Arizona Democrats are accusing Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, also a Democrat, of helping kill a bipartisan bill that would require third-party investigations into police shootings.
As originally written, the bill, HB 2765, mandates that fatal police shootings and other instances where officers kill people be investigated by a different law enforcement agency, the state attorney general, or a county prosecutor from another county.
Democratic state Representative Reginald Bolding and two other Democratic lawmakers introduced the bill, and it passed through the Arizona House of Representative's Criminal Justice Reform Committee with a unanimous, bipartisan vote. Supporters of the bill included Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich and the Arizona Police Association, which represents rank-and-file police officers, detention officers, and probation officers across the state.
Despite the bipartisan support for the bill, behind the scenes, Penzone has been lobbying Rusty Bowers, the Republican House Speaker, against the bill. On Wednesday, Bowers indicated that the bill won't move any further.
At a March 10 press conference, Penzone publicly came out swinging against the bill. He said that while he agrees with its "principle," it fails to "truly make positive reform." He alleged the bill lacks specifics governing how the outside investigation system should be set up, and that it may place a burden on smaller agencies that don't have extensive investigative resources. He claimed that the legislation doesn't provide guidance on how law enforcement should release information to the public about incidents.
"This is an inadequate bill," he said. "It falls considerably short of what our community deserves. It does not address the complications, the financial burdens, the responsibilities, or the working design that would be required for law enforcement to accomplish the greater good."
Penzone alleged that there was insufficient law enforcement input in drafting the bill — he claimed that Bolding didn't return a recent phone call of his — and said that he wants to convene a task force of law enforcement leaders and other stakeholders to develop a system to ensure objective outside investigations into fatalities caused by police. When pressed by reporters on a timeline for this group, he said that his "hope" was to have a "template" of it ready within 90 days, but admitted that he doesn't have a concrete timeframe.
The sheriff added that the bill doesn't have the support of police chiefs and sheriffs and that law enforcement officials "should be the ones that lead" on the issue. He said that legislation shouldn't dictate the terms to law enforcement when it comes to investigating police shootings.
"I would like to see this done without legislation forcing us to," Penzone said.
Bolding criticized Penzone's opposition to the bill as a thinly disguised attempt to avoid accountability.
"The sheriff ultimately doesn't want legislation that would require him and others to take action," he said. "There is absolutely nothing in this bill that would preclude the sheriff from having flexibility. The only thing that this bill does is ensure that there would be third-party investigations. Any other issue is simply an excuse for not wanting to do this and legislate it."
Bolding said the bill went through "one of the most robust stakeholder processes of any piece of legislation." Penzone didn't show up to the first meeting last summer and sent a representative instead, he said, adding that the sheriff only got engaged on the issue recently, after it cleared the Criminal Justice Reform Committee.
"Anything that Mr. Penzone wanted to say to me about the bill, he could have said it in stakeholder meetings," he said. "Quite frankly, I believe he never thought this bill would move. He never thought that he would have to take action."
When asked about the concerns raised by Penzone, Bolding said that he drafted an amendment to the bill addressing other issues flagged by law enforcement. The amendment would remove county attorneys and the Attorney General as some of the agencies qualified to conduct investigations, limit the law's application to strictly Maricopa County and Pima County to prevent smaller agencies from being overwhelmed by the new investigative mandate, allow counties to enter into agreements to make the investigations happen, create task forces for agencies responsible for the investigations, and delay the date that the law would go into effect until March 31, 2022.
Despite Bolding's proposed changes and the initial bipartisan support for the bill, it appears to be dead for now. In a statement provided to New Times on March 10, Speaker Bowers explained his rationale for holding the bill.
"I have met with bill proponents. I have also met with law enforcement who support the principle of a transparent, independent investigation for officer-involved shootings. The feedback I received is that the stakeholder process was insufficient, and they believe that a rushed, one-size-fits-all policy is the wrong approach and would result in less justice for all people concerned," Bowers said. "They’re asking for time to develop a comprehensive proposal that includes workable protocols, timelines, preservation of evidence, securing of witness testimony, and methodology. I agree, and I look forward to working with all parties to see that it happens."
Bolding said that Penzone was able to "successfully lobby against third party investigations."
At his press conference, Penzone confirmed that he "reached out to Speaker Bowers" to "express his concerns." He said that he had "meetings with the speaker" as recently as yesterday regarding the bill, but denied that he was "stopping" the legislation and claimed that Bowers "asked" for his input.
Joe Clure, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, said that the bill was a "missed opportunity" for law enforcement to build some "good will" with a public that is distrustful of police.
"It’s unfortunate that police management and leadership fail to seize the opportunity to accomplish a positive effort to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest of investigating [itself]," he said. "The fact is, Representative Bolding has made every single accommodation of concerns by police management."
"The beauty in the bill is, quite frankly, the simplicity in the bill," Clure added. "[Bolding] recognizes that he is not the expert in the field and is leaving it open to the leadership to accomplish this, giving them ample time to do so."
Penzone was indignant at his press conference when repeatedly asked by reporters about his rationale for opposing it and how quickly his proposed "task force" would deliver a new proposal for ensuring outside investigations into police killings.
"I'm not going to stand in front of legislation that is 130 words of poorly written [words] with holes and no teeth in it that's going to pretend to make positive change when it isn't," he said. "I don't care what your opinion is of me."
"I’ve never seen the sheriff as engaged on any piece of legislation over the last seven years at the State Capitol more than I've seen on this bill," Bolding said. "It is quite telling that this is the legislation that the sheriff chose to do a press conference on."
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