Here Are the Many Possible Reasons Why the DOJ Is Investigating Phoenix Police

Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General, announced sweeping investigation today into possible abuses by Phoenix police.
Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General, announced sweeping investigation today into possible abuses by Phoenix police. C-Span
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a sweeping investigation into the Phoenix Police Department and the city of Phoenix for a host of alleged police misconduct, including excessive force and retaliation against protesters.

The investigation, revealed today by Attorney General Merrick Garland and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, will probe "all types of force," including deadly force, used by Phoenix officers and whether the department engages in "discriminatory policing," "retaliatory activity" against protesters, or "unlawfully seizes or disposes of the belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness." The investigation will also review the department's training, supervision, policies, use-of-force investigations, and "systems of accountability."

"The investigation will determine whether the Phoenix Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law," Garland said a press conference in Washington, D.C. earlier today. "These investigations aim to promote transparency and accountability. This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety."

Clarke said during the news conference that the DOJ has reviewed court records, media reports, and "citizen complaints" as part of their process to determine whether or not to pursue an investigation. The evidence "warrants a full investigation," she noted.

"If we conclude that there are no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the City or Phoenix Police Department, we will make that known. If, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a report describing our findings and then aim to work cooperatively with the City to reach agreement on the best remedies," Clarke said. "If an appropriate remedy cannot be achieved through agreement, the Attorney General is authorized to bring litigation to secure an appropriate injunctive remedy."

DOJ officials have already briefed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Chief Jeri Williams about the probe, the release said.

In a statement, Gallego said she welcomes the probe and that she stands "ready to support the USDOJ throughout this review process."

During a press conference in Phoenix today after the investigation was announced, Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher said that the city will "fully cooperate" with the DOJ. Chief Williams agreed.

"If they tell us to do something differently we will fully embrace that," Williams said. "We’re not afraid to embrace anyone coming in and making an outside assessment of our agency."

The new probe comes after the Phoenix Police Department has generated a string of high-profile controversies related to police misconduct, such as the department's crackdown on anti-police brutality protests last summer.

Here are just a few of the potential reasons why the DOJ wants to probe whether Phoenix police officers frequently and fragrantly violate people's civil rights.

Protest Crackdown

Last summer, hundreds of people took to the streets of Phoenix en-masse to protest the killing of George Floyd and police conduct in general. Phoenix police responded by firing tear-gas and rubber bullets at protesters, forcing people out of their cars, chasing protesters around residential neighborhoods, and arresting hundreds of people by using copy-and-pasted probable-cause statements — only to have judges dismiss the cases at the initial-appearance hearings. As documented in a Phoenix New Times story from last June, one protester was taken to the emergency room after a rubber bullet broke his arm. Phoenix police and the city are currently being sued over the protest crackdown. The department is reportedly refusing to release the property of protesters whose cases have already been dismissed.

Targeting Activists

Numerous activists who were involved in last summer's anti-police brutality protests have consistently alleged that they were targeted for arrest and prosecution by the Phoenix Police Department. For instance, Bruce Franks Jr., a former Missouri state legislator and activist who is now based in Arizona, has claimed that officers singled him out for arrest while he was peacefully protesting outside police headquarters in downtown last August. Protesters were also arrested by police weeks after they attended demonstrations. Then, in October, over a dozen people were arrested at a different protest and eventually indicted by a grand jury for allegedly being part of a criminal street gang. However, reporting revealed that prosecutors and Phoenix police officers falsely depicted the protesters as part of a non-existent "ACAB" — an acronym for the slogan "All Cops Are Bastards" — gang. Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel eventually dismissed all the cases and now the protesters are suing Adel and Chief Williams. Additionally, an October 2020 New Times investigative report revealed that Phoenix police have been involved in surveilling civil-rights activists.

Policing the Homeless

Garland said that the DOJ will assess whether the department "violates the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness" by "seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution." New Times has reported on instances of Phoenix police officers cracking down on the local population. Before and during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, officers were forcing homeless people to break down their tents and making them relocate. In July 2020, Phoenix police ticketed a homeless woman for camping in an alley rather than trying to find if resources were available for her, as he should have.

Shooting Lots of People

It's no secret that the Phoenix Police Department shoot a lot of people; its critics frequently refer to it as the "deadliest" police department in the country. The department logged more police shootings than any other law enforcement agency in the nation in 2018. In 2020, community outrage mounted over a series of high-profile police shootings, including the killing of Ryan Whitaker, who was fatally shot at his own home while surrendering to officers; the city of Phoenix eventually paid Whitaker's family a $9 million settlement after they pursued legal action. While police shootings in 2020 didn't reach the levels of 2018, they did rise over 2019's numbers.

Excessive Force

There's no shortage of documented instances in which Phoenix police officers have a seemingly high aggressive level of force. For instance, the department is getting sued for allegedly causing a Black teenage girl to get severe burns while officers held her down on scalding hot pavement during a 2019 arrest. A man filed a lawsuit against the department last fall after Phoenix police sicced a K9 on him while he was hiding under a car after initially fleeing; the dog attack allegedly resulted in $20,000 in medical bills. In 2017, a man named Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. died while being arrested for having an outstanding warrant after failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. During the arrest, officers put their knees on his head and neck; Muhaymin said, "I can't breathe" and eventually died in a pool of his own vomit. And how could anyone forget the time in 2019 when Phoenix police officers pointed their guns at a Black family whose kid walked out of a store with a doll. During the incident, one officer told the child's father, 22-year-old Dravon Ames, "I'm going to put a fucking cap in your fucking head." The family ended up suing and got a $475,000 settlement.
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Josh Kelety was a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety