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.

Every two weeks, on average, a Phoenix police officer intentionally fires a gun at a person. About half the time, someone is killed.

That's a lot of police shootings. The obvious question is why. Is there something wrong within the Phoenix Police Department?

A New Times review of officer-involved shootings from 1996 through 2002 found no convincing evidence that citizens are particularly at the mercy of badly trained, trigger-happy cops.

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.

Clearly, there are shootings in the past seven years that need to be publicly scrutinized. Police officials readily concede that some shootings might have been avoided if officers had used different tactics. Most police shootings occur within the first few minutes of an encounter between officer and suspect, and the situation can escalate rapidly. In hindsight, some could have been handled differently.

"There are some shootings that have occurred where we would have preferred a different outcome," says Assistant Chief John Buchanan, who chairs the department's use of force review board. "We can do better and we want to do whatever we can to do better."

He won't identify or discuss which specific cases he thinks were problematic.

Although the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which reviews all shootings, cleared Phoenix officers of wrongdoing in every case, the city paid about $4 million to settle 10 claims involving injury or death from police shootings since 1996, according to the city's finance department. The city prevailed in 24 claims filed in that time period.

Still, there is nothing in the records to suggest the kinds of problems with abuse of force seen in recent years in some cities. The large number of shootings appears to be due in large part to two trends: more violence against the police by people increasingly armed with weapons, their judgment affected by alcohol and drugs; and a fast-growing police department that has put more younger officers on the front lines -- patrol.

Perhaps more important, while Phoenix police have been working to reduce officer-involved shootings, other public leaders have not. The Legislature is moving to gut critical substance abuse treatment programs, a decision that experts say will almost certainly lead to more police shootings. Money for mental health services also has been given short shrift in recent years and there has been no real effort by elected leaders to address problems created years ago with the move to community-based services.

New Times reviewed detailed internal police documents on more than 150 cases in which Phoenix officers discharged their weapons over that seven-year period. The newspaper, after eliminating accidental discharges and incidents involving dogs, ended up with a study group of 147 cases -- shootings in which an officer fired a weapon at a person intentionally. (Nine more reports from 2002 were not publicly available as of last week.)

Of those 147 shootings, 72 were fatal. The number of fatal shootings per year rose in 1998 and stayed somewhat higher after that, apparently reflecting a switch from 9mm to .40 caliber handguns.

The overall number of shootings doubled in that time, from 15 in 1996 to 30 in 2002 (including one dog shooting). This year, however, the numbers are significantly lower -- seven shootings compared to 12 at this time last year.

More than 60 percent of the people shot by police over the past seven years were armed with a gun, almost always a handgun. Another 10 percent were armed with knives and another 13 percent used their vehicles as a weapon, according to the New Times review.

Most of the rest, while not armed with a deadly weapon, still attacked officers or were in a position to cause substantial physical harm to the police or someone else.

Police officers involved in the shootings routinely reported they felt threatened by the suspect. And, in nearly all the cases, there is nothing in the material that contradicts this, including interviews with witnesses and family members of suspects.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the records demonstrate a reasonable justification for the shootings. New Times found fewer than a dozen incidents that even raised an eyebrow, based on information contained in the detailed internal affairs reports. (New Times cross-checked reports against county medical examiner records and found no substantive discrepancies.)

It's virtually impossible to compare Phoenix's overall record on police shootings to other cities without reading all the case files of other agencies. The statistics available through sources such as the federal Uniform Crime Reports only track fatal shootings -- so half the study group would be eliminated. The UCRs are also considered by criminologists to be notoriously flawed.

In 2001, the Washington Postpublished arguably the most accurate (if limited) nationwide comparison of police shootings -- but again only fatal shootings -- including those in Phoenix. Reporters collected data from individual agencies through record checks and interviews. In that study, which covered 1990 through 2000, Phoenix was the third-highest department in the country for fatal shootings per 1,000 sworn officers, more than twice as high as the median.

The Washington Post series focused on shootings by Prince George's County, Maryland, police, which had the highest rate of fatal shootings per 1,000 officers. The findings were very different from what appears to be going on in Phoenix. The Post found that half the people who got shot were unarmed and that many had committed no crime. Police refused to release shooting reports to the paper, and reporters discovered that what police had said publicly about the shootings was in many instances at odds with witness statements, autopsy reports and court documents.

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.

"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.

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.

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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