There's Something About Phoenix

Phoenix police shoot and kill a lot of people. But it's time to look beyond the police department for the reasons.

That's clearly not the case in Phoenix.

"Phoenix needs to be judged against Phoenix," contends Chief Harold Hurtt.

He points out that his department has consistently moved to reduce the number of shootings, including purchasing stun bag shotguns and Taser guns for patrol officers. He says he has worked to get citizens involved in the department, including on the boards that deal with use of force and discipline.

Tracking Phoenix police shootings from 1996 through 2002: Most occur, perhaps  not surprisingly, in the tougher neighborhoods of south and west Phoenix.
Rand Carlson
Tracking Phoenix police shootings from 1996 through 2002: Most occur, perhaps not surprisingly, in the tougher neighborhoods of south and west Phoenix.
Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt says his department needs to be judged on its own merits.
Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt says his department needs to be judged on its own merits.

"I understand the difficulty that people outside the profession have in looking at us," Hurtt says. "But I think when people start looking at the use of force, they need to look at what do the other parties bring to this situation."

Still, two main factors seem to be leading to the large number of shootings here, according to information pulled from the files as well as interviews with police officials, officers themselves and other experts.

First, the department has grown so fast and hired so many new people in recent years that many patrol squads, once a balance of seasoned cops and rookies, are now made up largely of the younger, less experienced officers. In the past 10 years, the Phoenix force has grown from 2,000 sworn officers to nearly 3,000 today.

Officers with just a few years on the department are being promoted or moved into slots that are opening up on other units -- investigations, for instance -- as those divisions are expanded. So the younger cops are left to take the lead in situations that in the past likely would have been primarily handled by, or at least influenced by, a more experienced officer. This doesn't mean the newer cops are poorly trained or trigger-happy, just that more experienced street officers can often see a better way to deal with a threatening situation.

At the same time, there is more violence against the police. There are more assaults on police and more guns in the hands of citizens who are willing to use them against cops. There are more people using drugs, like methamphetamine and cocaine, coming into contact with the police.

At least 20 percent of those in the New Times study group had prior criminal convictions; the reports don't always address this issue and it's impossible to figure out which ones have prior records without access to a national offender database.

More than a third of the time, the suspect fired at police first. There were numerous shoot-outs, with both the suspect and the police firing several shots -- sometimes dozens of shots -- each. Bullets ended up in neighbors' walls, windows, cars and fences. From 1996 through 2002, the city paid more than $21,000 in property damage claims resulting from police shootings, according to the city finance department.

At least 60 percent of the people shot at by police were impaired by drugs or alcohol and sometimes both. (Toxicology results weren't available in all the cases studied by New Times.) Overwhelmingly, the drugs used by suspects were methamphetamine and cocaine, primarily crack -- drugs that make their users much more aggressive and unpredictable.

At least 28 percent of the suspects were clearly mentally disturbed, based on statements by family members or information the police obtained directly through background checks. (Again, mental health information was not available in all reports.) In many instances, mentally ill people were also impaired by alcohol or drugs.

The suspects in virtually every case involving drugs, alcohol or mental issues were armed, usually with a gun although often with a knife (sometimes both).

There is also no indication of overt racism in the Phoenix shootings. Of the 147 cases, 68 involved white suspects, 50 Hispanic, 24 black and one Native American. Four involved people whose race was unknown.

Most were men -- 154 -- and only 22 were younger than 18 years old.

There is no indication in the police files that any of the social factors often cited by the mainstream press in connection with shootings are actually at play in Phoenix cases -- Mexican drug traffickers, a flood of illegal immigrants, violence associated with immigrant smuggling.

Only one of the 147 cases had anything to do with coyotes and hostages, and in that instance the man who was shot by police had run away from the people he said were holding him against his will. Two people fired at by the Phoenix police were determined to be illegal immigrants, according to the reports, and there were no shootings involving Mexican drug traffickers.

In only one case did lack of English (or lack of Spanish on the officer's part) appear to be a factor in a shooting; the man may not have understood the officer's instructions to show him his hands during a traffic stop.

Only two cases appeared to have any sort of street gang connection.

The 147 cases reviewed by New Times involved 230 Phoenix officers. Frequently, more than one cop is involved in the same shooting. The vast majority -- 193 officers -- were on patrol duty at the time of the shootings.

And they were virtually all male officers. Only eight women cops fired their weapons, accounting for about 3 percent of the shootings. (The patrol force is roughly 13 percent female.)

Officers with less than three years on the department accounted for nearly 40 percent of the shootings, even though they are only 15 percent of the force. More than half the shootings were done by officers with less than five years on the force.

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