City of Phoenix Sued Over Police Killing of Disabled Man

Phoenix Police Department headquarters.
Phoenix Police Department headquarters. Sean Holstege
On July 8, 2021, the night of his death, Stanley Howard called the Phoenix Police Department at least 15 times, asking for help.

By the end, Howard, a 64-year-old man with mental health issues and a water gun, was shot 10 times by Phoenix police officers.

Now, Howard's family is suing the city of Phoenix, alleging that officers violated his civil rights when they shot him.

The lawsuit was filed on the one-year anniversary of Howard's death in the U.S. District Court of Arizona on behalf of his estate and his brother, John Howard. It alleges that Phoenix officers used excessive force against Howard and violated his civil rights by failing, throughout the course of the night, to accommodate his serious disability.

It’s just the latest civil rights lawsuit that the embattled department is facing.

"The officers' failures resulted in Howard, who was unarmed, being gunned down by the defendant police officers," attorneys alleged in the complaint. Howard's death, attorneys wrote, was "unreasonable and conscience-shocking."

Reached Tuesday morning, Elizabeth Tate, a civil rights attorney representing Howard’s family, said she had no further comment aside from the allegations raised in the lawsuit. Howard’s brother and sister, she said, did not yet want to speak publicly.

Phoenix police did not return requests for comment from Phoenix New Times. The city has not yet filed any response in court.

At the time of his death, Stanley Howard lived in a home at 27th and Augusta avenues in Phoenix. Howard, the complaint notes, had a history of interactions with the department. He suffered from severe schizophrenia and depression. "His condition was chronic/permanent, and it limited, among other things, his ability to communicate and interact with other persons and periodically affected his will to live," attorneys explained.

Police were called to Howard's home before the day of his death. His family members, who lived out of state, occasionally asked for the department to perform welfare checks on Howard.

On July 8, 2021, Howard was in crisis. Starting at around 8 p.m., Howard began calling 911 multiple times. A team of officers was initially dispatched. When the first officers arrived, Howard punched his front window, breaking it and injuring his hand. Despite this, the officers left the scene, "leaving Howard ranting, raving, and bleeding, alone in his home," attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

Over the course of the next hour, officers and a team from the fire department returned to attempt to provide medical aid, after Howard called 911 to report that he was bleeding, as he swore and threatened the emergency dispatcher. Howard refused their help. The cops and firefighters left, and he called 911 once again. A third team of officers was dispatched to his home.

At no point, attorneys note, did the 911 operator allow Howard to speak to a crisis counselor, or deploy any crisis assessment team to Howard's residence.
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Officers approach Stanley Howard's home the night of the shooting.
City of Phoenix
On July 22, 2021, in its initial press briefing about the incident, the Phoenix Police Department noted that the first officer to engage Howard, as well as a sergeant who was on scene, were both "crisis intervention certified officers," meaning that they had received training on how to approach people with mental illness.

All four officers who arrived at Howard's home are named in the lawsuit. They are Sergeant Jeremiah Fiola, who has spent more than a decade with the department, and officers Rayonte Benson, Ali Alkarawi, and Jennifer Rich.

A Phoenix police spokesperson did not answer questions about whether the internal investigation of the shooting had yet been concluded, and whether the officers involved received any discipline. The status of the officers on the force was not clear from court records.

A spokesperson with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office did not immediately answer questions about whether the county was considering charges in the case.

Edited bodycam footage that the Phoenix Police Department released of these four officers approaching Howard's home shows what occurred in the moments before his death.

In the video, the four officers stand outside Howard's door, asking if he wants to be seen by medical staff. Howard denies calling 911 and opens the door, telling officers: "I have a gun." He was holding a "plainly visible, large, red, water gun," attorneys wrote.

At the same moment that one officer shouts at Howard to drop the gun, another fires. Attorneys for the family wrote that he was shot "more than ten" times by three of the officers. While Howard is lying in the doorway, officers continue to shoot stun bags at him from behind a shield. At this point, police said in their press briefing about the incident, officers "believed Howard was still armed with a gun."

After officers determined that Howard was unarmed, medical aid was called.

Attorneys argued that officers had no legal justification for the shooting, and that in their response to Howard, they failed to provide him with any accommodations for his disability.

The case is one that could come to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is currently investigating the department for misconduct. One of the investigation’s primary areas of focus is Phoenix officers’ treatment of people with disabilities, particularly in cases of violent or deadly force. So far in the investigation, investigators have requested more than 1 million pages of internal documents for review.

In 2021, the year Howard was killed, the Phoenix police shot fewer people than in previous years — certainly less than in 2018. That year, the department carried out more police killings than any other agency in the country.

No hearings have been set yet in the case. The city has three weeks to reply to the complaint.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk