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Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, former Mesa Police Chief and Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead, and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, former Mesa Police Chief and Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead, and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs
Photos from official websites and social media

Arizona Law Allows Police Officers to Purge Their Records After Three Years

A Phoenix police officer caught on video threatening to shoot an unarmed black man in the head has worked for the department since 1995, but personnel records show that the first citizen complaint against him was in 2018. That doesn't mean nobody had complained before.

Officer Christopher Meyer's profanity-laced threats toward Dravon Ames and his family, who had been accused of taking underwear and a doll from a dollar store, caused a community uproar and made national news; Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said the police action in the video made her "sick." As Phoenix New Times reported last week, Meyer's file is rife with references to other citizen complaints, an officer-involved shooting, and car crashes. But there is no further information on any of that in the 400-plus pages of personnel records obtained by New Times.

That may be because Arizona law allows professional standards and internal affairs records to be deleted three years after the incident is reviewed, so long as the incident was not sustained. If it was sustained and an officer was disciplined for it, the record is kept for five years.

Records retention schedules are set by the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records, a division of the Secretary of State. Retention schedules obtained by New Times show that in 2012, the director of the State Library's Records Management Division authorized police internal affairs records, including critical incident reviews, use of force, weapons deployment, and other related records, to be retained for only three years.

Then, in 2016, the Records Management Division revised the retention schedule to reflect that any sustained internal affairs records must be kept for five years.

Police departments in the Valley have been taking advantage of the law ever since.

In June, 2016, Phoenix city officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the Phoenix police union (PLEA) which, among other things, allowed officers to purge "material of an adverse nature" from their personnel files, so long as the so-called adverse material met certain conditions.

"At his request, a unit member may have material of an adverse nature which is over three years old removed from all the division and department files and moved to a section marked “Inactive" in the Central HR Department personnel file when there have been no incidents or problems of a similar nature within the three year period immediately preceding the request (except Discipline Notices and Industrial Injury or Illness information)," the memorandum states.

That memorandum of understanding was renewed by city officials this past May. A spokesperson for the city of Phoenix said the memorandum of understanding helps to "clarify certain protections or rights" and protects those rights "should the law change in any way that diminishes the rights of employees."

Under this policy, it seems that a Phoenix police union member could shoot someone, but as long as the shooting met department policy at the time that it occurred, all record of that shooting would be removed from their departmental files, so long as they didn't shoot anyone else within a three-year period.

"It's critical to know the past histories of officers," former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley told New Times when told other police departments were also purging personnel records. "How can a police department know whether or not they have a good officer on the force if they don't know the past history? It just doesn't make any sense at all."

According to the memorandum, officers can review and purge their files at annual employee evaluations. Even if files that are "eligible for purging" are not purged, they "will not be considered in future disciplinary matters," the agreement states.

The memo goes on to say that any disciplinary actions that are more than 10 years old can also be removed from personnel files and "moved to a section marked 'Inactive' in the Central HR Department personnel file" provided that there have been no similar incidents in the 10-year period preceding the request.

The policy in Phoenix sounds very similar to what's happening at the Mesa Police Department, where former Mesa police chief Frank Milstead, now director for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, instructed officers to remove any excessive force complaints from their internal affairs files if they were more than three years old.

A video obtained by 12 News shows Milstead instructing officers to "purge your files" and "make sure the things you don't want in there aren't in there" in June 2013.

Romley, who was brought in by Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista in June 2018 to oversee internal investigations into officers' excessive use of force following a series of incidents caught on video, told New Times the practice of purging police records relating to use-of-force violations made it difficult to determine whether an officers' actions were part of a pattern of questionable behavior.

"The chief under a prior administration had a policy that under certain circumstances, use-of-force allegations against police officers were purged from the file. You could not even view the past history of an officer's use of force," Romley said. "That's outrageous. You need to be able to see if there's a pattern with these officers. And Chief Batista made a policy decision that that should not occur."

Notes on retention schedules from the State Library say that "Keeping records for a time period shorter than their approved retention period is illegal" and "Keeping records longer than the retention period poses financial, legal, audit, and investigative risks to the Agency."

Spokespeople for the city of Phoenix and the Secretary of State's Office did not immediately respond when asked if cities could make police departments keep records for a longer period of time.

"If you have a situation where a police officer has been involved in a shooting, that's something significant that the public should know about and that the city should know about," said Dan Barr, attorney and counsel to the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona. "If we're expunging records three years after, is that really long enough? These records are not only about evaluating the officer; they allow you to evaluate the department itself and how it investigates its own officers."

The Phoenix Police Department has been the subject of renewed scrutiny in recent months following a series of high-profile use-of-force incidents and a record-high number of officer-involved shootings.

Last year, Phoenix police officers shot far more people than any other law enforcement agency in the United States. Phoenix police shot at people 44 times in 2018. The New York Police Department shot at people 23 times. The NYPD has nearly 40,000 police officers. Phoenix has roughly 3,000 officers.

While discipline notices are apparently exempted from the purges, incidents reviewed by the department's Use of Force Board are rarely found to be out of policy.

According to a report shared on the City Council's website on Thursday, the Use of Force Board has reviewed 127 incidents in the past three years, which include officer-involved shootings.

Only four were designated as out of policy.

Below are images and PDF of the records policies:

2012 authorization for law enforcement recordsEXPAND
2012 authorization for law enforcement records
Arizona state archives and records management
Law enforcement records retention schedule 2016 updateEXPAND
Law enforcement records retention schedule 2016 update
Arizona state archives and records management
Current law enforcement records retention scheduleEXPAND
Current law enforcement records retention schedule

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