There's Something About Phoenix

Every two weeks, on average, a Phoenix police officer intentionally fires a gun at a person. About half the time, someone is killed.

That's a lot of police shootings. The obvious question is why. Is there something wrong within the Phoenix Police Department?

A New Times review of officer-involved shootings from 1996 through 2002 found no convincing evidence that citizens are particularly at the mercy of badly trained, trigger-happy cops.

Clearly, there are shootings in the past seven years that need to be publicly scrutinized. Police officials readily concede that some shootings might have been avoided if officers had used different tactics. Most police shootings occur within the first few minutes of an encounter between officer and suspect, and the situation can escalate rapidly. In hindsight, some could have been handled differently.

"There are some shootings that have occurred where we would have preferred a different outcome," says Assistant Chief John Buchanan, who chairs the department's use of force review board. "We can do better and we want to do whatever we can to do better."

He won't identify or discuss which specific cases he thinks were problematic.

Although the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which reviews all shootings, cleared Phoenix officers of wrongdoing in every case, the city paid about $4 million to settle 10 claims involving injury or death from police shootings since 1996, according to the city's finance department. The city prevailed in 24 claims filed in that time period.

Still, there is nothing in the records to suggest the kinds of problems with abuse of force seen in recent years in some cities. The large number of shootings appears to be due in large part to two trends: more violence against the police by people increasingly armed with weapons, their judgment affected by alcohol and drugs; and a fast-growing police department that has put more younger officers on the front lines -- patrol.

Perhaps more important, while Phoenix police have been working to reduce officer-involved shootings, other public leaders have not. The Legislature is moving to gut critical substance abuse treatment programs, a decision that experts say will almost certainly lead to more police shootings. Money for mental health services also has been given short shrift in recent years and there has been no real effort by elected leaders to address problems created years ago with the move to community-based services.

New Times reviewed detailed internal police documents on more than 150 cases in which Phoenix officers discharged their weapons over that seven-year period. The newspaper, after eliminating accidental discharges and incidents involving dogs, ended up with a study group of 147 cases -- shootings in which an officer fired a weapon at a person intentionally. (Nine more reports from 2002 were not publicly available as of last week.)

Of those 147 shootings, 72 were fatal. The number of fatal shootings per year rose in 1998 and stayed somewhat higher after that, apparently reflecting a switch from 9mm to .40 caliber handguns.

The overall number of shootings doubled in that time, from 15 in 1996 to 30 in 2002 (including one dog shooting). This year, however, the numbers are significantly lower -- seven shootings compared to 12 at this time last year.

More than 60 percent of the people shot by police over the past seven years were armed with a gun, almost always a handgun. Another 10 percent were armed with knives and another 13 percent used their vehicles as a weapon, according to the New Times review.

Most of the rest, while not armed with a deadly weapon, still attacked officers or were in a position to cause substantial physical harm to the police or someone else.

Police officers involved in the shootings routinely reported they felt threatened by the suspect. And, in nearly all the cases, there is nothing in the material that contradicts this, including interviews with witnesses and family members of suspects.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the records demonstrate a reasonable justification for the shootings. New Times found fewer than a dozen incidents that even raised an eyebrow, based on information contained in the detailed internal affairs reports. (New Times cross-checked reports against county medical examiner records and found no substantive discrepancies.)

It's virtually impossible to compare Phoenix's overall record on police shootings to other cities without reading all the case files of other agencies. The statistics available through sources such as the federal Uniform Crime Reports only track fatal shootings -- so half the study group would be eliminated. The UCRs are also considered by criminologists to be notoriously flawed.

In 2001, the Washington Post published arguably the most accurate (if limited) nationwide comparison of police shootings -- but again only fatal shootings -- including those in Phoenix. Reporters collected data from individual agencies through record checks and interviews. In that study, which covered 1990 through 2000, Phoenix was the third-highest department in the country for fatal shootings per 1,000 sworn officers, more than twice as high as the median.

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler