Phoenix Police Department Says Officers Need More Training to Prevent Shootings; Civilians Call for Bigger Reforms

Following a new report released by the Phoenix Police Department about officer-involved shootings, tensions in the community about law enforcement's use of force tactics are once again high.

The report – which was a joint-effort by the PPD and Arizona State University – found that officers lack the proper training and follow-up procedures to prevent and investigate officer-involved shootings and spelled out some initial recommendations for change.

After reviewing the contents of it, community groups like the ACLU and Black Lives Matter say they are shocked by the data and call it evidence that the department needs much bigger and deeper reforms.

“The report that came out yesterday is tragic to us,” Francisca Porchas of Puente Human Rights said at a press conference this morning. “It highlights the lack of training, transparency, and oversight within the department.”

“People in the community are angry, and we have the right to be angry because there's been no police accountability,” Pastor Warren Smith Jr. said. “We need more trust between the police and the community...and we need to stop sweeping these statistics under the rug.”

At a time when the national spotlight is on police shootings and use-of-force tactics, the report's findings are crucial to community-civilian relations in Phoenix – a city where in the last year and a half, tensions have flared repeatedly over the PPD's approach to law enforcement.

For years now, critics of the city's police department have pointed to study after study as evidence of what they say shows a department that's out of control and trigger-happy – in fact, this recent report was commissioned after public outcry over an unusually high number of officer involved shootings in 2013.

To be fair, the report noted that some of the departments procedures align with national best practices, but it still pointed out plenty of shortcomings.

“It told us a lot of what we already knew,” Sergeant Trent Crump of the PPD told New Times – the data found, for instance, that Latinos and blacks are shot at rates disproportionate to the overall population –  “though on the flip side, it showed us some areas for improvement.

“I think you can look at certain factors and try to be proactive as an organization to make sure you do anything you can to prevent [more officer-involved shootings]. If most shooting incidents occur in the first few minutes, it's telling you that there's an emotional response to us arriving, [meaning,] let's make sure we can find some of the best deescalation training out there.”

The study found that 69 percent of officer-involved shootings happen within the first two minutes of contact and that in 64 percent of the incidents, the officer was there in response to a call for service – the most common initial call was for domestic violence problems.

Crump added that information like this is exactly why reports like this are important – the department needs to assess real data to know what it's doing and what it needs to change, he said.

Complicating the situation, though, is that everyone – from the PPD to the community – has the same goal of reducing the number of officer-involved shootings, particularly deadly ones, but there's just no consensus about how to do it.

Shortly after former Police Chief Daniel Garcia stepped down last year and Joe Yahner took his place, the department did begin instituting some reforms: a crisis-intervention trained mental-health squad is now operational and will hopefully reduce violence interactions during court-ordered mental health pick ups, and Yahner is requiring at least 40 hours of extra training for every officer annually.

But many in the community don't think the change is happening fast enough or going deep enough.

“This report confirms the necessity of reform,” Will Goana of the ACLU said at today's press conference. He mentioned the grant the city received last week to put body cameras on more officers and said he didn't understand “why the city hasn't put forward a plan to equip every officer with body cameras” if it knows they “impact the behavior of officers.”

Not only are Latinos and blacks shot at a rate that's significantly disproportionate to their population size, said Adriana Garcia, another woman speaking at today's press conference, but “Phoenix has one of the highest per capita rates of deadly shootings by police in the country.”

As New Times has reported before, local advocates for police reform have stated repeatedly that the PPD has one of the worst track records for fatal officer involved shootings. They point to “The Counted,” a website maintained by the Guardian newspaper site that tracks fatal use-of-force incidents, and to an analysis conducted by the Better Government Association.

According to the former, nine people have been shot by law enforcement in Phoenix this year, and according to the latter, when adjusted for population, Phoenix has the highest rate of fatal officer involved shootings.

These are some alarm-raising statistics, but, the problem is, they may be incorrect. (The BGA report, for example, lists the population of Phoenix as 1.5 million, whereas most other census figures say it's 1.6 million — it sounds like a small difference, but it could end up changing Phoenix's ranking.)

Crump called these studies, particularly the Guardian database, “misleading and inaccurate in several different directions.” 

First of all, he explained, the database is only counting fatal incidents, whereas a more accurate understanding of any department's use-of-force trends would look at all officer-involved shooting incidents, whether fatal or not. Every time officers chose to deploy weapons, they shoot to kill as they've been taught, they "never know what the out come will be,” he said.

Crump provided an example to show why he thinks this detail is important: In 2014, the city of Houston had 35 officer-involved shootings, 11 of which were fatal. Phoenix, during the same year, had 21 shooting incidents, 13 of which were fatal.

“Who has a higher fatality rate?” he asked. “We do. But who has far less shootings? We do.”

Another issue with the database, he explained, is that it's counted in real time. On its counter, for instance, is the August 21 shooting of Marc Kaplan, which Crump says is still under investigation because the PPD is waiting for a report from the Maricopa County medical examiner's officer listing the official cause of death.

He sympathizes with the frustration of not having these numbers in real time but says accurate officer-involved shooting statistics take a while to compile.

A third issue with The Counter, New Times found, is that the overall number of fatalities for Phoenix – nine deaths – isn't the same number gotten from clicking through all 37 deaths in Arizona. (Counting this way leaves you with eight deaths, one of which lists the agency involved as both the Scottsdale and Phoenix PDs.)

“Based on our crime statistics and this report, we are one of the safest metropolitan cities in the U.S. You can't overlook that,” Crump said. “There are not far more officer-involved shootings here than in other cities [even though] the number of individuals that have died may be higher than other cities on a percentage level.”

For comparison, Crump offered the following statistics: In 2014, the number of officer-involved shootings by the New York City PD was 40, Los Angeles PD was 30, Chicago PD was 45; Houston PD was 35, Philadelphia PD was 29, and Las Vegas PD was 21.

“Las Vegas had 21 and we had 21,” he said. “And [Las Vegas has] a much smaller population.”

Crump said he's had to defend the PPD a lot in the past year, particularly after the Guardian study came out: “It's unfortunate the way it's presented, and I don't think it accurately depicts the city of Phoenix's police department nationally or to our residents.”

He also thinks the department is making improvements.

So far in 2015, he said, the PPD has recorded 13 instances of officer-involved shootings – again, an unknown number of those ended in fatalities – whereas at this point last year, the city had 17 incidents already.

A reporter at the press conference this morning asked if the speakers were being realistic, since, as he said, it's unlikely that the PPD will never fire at a civilian – “There are bad people out there,” he added.

Porchas responded quickly and forcefully: “No,” she said, “Bad people, criminals are still human beings and deserve to be arrested, charged, and have their day in court.”

She held up her hands in the shape of an O and paused for a moment before saying they would only be happy when that number of shootings.
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser