On Thursday morning, the city released a letter it sent to federal officials touting “a sweeping wave of reforms and improvement” made to the police department. It’s the latest move in a campaign by the city pushing back against an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation.
When the city released the letter, it also made Sullivan available in a highly orchestrated media blitz. The police department gave little more than an hour’s notice to media outlets to schedule five-minute interviews with the chief.
As Sullivan defended the agency in the interviews, officers shot and killed a man near 33rd and Taylor streets in what police said started as a welfare check and turned into an exchange of gunfire with officers. The incident came just six days after officers shot and killed Junior Reyes. Police said Reyes, 30, fired at officers who were trying to arrest him on a felony warrant.
The letter to the Justice Department articulated what Phoenix officials have been signaling for weeks: The city and police department plan to reject signing a consent decree, or agreement with federal officials, to be held accountable through oversight.
Instead, Sullivan and other officials want the department to police itself. He told reporters on Dec. 18 that reforms would be more effectively implemented without the oversight of a judge or independent auditor. The letter released Thursday asked federal officials to sign a technical assistance letter, which lets the police department implement reforms without any independent oversight.
“Over the last 16 months, under Interim Chief (IC) Michael G. Sullivan, those reforms have touched virtually every aspect of the operations implicated by the DOJ investigation,” Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor hired by the city, said in the letter.
The letter also claimed that 20 cities signed technical assistance letters from 2001 to 2012 as a result of DOJ investigations.
Lawmakers introduce bill to help victims of police violenceCritics of Phoenix police are skeptical of the department’s desire to reform itself.
At the same time as the fatal shooting and Sullivan’s interviews on Thursday, state Sen. Anna Hernandez announced the "The Family Bill of Rights" — SB 1074 — new legislation that guarantees access to resources and information for family members who have had relatives killed by law enforcement officers. Rep. Analise Ortiz, a Phoenix Democrat, introduced a similar measure in the House.
Hernandez, a Phoenix Democrat, responded to New Times’ questions about the federal investigation and pushback from city officials while she was surrounded by people whose loved ones were slain by police officers.
“I think what we are going to see is that the report and those findings are going confirm what we have been saying for years: That they (Phoenix police) are violating constitutional rights, there are detrimental patterns and practices within specifically that department, and that there is an enablement culture there to allow it to continue to happen,” Hernandez said.
But Hernandez also noted her constituents were wary about costly oversight that would bring little change, calling the department “already overfunded.”
“It’s a double-edged sword for a lot of us because what we don’t want to see is an expansion of the department, more money going to a department that’s already one of the most violent in the nation under the guise of reform when they have been at reform for years and nothing has changed,” she said.
Federal investigation nears 30-month markLast year, Phoenix police shot and killed 12 people, an increase from the 10 killed in 2022. Body camera footage from the last killing of the year shows officers shooting 37-year-old Alton Tungovia as he disobeyed commands from police but ultimately was walking briskly and not threatening officers.
Since August 2021, Phoenix police have been under investigation by the Justice Department for the way officers use deadly force and allegations that the agency retaliates against protesters, engages in discriminatory policing and mistreats people with disabilities or who are homeless.
Sullivan was brought in to lead the department in September 2022 as it dealt with the probe.
City officials said on Dec. 18 they have given federal investigators more than 81,000 documents, 20,000 body camera videos and 200 recordings of emergency calls. The city said it’s spent $5.1 million on the investigation.
Federal investigators are searching for evidence that police department policies led to the constitutional rights of people being frequently violated.
If that’s what the investigation finds, the Justice Department can file a civil lawsuit seeking remedies designed to “eliminate the pattern or practice,” according to federal law. An independent auditor often is brought in for oversight, as occurred in the ongoing case against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for discriminatory policing.
But Phoenix is pushing back against the possibility of such oversight even before the investigation has concluded. On Thursday, the city also released a report, called "The Road to Reform," which it submitted to federal officials. The report highlights reforms the police department has implemented or is working on.
Police noted on Thursday that some of the reforms “date back more than a decade,” while others have been implemented during Sullivan’s time at the helm of the department.
“Although the City and PPD welcome the additional insights that the DOJ findings report may bring, they are not willing to hand over PPD’s continuing reform to a consent decree process that is complicated, expensive, and cedes control to the DOJ, an independent monitor, and a federal judge,” the report reads.
Phoenix officials told reporters on Dec. 18 that it is unlikely the city manager will sign an agreement to negotiate a consent decree in good faith, which would allow the city to see the Justice Department report before it is made public.