Phoenix police have pattern of violating civil rights and using excessive force, Justice Dept. says

Jun 13, 2024, 10:03 AM | Updated: 6:16 pm

PHOENIX (AP) — Phoenix police discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Native American people, unlawfully detain homeless people and use excessive force, including unjustified deadly force, according to a sweeping federal civil rights investigation of law enforcement in the nation’s fifth-largest city.

The U.S. Justice Department report released Thursday says investigators found stark racial disparities in how officers in the Phoenix Police Department enforce certain laws, including low-level drug and traffic offenses. Investigators found that Phoenix officers shoot at people who do not pose an imminent threat, fire their weapons after any threat has been eliminated, and routinely delay medical care for people injured in encounters with officers.

The report does not mention whether the federal government is pursuing a court-enforced reform plan known as a consent decree — an often costly and lengthy process — but a Justice Department official told reporters that in similar cases that method has been used to carry out reforms.

Interim Phoenix Police Chief Michael Sullivan said in a statement that they need time to thoroughly review the findings before considering any next steps. A top police union official, meanwhile, called the Justice Department investigation a “farce,” and warned that a consent decree would hurt officer morale.

“The Department of Justice is not interested in making local police departments and the communities they serve better,” said Darrell Kriplean, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which represents about 2,200 officers. “This action demonstrates that they are only interested in removing control of local police from the communities that they serve through consent decrees.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland called the report “an important step toward accountability and transparency.” He said in an email that it underscores the department’s commitment to “meaningful reform that protects the civil rights and safety of Phoenix residents and strengthens police-community trust.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement that city officials would meet June 25 to get legal advice and discuss next steps.

“I will carefully and thoroughly review the findings before making further comment,” Gallego said.

The Justice Department said Phoenix officers enforce certain laws — such as low-level drug and traffic offenses, loitering and trespassing — more harshly against Black, Hispanic and Native American people than against white people who engage in the same conduct.

Black people in the city are over 3.5 times more likely than white people, for example, to be cited or arrested for not signaling before turning, the report says. Hispanic drivers are more than 50% more likely than white drivers to be cited or arrested for speeding near school zone cameras. And Native American people are more than 44 times more likely than white people — on a per capita basis — to be cited or arrested for possessing and consuming alcohol.

Officers investigating drug-related offenses also were 27% more likely to release white people in 30 minutes or less, but Native Americans accused of the same offense were detained longer, the department said. And Native Americans were 14% more likely to be booked for trespass, while officers cited or released white people accused of the same offense.

There is “overwhelming statistical evidence” that the disparities are due to discrimination, the Justice Department said.

Phoenix has a population of 1.6 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Race and ethnicity figures show 2% of the population is Native American, 7% is Black, nearly 43% is Hispanic and 41% is non-Hispanic white.

Of the more than 2,500 officers who work for the Phoenix Police Department, 68% are white, 21% are Hispanic and 4% are Black.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, criticized Phoenix for “over-policing” homeless people, including arrests without reasonable suspicion of a crime. More than a third of the Phoenix Police Department’s misdemeanor arrests and citations were of homeless people, the report says. The DOJ investigation began in August 2021.

Litigation is an option if the Justice Departments’ efforts to secure a consent decree are unsuccessful.

“We remain very hopeful that we can build on the track record of success that we have had in other jurisdictions across our country and put in place a consent decree that contains the strong medicine necessary to address the severe violations identified,” Clarke said.

Similar DOJ investigations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baltimore and elsewhere have found systemic problems related to excessive force and civil rights violations, some resulting in costly consent decrees that have lasted for years.

In Phoenix, a 2020 case accusing 15 protesters of being in an anti-police gang was dismissed because there wasn’t credible evidence; in 2017, a “challenge coin” was circulated among officers depicting a gas mask-wearing demonstrator getting shot in the groin with a projectile; and in June 2019, cellphone video emerged showing officers pointing guns when they confronted an unarmed Black couple with two small children they suspected of shoplifting.

Poder In Action, a Phoenix group that advocates for people of color and workers, said the findings were no surprise.

“We never needed a DOJ investigation to tell us this,” the group said in a statement. “The data and the stories from residents have been telling us this for years.”

The report said some police shootings happened because of officers’ “reckless tactics,” and that police “unreasonably delay” providing aid to people they have shot and use force against those who are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated.

In one instance, police waited more than nine minutes to provide aid to a woman whom officers had shot 10 times, the Justice Department said. The woman died.

The investigation zeroed in on the city’s 911 operations. Even though Phoenix has invested $15 million to send non-police responders to mental health calls, the city hasn’t given the 911 call-takers and dispatchers necessary training.

Officers assume people with disabilities are dangerous and resort to force rather than de-escalation tactics, leading to force and criminal consequences for those with behavioral health disabilities, rather than finding them care, the Justice Department said.

City Manager Jeff Barton said in a message to city employees late Thursday: “We are taking all allegations seriously and are planning to review this lengthy report with an open mind.”


Associated Press reporters Rio Yamat in Las Vegas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; and Alanna Durkin Richer Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.

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Phoenix police have pattern of violating civil rights and using excessive force, Justice Dept. says