Phoenix Is the Largest U.S. City Without Independent Police Oversight

John Kittelsurd, CC 2.0
Los Angeles established its all-civilian police commission in the 1920s. New York City established its independent review board for police in the '50s. Chicago, in 2007.

Phoenix, however, has not taken a similar step. In fact, the fifth largest city in the United States remains the largest overall without an independent body tasked with holding the local police department accountable.

That's not for lack of trying.

Advocates have called for a civilian review panel to investigate complaints against cops since at least 2015, following the fatal police shooting of Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man whose death prompted protests and a $1.5 million settlement.

But local leaders repeatedly have rebuffed independent oversight efforts in Phoenix over concerns from the Phoenix Police Department and objections from the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), the agency's powerful rank-and-file union.

This year, things are different. The Phoenix City Council is currently considering a civilian review board, and a couple of factors point to a political climate more amenable to the idea.

The video of the shocking police encounter between Officer Christopher Meyer and a black family — Dravon Ames, Iesha Harper, and their children — has triggered a level of a community outrage unseen in recent memory. Members of the public called for civilian oversight of police during the emotional town hall on Tuesday at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, and again on Wednesday during a marathon City Council meeting.

The other big change is the addition of Phoenix council member Carlos Garcia, an activist-turned-politician who made police accountability a central plank of his election campaign.

Garcia showed up to Wednesday's City Council meeting wearing a T-shirt that read, "End Police Brutality." He renewed calls for a civilian review board and secured a commitment from Mayor Kate Gallego to form an ad hoc committee tasked with implementing the idea and other police reforms.

Garcia's proposal was met with criticism from PLEA. The union made two Facebook posts on Wednesday deriding Garcia and activists who voiced their concerns with the Phoenix Police Department.

"PLEA is attending the City Council meeting to hear the vote on the budget," the post read. "It has turned into a cop-bashing, government-hating, free for all."

Police union president Britt London said in an email to Phoenix New Times that the organization opposes the proposal for a civilian review board because "PLEA does not believe it would benefit the tax payers of Phoenix." He added, "PLEA isn’t sure what the [civilian review board] and ad hoc committee would accomplish that isn’t already accomplished with the current procedures."

Currently, the Phoenix Police Department's use-of-force and disciplinary review boards have a mix of police commanders, rank-and-file officers, and civilians, according to department spokesperson Sergeant Tommy Thompson.

In an interview with New Times, Garcia pulled no punches. He said he does not view the union as a "partner" in reform attempts.

"PLEA has been part of the problem," said Garcia, who represents District 8 in south Phoenix. "It's important we stand up to them."

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Council member Carlos Garcia
City of Phoenix
Garcia said he hopes to finalize his plan for a review board by July 4, when the council goes on a two-month-long break. He emphasized that the board should have subpoena power to compel testimony from witnesses and officers accused of misconduct. He'd also like to see the board to include among its members community organizers and people "who have gone through police brutality."

Perhaps most controversially, Garcia said the board "ideally" would have the power to fire bad officers or "at least make the recommendation."

Phoenix has flirted with the idea of independent police oversight since 2015. The fatal police shooting of Brisbon prompted the city to form a task force that called for the study of a civilian review board with subpoena power as one of its 15 recommendations.

As of 2017, the city still was studying the possibility of an independent police oversight board. Activists that year brought forth a petition calling for the implementation of a civilian board following the Phoenix police's use of tear gas and pepper balls in response to a protest against President Donald Trump. The council rejected the petition 8 to 1.

The issue surfaced again in March after Phoenix police officers shot a record number of people in 2018, a rate that far eclipsed shootings in larger U.S. cities. That discussion fizzled out. 

The responsibilities and powers of independent oversight boards across the country differ greatly. Some boards, such as those in Chicago and Washington, D.C., have the power to discipline officers. On the other end of the spectrum, boards in Seattle and Philadelphia serve in a more advisory capacity, reviewing data and cases to make policy recommendations.

Liana Perez, director of operations for the Tucson-based National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said there's no one-size-fits-all approach to the issue. "Every community is different."