'They Kill With Impunity': Families of Phoenix Police Shooting Victims Call for Accountability

Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, stands with families of Phoenix Police shooting victims on August 26.
Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, stands with families of Phoenix Police shooting victims on August 26. Josh Kelety
On the same day the Phoenix City Council approved a $475,000 settlement in a high-profile case where a Phoenix cop pulled a gun on a Black family after their four-year-old walked out of a store with a doll, a slew of families of victims of local police shootings slammed the Phoenix Police Department as out of control.

Their message to local elected officials: Rein in the cops, hold them accountable, and defund the Phoenix Police Department, which some critics call America's deadliest police department due to the city's high number of annual police shootings.

"They go into our neighborhoods, trigger-happy with stereotypes, condemning and judging us before they even know the person," said Anna Hernandez, the sister of 26-year-old Alejandro Hernandez, who was fatally shot by police in 2017. (Police said that he was carrying a replica rifle at the time.)

"We demand accountability," Hernandez continued. "We demand transparency."

The protest, which was organized by the local anti-police brutality group Poder in Action, took place outside the chambers of the Phoenix City Council, where members were holding their first meeting after a summer recess. The protest also, of course, comes after a summer rocked both by nationwide protests over police brutality and a litany of local controversy over Phoenix police shootings and misconduct.

On July 4, Phoenix cops shot a 28-year-old James Garcia, who was armed, inside a parked car. Earlier, on May 21, cops shot and killed 40-year-old Ryan Whitaker at his apartment after responding to a noise complaint; Whitaker had answered the door while holding a handgun but was seemingly surrendering as he was shot.
click to enlarge Activists built an altar to people killed by Phoenix police officers. - JOSH KELETY
Activists built an altar to people killed by Phoenix police officers.
Josh Kelety

Recent news reports and lawsuits have unveiled past police killings and brutality committed by Phoenix cops. In 2017, 43-year-old Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. was killed by Phoenix police after they tried to arrest him for failing to appear in court for a nonviolent misdemeanor charge; he died in a pool of his own vomit after yelling "I can't breathe." (Dozens of organizations have alleged that the cops mocked Muhaymin's religion, Islam, before he died.) And the family of Dion Humphrey, a Black 19-year-old who was shot in the chest with a rubber bullet by Phoenix cops after they mistook him for a suspect in January, is suing the officers and the city.

Humphrey, his family, the families of Muhaymin, Garcia, and Whitaker, and several other police shooting victims spoke at the event. Broadly, they described difficulty getting basic information, such as incident reports, from the Phoenix Police Department, and called for officers involved in the killings to be fired and for independent investigations to be conducted.

"Our police chief was talking about she's marching in solidarity for what happened to George Floyd, but she had George Floyd happen right here in Arizona," said Muhaymin's sister, Mussalina. "I want this investigation reopened, and I want an independent investigation ... I want those police off the job and fired. There should be consequences for their behavior."

Humphrey's father William said he filed a request for a police report the week his son was shot in January and only just received it last week. "They're hiding," he said. "The police know that they're wrong. They had no reason to do that to Dion Humphrey."

Activists and some families also called for "defunding" the police department in some capacity. Defunding the police has become a controversial rallying cry adopted by anti-police-brutality advocates following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. To some, defunding means shifting more police spending to social safety net services like mental health treatment and affordable housing. To others, it means the literal abolishment of law enforcement. The notion been met by stiff opposition from police unions and lackluster support among the general public, according to some polls.

"The safest communities do not have the most police," said Katie Baeza, the sister of Ryan Whitaker. "They have the most programs."
Some activists who spoke at the protest were more explicit in their calls to slash police department funding.

"No longer will we accept our elected leaders asking us to trust a violent institution [when] we know that institution murders us in the streets as it asks us for trust," said Jamaar Williams, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro.  "We demand change. We will no longer support this institution that enacts violence with impunity. And we demand the defunding of the Phoenix Police Department."

"This department must be defunded because it has been very clear that no matter how much training and cultural competency training or other bullshit training they are taking, it's not stopping their murders on the streets," said Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action. "Our families are still here. And we are still here demanding justice."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety