City Hall

Report Doesn't Give Clear Cause for Phoenix Police Shooting Spike in 2018

Mayor Kate Gallego, National Police Foundation president Jim Burch, and Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.
Mayor Kate Gallego, National Police Foundation president Jim Burch, and Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams. Phoenix Police
The Phoenix Police Department on Friday released an independent report on last year's extraordinary number of officer-involved shootings, which more than doubled the 2017 number and ranked among the highest in the country.

Those who want a clear answer on why the police shot so many more people will be disappointed.

The report did not point to any definitive cause for the 44 police shootings in 2018 — 23 of which were fatal — but identifies a significant increase in shootings involving armed individuals and people assaulting cops with deadly weapons.

Perhaps most stunningly, the number of reported assaults on an officer with a deadly weapon almost doubled last year, from 42 in 2017 to 87 in 2018.

"To me, that's meaningful," said Dr. Justin Nix, one of the researchers who worked on the report, though his work didn't offer an explanation for the increase.

Still, there's not enough evidence to say the assaults on officers are the primary cause of the shooting spike, as police officials have previously suggested to activists and the media.

"We strongly caution against pointing to this as the sole reason for the 2018 rise," wrote the authors of the report, which was conducted by the nonprofit National Police Foundation.

In fact, the number of reported assaults on officers (with a weapon and without) slightly decreased from 991 in 2017 to 951 in 2018. The violent crime rate – generally on the rise this decade – also decreased slightly during that time period.

The report makes nine recommendations for improvement, all of which Police Chief Jeri Williams said she is committed to enacting.

The most substantial change would require the department to make a record every time an officer points a gun at somebody. According to the National Police Foundation, departments that have implemented this practice have "significantly lower" rates of police shootings.

The police department previously rejected the same recommendation by a city task force in 2016 under former Police Chief Joseph Yahner, claiming it would "significantly affect officers' decision making processes" and require changes to "policy and reporting procedures."

In an interview with Phoenix New Times, Williams said, "What's amazing is, it's been recommended twice. How do we figure out a way to implement it so it is meaningful for this department and meaningful for the community? I think we will come up with that."

During a press conference announcing the report’s findings, police and city leaders focused on potential improvements to the relationship between city law enforcement and people with mental illnesses.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said the city plans to implement a task force focused on the police approach to mental health, as well as the recommendations outlined in the report.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh