City Hall

Phoenix City Council Takes Steps to Improve Policing Following Viral Video

Melissa Fossum
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams
Two weeks after a brutal police encounter with a black family stoked local outrage and national headlines, the Phoenix City Council voted Tuesday to conduct a community survey on police policies and to begin procurement for a new early intervention system to flag officers who may need additional training.

The council also planned to have its most substantive discussion to date on a civilian review board.

The votes on Tuesday represented the first council decisions in response to viral cellphone footage of a use-of-force incident outside a dollar store in May. Video of Phoenix officers threatening to shoot Dravon Ames and ripping a child out of Iesha Harper's arms renewed calls for reform, particularly a civilian review board.

Phoenix council members voted 7 to 1 to start searching for a contractor to provide an early intervention system to identify problem officers..

Several council members sharply criticized police officials because the council already approved purchase of an early intervention system in 2017. Buying another one, they said, would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Police Chief Jeri Williams said the 2017 system is not ideal because it only examines internal affairs data, but the system proposed by the police department would cull data from multiple files, such as training documents and officer notes.

Council member Jim Waring, the sole "no" vote on the system, asked Williams why the department purchased an "inadequate product." She said the technology has improved dramatically in the last two years.

Public commenters offered specific data points that they would like to see factored into any system to detect troubled cops. Scottsdale resident Michelle Rose said the system should include pre-hiring history, Brady list information, and social media posts from a project that reviewed offensive Facebook content from police officers.

Other community members said they believe any data from the early intervention system should be made available to the public.

The council also voted 7 to 1 to hire an opinion polling firm to conduct a survey on police policies and strategies.

click to enlarge Council member Carlos Garcia, Mayor Kate Gallego, and vice mayor Jim Waring - PHX TV
Council member Carlos Garcia, Mayor Kate Gallego, and vice mayor Jim Waring
By deadline, the council also planned to discuss a civilian review board to investigate complaints against officers.

Although the city has considered an independent body to oversee police since 2015, efforts to actually implement one have been stalled over concerns from the department and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), the powerful union of rank-and-file officers.

In February 2017, Phoenix Assistant City Manager John Dohoney joined the Tucson-based National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) to begin doing research on the topic. Dohoney planned to attend a NACOLE conference in Seattle that year, but cancelled his trip after President Trump announced a rally in Phoenix during that time.

Before the meeting, Phoenix city officials highlighted current police oversight or advisory bodies that include civilians. The police chief's Citizen Advisory Boards focus on certain identity groups — such as African-Americans and the LGBTQ community. The groups meet quarterly with police officials to raise concerns specific to their communities. But those boards don't make policy decisions or have any administrative power over the police department.

In addition to the advisory boards, Phoenix police currently utilize a Disciplinary Review Board — which includes two civilians among its seven-member body — to review investigations into officers that could lead to a suspension or termination. The board then makes recommendations to the chief on the degree and severity of discipline, but doesn't impose any punishments on its own.

The police department also includes three civilians on its six-member Use of Force Board, which determines whether shootings and other police actions were within policy.

Finally, the civilian Civil Service Board makes the final decision on disciplinary appeals when the punishment is suspension, demotion, or termination.

But supporters of a civilian review board say what's in place is not enough. Advocates say the current processes have not held officers adequately accountable, pointing to use-of-force incidents like the Ames video as evidence that the city has a long way to go.

Some public commenters explicitly criticized the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the rank-and-file union that has been opposed to reform. Poder in Action director Viri Hernandez called the group one of "the most racist" police unions in the country, prompting boos from pro-police audience members.

The two council decisions on Tuesday were part of a five-point action plan announced by Williams:

• Communicating clear expectations to employees
• Modernizing technology and processes
• Assessing best practices
• Improving training
• Conducting a survey for community feedback.

Williams' policy announcements included ideas that already have been recommended in the past. For instance, Williams promised to implement a tracking system by August that would record every time an officer draws a weapon. A task force called the Community and Police Trust Initiative recommended that exact policy in 2016.

During public comment sessions, several members of the public expressed frustration with the slow pace of change.

“I’ve been here since 2012 talking about police misconduct and pretty much nothing has happened. It’s like Groundhog Day,” Phoenix resident JJ Johnson said. “Every time we come back and talk about this, it’s like y’all have never heard about this before.”