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.

The problem with young officers is one that police officials clearly recognize. "Fifteen years ago, we didn't have the proliferation of weapons we have out there now," says Assistant Chief Kevin Robinson, who chairs the department's disciplinary review board. "It's difficult for the officers who are brand-new in 2003. Some are a lot quicker to go to their weapon. But there's an element out there that forces the issue a lot quicker than before."

The younger officers also work the night shifts and weekends and are assigned to precincts with the worst crime, primarily the west side and south Phoenix. These are shifts and areas that the more senior patrol officers can opt out of under their union contract. Not surprisingly, most police shootings occur during the weekend, evening and night shifts, and in the west and south Phoenix precincts.

Robinson says the department has considered offering pay incentives to attract more senior officers to those precincts and assignments.

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.

Officer-involved shootings are thoroughly investigated with at least three levels of review. The reports, as well as detailed supporting documentation, are easily available for public scrutiny.

Ron McCarthy, a national expert on use of force, says Phoenix is known for its thorough and fair handling of police shootings. Some departments do downplay their use of force records or issue reports that are flawed in a variety of ways, he says, adding that "Phoenix has some of the best officer-involved shooting reports I've ever read."

Phoenix officers must follow certain rules when it comes to use of deadly force. The policy gives fairly broad discretion to the officer, but authorizes them to protect an officer or others from deadly force, to prevent the escape of someone who is clearly dangerous or to overcome an attack that would cause serious injury to the officer or someone else. Officers are prohibited from firing warning shots, firing their guns at vehicles to disable them and using a police car against someone on foot. Firearms are not to be used when there is substantial risk to innocent bystanders.

Thirteen officers have been disciplined since 1996 for violating policy covering the use of deadly force, primarily for shooting at a vehicle that was moving away from the officer, thus posing no threat.

One officer was terminated but then reinstated by the Civil Service Board, a citizen panel, over the objections of the department. The penalties for violating department policies, including use of force, are set out in a fairly rigid penalty grid that is designed to prevent one officer from being punished more harshly than another.

Officers who fire their weapons routinely go through a retraining in the use of force as soon as they return to duty, Robinson says.

Moreover, the department is moving to put in place an additional review of shootings, a tactical analysis aimed at teaching officers how they could have handled a situation better. A few other police departments in the country have some sort of tactical review of shootings, but the Phoenix department is trying to come up with something new that will make the review more of a learning experience, not a disciplinary one, says Pete Wechsler, the training sergeant for the Special Assignments Unit who is on the committee devising the new program.

For the past two years, some Phoenix officers have been getting special training in dealing with the mentally ill. The department modeled its program after a successful course in Memphis. About 100 officers have gone through the 40-hour program that is conducted in conjunction with Value Options, the state's mental health services agency. The Phoenix department's program is much more detailed and comprehensive than the recently announced four-hour class that will become mandatory for all police officers throughout the state.

Meanwhile, the problems with drug abuse and mental illness continue to grow in Phoenix at the same time money to pay for treatment programs and services is being cut back. The Legislature's proposed budget all but eliminates state money for substance abuse treatment, and advocates say that will mean a loss of $15 million in matching federal funds as well. County jail officials have reported that two-thirds of the people booked into their facilities are on some sort of drug; that number does not include people who are drunk.

Dr. William Pollack, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard University who specializes in men's mental health and violent behavior, says "there's no doubt" that police shootings will probably increase if a community's mental health and substance abuse treatment programs are cut. People who don't get help for their drug use are more likely to end up on the street where they will only take more drugs and become more irrational, he says.

"Someone who is on crack cocaine . . . is likely to become more impulsive and risk-taking, and if a gun is available and their judgment isn't good and they're angry and upset, then they're likely to use it," he says.

"The police have become our crisis intervention system."

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