If Phoenix Can’t Fund Civilian Oversight, The Police Department Really Is Beyond Reform

David Hudnall
Sunday's protest at Encanto Park.
The slogan “Defund the Police” has caught on across the country, including in Phoenix, over the last week. Nobody is quite sure what it means. Less police officers? Less money for police officers but more for social service agencies? No more police at all?

On Sunday afternoon, the Minneapolis City Council supplied an answer that sounded a lot like the latter. As the city entered its second week of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of one of its police officers, nine members of the council — a veto-proof majority — announced their intention to disband the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a community-led public safety model. 

“Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis police department cannot be reformed, and will never be accountable for its actions,” the council members said in a statement.

In Phoenix, people have been marching in the streets for 11 straight days now. Every night, thousands peacefully protest the deaths of black individuals like Floyd and Dion Johnson and demand more police accountability. But the Phoenix City Council has so far been less than responsive.

Earlier this year, the council voted 5-4 in favor of the creation of a civilian review board tasked with investigating complaints about police violence. This past Thursday, as unrest over police brutality raged here and elsewhere, the Phoenix City Council met about next year’s budget. Anticipating decreased revenues related to the coronavirus, the city has allocated only $400,000 for the civilian review board. Supporters say it needs around $3 million.

In the end, the council couldn’t figure out how to adequately fund the civilian oversight board. After a six-hour session on Thursday, they punted and will try to figure it out again on Monday at an 11 a.m. meeting.

Meanwhile, the police budget continues to soar, at a rate and amount that dwarfs other city departments.

The Public Defender Program, which provides representation for indigent defendants in Phoenix Municipal Court, received $4.6 million in 2010. Ten years later, its budget is $5.2 million — a decrease, if you account for inflation.

Neighborhood Services got $42 million in 2010. This year, it got $50 million.

Over the last decade, the Phoenix Police Department’s budget has increased by more than $200 million — from $534 million in 2010 to the $745 million in the current proposed budget.

There has not been a significant increase in the number of police officers on the force; it continues to hover around 3,000. Nor is violent crime down. City statistics estimate that violent crime in Phoenix currently sits around 7.4 per 1,000 residents. Ten years ago, violent crimes were lower — just 5.5 per 1,000 residents.

What are the citizens of Phoenix getting out of the deal? In 2018, Phoenix police were involved in a shooting every eight days, the Arizona Republic found. The department has paid out at least $26 million in settlements since 2008.

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association opposed the civilian review board. They are a police union, and like most police unions, they oppose meaningful accountability. Earlier this year, PLEA threatened to hold a vote of no confidence against current Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams because she fired two officers who pulled a gun on the parents of a 4-year-old who stole a doll from a dollar store.

If, in the midst of this revolutionary moment, the Phoenix City Council cannot manage to scrape together an additional $2.5 million to adequately fund a simple civilian review board that it already voted for, that is a strong indicator that Phoenix police are truly not accountable to anybody. Not the city council, a majority of whom — Sal DiCiccio, Thelda Williams, Deb Stark, Jim Waring, and Michael Nowakowski — are unable to rein them in. And certainly not the citizens, who are crying out in ever-greater numbers for reform.

The news out of Minneapolis will only embolden the voices of those seeking to defund the police in Phoenix. If things continue at this pace, the cops and the no-votes on the council might find themselves wishing in a few months that they'd simply signed off on the review board from the beginning. Defunding the police can mean a lot of different things, after all, and if you're police, some of those are worse than others.