City Hall

This Phoenix City Council Race Could Determine the Future of Police Oversight

Civilian oversight of the Phoenix Police Department is seemingly dead for now.
Civilian oversight of the Phoenix Police Department is seemingly dead for now. Ash Ponders
Last week, the Phoenix City Council voted with a 5-4 majority to put the city's first civilian police oversight office on ice. With one of the councilmembers who voted against the ordinance to establish the office stepping down in the spring, the March runoff election to fill his seat could determine the future of police accountability in Phoenix.

District 7 Councilmember Michael Nowakowski, who represents parts of downtown and southwest Phoenix and who voted against the ordinance, is leaving the council after a lengthy tenure. (Prior to the vote, Nowakowski said that more "community outreach" was needed.) Jockeying to replace him are the top-two vote-getters in the November general election who will advance to the March runoff: climate adviser Yassamin Ansari and Laveen Community Council member Cinthia Estela. Councilmember Carlos Garcia, a longtime proponent of police oversight, has said that the initiative is "dead" until Nowakowski is out of office.

Phoenix New Times attempted to interview both candidates to get a sense of their perspectives on the Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT) and police accountability in general, but only Ansari returned our calls. We will update this post if Estela responds to our requests for comment.

Ansari has laid out detailed policy proposals for how to reform the Phoenix Police Department — for instance, she wants to ban the routine use of military weapons and restrict the use of crowd control munitions like tear gas and rubber bullets. Though she makes no specific reference to OAT in the proposals, she was unequivocal about her support of the office during an interview with New Times.

"I would have voted with the Mayor and Councilmembers Pastor, Garcia, and Guardado," she said. "Currently,  Phoenix is the only large city in the United States that doesn’t have any sort of civilian oversight. I think it’s a really important component of rebuilding trust between our police department and the community."

The draft ordinance had also been heavily criticized by anti-police brutality activists, who argued that the measure was too watered down; for instance, they wanted the office to be able to conduct independent investigations, whereas the draft ordinance would have only allowed OAT to piggyback onto the department's internal investigations and issue verdicts on whether or not they were conducted properly.

But Ansari said that she still would have supported the ordinance as it was drafted regardless of the criticism from activists.

"While I understand the perspective of activists, I think that voting in favor of establishing OAT is an excellent starting point and critical to enhancing public safety in Phoenix," she said. "I think [OAT], at least in its current form, which unfortunately didn’t pass last Wednesday, was a really good starting point and could be improved and enhanced upon later on."

Prior to last Wednesday's vote to kill the measure, councilmembers had tussled over whether to allow people with backgrounds in law enforcement to serve in OAT. Activists had argued that it would undermine the office's impartiality.

Ansari said that she hadn't developed a strong position on the point yet, noting that she'd have to learn more about the potential requirement.

"I don’t have a strong position on whether certain staff have backgrounds in law enforcement," she said.

When asked if there were any circumstances in which she would vote against an ordinance establishing the oversight office, Ansari said: "The original version that I supported was Model B, which was the version that Councilman Garcia put on the table back in February. I think, as long as it’s kind of in line with that, independent and transparent, I think are the two most important traits when it comes to this."
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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