Will hiring 425 new Phoenix police officers come at the expense of greater accountability and better civilian-officer relations? Or will more officers mean less violent crime and a safer city?
Amid a national conversation about law enforcement’s use of force policies and frightening statistics about the Phoenix Police Department’s record of violence, a vocal group of residents is challenging the city’s plan to hire more officers.
Last year, the City Council approved funds to hire and sustain 300 new officers — the PPD's size has been at a near-record low for the past few years — and it’s now considering a proposal to add 125 officers.
The funding for these extra positions would come from the $16 million surplus in the general fund generated by Mayor Greg Stanton’s flagship transportation-improvement plan, Proposition 104. (Prop 104 is paid for by a small consumer tax increase over 50 years so the city no longer needs to pay for transportation out of the general fund.)
Stanton first floated the idea of using the surplus to bolster the police force this spring, and it received universal praise from council members. Even Sal DiCiccio and Jim Warring, the two councilmen against the transportation plan, said they’d vote in favor of using the money for police should Prop 104 pass in the election.
Voters approved the transportation plan last month so what to do with the $16 million is once again up for discussion. Mayor Stanton, members of the council, and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association all contend that more police officers are necessary to assure public safety, while those opposing the plan say better training and accountability measures for the current force is the solution – “better policing, not more police,” they say.
Given the unanimous support of the city’s elected officials, the extra 125 slots would seem guaranteed were it not for this diligent citizen effort to change council members’ minds.
Many of the people opposing the extra hiring are members of various local advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter, Justice4Rumain, and People Demanding Action Community Coalition, and during the past two weeks, they have dominated the public-comment period at council meetings. Collectively, they’ve forced this issue, as well as what they consider to be the PPD's embarrassing record of violence, to become topics of conversation.
“Your proposal to hire more police will only cause more fallen citizens and more lawsuits,” local activist Geoff Woods said at a recent meeting. “We need oversight, training, and accountability before we decide to hire another officer.”
“It’s time to get our police force out of the Dark Ages,” another speaker, Dai Lili said. “We desperately need to invest [in the current force] before we bring in more officers.”
She and others want the council to use the money to buy the PPD body cameras and dashboard cameras.
Many spoke about police brutality and the deaths of Phoenix residents Rumain Brisbon or Michelle Cusseaux, at times evoking disdain from certain council members.
Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who refers to himself as a big law-and-order guy, pushed back the hardest — “I just don’t like this [anti-cop] rhetoric bullshit,” he said after last week’s council meeting.
He told New Times that as far as he’s concerned, “We should be expanding beyond 125 officers because even with 125, we’re still going to be short-staffed because of attrition.”
DiCiccio says he’s sympathetic to what the speakers have been saying about public safety but fundamentally disagrees: “What ends up happening when you’re short-staffed and you’ve got one officer going to a scene when you should have two . . . is a greater likelihood of confrontation because that officer has a heightened level of anxiety. With more officers on the street, believe it or not, you have less chance of confrontation.”
DiCiccio certainly has a point when it comes to the size of the city’s police force. It’s at a 15-year per capita low, according to Will Buividas of the cop union PLEA. The drop was the product of an attrition rate of about 100 officers per year compounded by what turned out to be a devastating hiring freeze.
The freeze went into effect in 2008 for budgetary reasons, overstretching the department and forcing it to merge certain precincts to ensure coverage. What’s more, Buividas says, to fill scheduling gaps, the department has ended up paying millions of overtime dollars, which only further burdens the city – in a climate of limited resources.
“We have a crisis of manpower,” he says.
The department had 3,384 officers in 2009, but now has fewer than 2,700. Even with 425 new positions, the per-capita size of the force will be below what PLEA considers ideal. (Buividas makes a point of comparing Phoenix and Dallas: Dallas is a slightly smaller city with a few hundred thousand less people, but has more than 3,400 sworn officers.)
But as far as those opposing the additional hires are concerned, if the PPD at its current size still has problems arising from poor training – training hours were also cut in 2008 – why not invest in that?
Phoenix has some of “the most dangerous, reckless and poorly trained officers in the United States, and you want this current bunch training new officers?” Woods asked at a recent council meeting. “Doesn't it make more sense to train the ones you have first, so the new ones receive better training and guidance from their superior officers?”
He and others have called for the city to implement a nine-point plan to improve the PPD before adding 125 new positions:
1. Create a community review board to ensure public trust and independent oversight.
2. Institute an early intervention system to identify potential at-risk officers based on algorithms, and get them off the streets.
3. Require oversight from the Department of Justice for issues of racial profiling, conduct, and all cases where citizens loses their lives to police
4. Implement use-of-restraint training for police
5. Demilitarize the police in accordance with President Obama's Executive Order.
6. Make the PPD's Operational Guidelines available to the public
7. Train officers in citizen rights
8. Implement a transparent and searchable database on the PPD website
9. Buy and install body and dashboard cameras.
Woods calls body cameras “the big one,” as in the one tool he believes will go the farthest in creating public safety.
“We have been told it would cost $3.5 million [to outfit the force with cameras], but when you consider the reduction in lives lost to the police and tax dollars paid to settle these tragedies, they would pay for themselves immediately,” he says.
“I understand their position that the money should be used for body cams,” says Buividas. “However, the body cams don’t do any good if there’s no one there to show up at your door step when you call 911.” He says he’d love to see Phoenix officers equipped with the latest technology, but believes having enough officers is a more pressing public-safety issue and the best way to reduce crime.
Nationally, violent crime rates have gone down over the last two decades, and according to Buividas, the trend mostly holds true for Phoenix. The numbers have fluctuated slightly in the last few years, but because the size of the police force has shrunk, it’s hard to say the crime numbers reflect that.
According to PPD data, the total number of violent crimes from January through July 2015 is 5,337.
Here’s how that number compares to the past three years:
Total violent crimes for 2012: 9,462
(For the months of January – July: 5,241)
Total violent crimes for 2013: 9,498
(For the months of January – July: 5,854)
Total violent crimes for 2014: 8,751
(For the months of January – July: 4,954)
Again, whether more cops or better trained cops – or some combination of the two – will help lower citywide crime appears to depend on who you ask.
Many of those speaking at the council meetings believe, as one citizen put it, that Phoenix's record regarding officer-involved fatal shootings is, “a national embarrassment.”
According to The Guardian, which maintains a website called “The Count,” nine people have been killed by law enforcement so far this year in Phoenix. Only two cities rank worse: Los Angeles with 14 deaths and Houston with 11 — and they are much larger.
Looking at national numbers, of the 806 men and women killed by officers so far in 2015, 36 have been in Arizona. Only three states have a higher total number of officer-involved deaths: California, Texas, and Florida — and again they have much higher populations. (When those numbers are measured as deaths per capita, only Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming rank worse than Arizona.)
“They talk about the nine people killed this year, but what about the cops killed?” one pro-police hiring citizen said during Wednesday’s meeting. He went on to call the activists cop-haters and criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for demonizing law enforcement.
The Reverend Reginald D. Walton, chairman of the Arizona Black Lives Matter campaign and one of the speakers at a recent council meeting, responded that his movement is “not trying to be adversarial. We support good law enforcement. But what we will not tolerate [are] bad police officers who put that badge on and harass [people].”
“The issue with officer-involved shootings, well, it depends on how you look at it,” Buividas says. “It’s very interesting, to say the least.” According to the PPD, between 80 and 90 percent of instances when an officer uses a gun involve an armed civilian, and so Buividas’ biggest concern is that the national narrative of police violence is contributing to a growing anti-police movement. He’s certain there are those out there who now think “it’s okay to pull a gun on an officer at a gas station and kill him in cold blood.”
But according to Woods, what he and others are speaking about before the council has nothing to do with “being pro-police or against the police…It’s just about better policing. That’s all we want.”
No decisions about what to do with the $16 million have been finalized, though sources within the city say it’s will be put to a formal vote in the next few weeks.
Until then, the police reform activists vow to continue voicing their opinion at every city council meeting.