanently dismissed charges – including gang allegations – that had been filed against more than a dozen people at an anti-police protest in October of 2020.
The dismissals came after civil rights advocates complained police and prosecutors in Phoenix were pursuing gang charges in order to scare activists out of protesting, the Associated Press reported.
Victoria Lopez, the advocacy and legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona, said the federal investigation was necessary to get the police department to make changes.
Lopez said her organization had sued the police department for its handling of protesters in the past and the problems still existed, the Associated Press reported.
“This is not a case of a few bad apples – Phoenix PD has deep-rooted, systemic problems with the way it treats community members,” she said in a statement.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said federal investigators would begin the process of meeting with officers and supervisors, and reviewing bodycam footage, training materials, and other records, the Associated Press reported.
One lawsuit alleged police and protesters had worked together to target protesters and news media reported that police officers had created a challenge coin to celebrate having shot a protester in the groin during a protest.
“We found that the evidence here warrants a full investigation, but we approach this process with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions,” Clarke said.
She said Phoenix city officials had expressed support for the federal investigation.
“Protecting the rule of law demands that those who enforce our laws also abide by them,” Clarke said.
Democratic Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego applauded the DOJ investigation, the Associated Press reported.
Gallego said she has been pushing police reform measures since she took office in 2019 and though the federal probe would be a good push in the right direction.
“Public safety reform is an ongoing process in Phoenix, and now, with the help of the USDOJ, this robust program will continue,” the mayor said in a statement.
The city said it planned to put behavioral health specialists in the field with Phoenix police this year to respond to mental health calls, the Associated Press reported.
Phoenix also has a newly created Office of Police Accountability that is supposed to independently investigate any allegations of misconduct or wrongdoing by Phoenix police officers.
However, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently signed a bill into law limiting the scope of civilian review boards such as the one created by Phoenix, the Associated Press reported.
Garland also said the DOJ would look into whether officers have been violating the rights of the homeless by “seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution.”
He acknowledged that society was “straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems,” the Associated Press reported.
“Too often we asked law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system,” the attorney general said. “This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement and hinders public safety.”
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams defended her department and said it has made a lot of reforms in recent years.
Chief Williams also said she was open to DOJ recommendations, the Associated Press reported.
“The Department of Justice inquiry is another opportunity to further improve the department and to better serve our city,” the police chief said. “Wearing the badge is a privilege, not a right. I’ll say that again, wearing this badge is a privilege, not a right.”
“The majority of our officers out there act every day with professionalism and compassion,” Chief Williams insisted.
Phoenix is the third city to find itself under the DOJ’s microscope so far this year, the Associated Press reported.
Garland launched similar investigations into the Minneapolis Police Department and the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, respectively.