ARIZONA NEWS

DOJ investigation of Phoenix Police Department finds civil rights violations, dysfunction

Jun 13, 2024, 10:46 AM | Updated: Jun 17, 2024, 6:38 am

Split panel image with Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke seen in a screenshot providin...

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke provided findings of the Department of Justice's investigation into civil rights violations by the Phoenix Police Department during a virtual press conference on Thursday, June 13, 2024. (Screenshot and Facebook Photo/Phoenix Police Department)

(Screenshot and Facebook Photo/Phoenix Police Department)

PHOENIX – A yearslong U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Phoenix Police Department found patterns of egregious civil rights violations, officials announced Thursday.

The DOJ found that the department regularly used unjustified excessive force, unlawfully detained people experiencing homelessness, targeted people of color, violated rights of protesters and discriminated against people with behavioral health disabilities, according to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke.

“Ultimately, our findings reveal evidence showing longstanding dysfunction at the Phoenix Police Department,” Clarke said during a livestreamed press conference. “The problems at their core reflect a lack of effective supervision, training and accountability.”

Conduct by the police department and city violated the Constitution’s first, fourth and 14th amendments, according to Clarke.

“We have also identified violations of the Safe Streets Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said.

It’s the first time the DOJ found a pattern of police discrimination against people experiencing homelessness, Clarke said, and the second time where Native Americans were targeted.

What happens next for Phoenix Police Department?

As far as consequences go, Clarke said the DOJ will negotiate with city officials to determine what actions will be taken.

“We appreciate that the city has committed to engage in continued conversation with the Department of Justice about next steps,” she said.

However, she noted that a consent decree is the vehicle usually used in such cases to advance police reform.

While Clarke warned that the process won’t be fast or easy, she said it can be done through “collaboration, partnership and cleared-eyed realism about the solutions that can achieve change.”

City officials have said they intend to fight against the oversight of a consent decree, arguing it would create restrictions that impede ongoing reform efforts.

“Just a few moments ago, at the same time as the public, the city of Phoenix received the federal government’s findings report,” Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement. “The City Council will meet this month — in executive session on June 25 — to receive legal advice, better understand the report, and discuss next steps. I will carefully and thoroughly review the findings before making further comment.”

When did DOJ investigation of Phoenix Police begin?

The DOJ first announced it would launch the investigation in August 2021. The city created a website to keep the public informed about the probe, including details about reform measures.

Clarke said the investigation covered 2016-22 and also included data from 2023 and 2024. She commended the department’s ongoing reform efforts under interim Chief Michael Sullivan but said more needs to be done.

“We are committed to fair and equitable policing in this police department and we work very, very hard to make sure that occurs every single day,” Sullivan told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show shortly after the findings were released.

Sullivan was hired in 2022 to lead the department through the investigation after former Chief Jeri Williams announced her retirement.

What steps have been taken to reform Phoenix Police Department?

“To the city and police department’s credit, during our investigation they have taken preliminary steps to institute reform,” Clarke said during Tuesday’s press conference. “Interim Chief Sullivan revised the department’s use of force policy and introduced new training on de-escalation and the duty to intervene.”

Clarke also cited Phoenix’s investments in shelters and resources for people experiencing homelessness.

“And the department has developed additional policies and training to guide 911 call takers in appropriately responding to requests for emergency assistance involving people with behavioral health disabilities,” she said.

However, it hasn’t been enough to satisfy the DOJ.

“Many reforms have not yet been implemented,” Clarke said. “Other reforms exist on paper, but not in practice. In total, these efforts are simply not enough to address the full scope of our findings.”

The Phoenix civil rights investigation is one of 11 opened against police departments since April 2021, the DOJ said.

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DOJ investigation of Phoenix Police Department finds civil rights violations, dysfunction