Here’s what DOJ found during civil rights investigation into Phoenix Police Department

Jun 13, 2024, 2:00 PM

This image of an officer apparently choking a man was included in the DOJ's report on its civil rig...

This image of an officer apparently choking a man was included in the Department of Justice's report on its civil rights investigation of the Phoenix Police Department. (DOJ Photo)

(DOJ Photo)

PHOENIX – The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday released the findings of a yearslong investigation into civil rights violations by the Phoenix Police Department.

The DOJ announced back in August 2021 it would launch the investigation.

The 126-page report list the following six areas where the department’s conduct has been unacceptable:

  • Excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
  • Violation of the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
  • Discrimination against Black, Hispanic and Native American people.
  • Unlawful restriction of protected speech and expression.
  • Discrimination against people with behavioral health disabilities.
  • Failing to modify practices during encounters with children.

Here’s a look at what the report says about each area:

Excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment

After studying police shootings from January 2019 to December 2022, investigators identified several patterns indicating unreasonable use of force.

They found problems with how officers used deadly force and less-lethal force.

Phoenix officers too often fired weapons when there was no immediate threat, magnified the risk by their own actions and delayed providing aid for people they shot, according to the report.

“Officers use unreasonable force to rapidly dominate encounters, often within the first few moments of an encounter. Officers fail to employ basic strategies to avoid force, like verbal de-escalation or using time or distance to slow things down,” the report says.

Violating rights of people experiencing homelessness

The DOJ said this is the first time an investigation found the rights of unhoused people being violated. The report notes that it happened in two ways.

“First, PhxPD stops, detains, and arrests people who are homeless without reasonable suspicion that they are engaged in criminal activity. Second, the City and PhxPD seize and destroy property belonging to people who are homeless without providing adequate notice or opportunity to collect their belongings,” the report says.

Police funneled unhoused people into the Zone homeless encampment near downtown Phoenix, helping create unsafe conditions that led to lawsuits, according to the DOJ.

“But the Zone was not a safe place to live. Paramedics would not respond to emergencies in the Zone without a police escort. People in the Zone reported thirty rapes during 2021-2022. A dead fetus, estimated to be between 20 and 24 weeks old, was found in the street in 2022. In March 2023, a man was beaten, thrown into a dumpster, and set on fire,” the report says.

The report does credit the city for its efforts to clear out the Zone and take other measures to address its homelessness problem.

Discriminating against Black, Hispanic and Native American people

Records show that officers disproportionately targeted people of color for enforcement of traffic violations, alcohol and low-level drug offenses, and quality-of-life violations such as loitering and trespassing, according to investigators.

“PhxPD’s enforcement strategy has focused on policing low-level violations, including quality-of-life offenses that often involve people who are homeless. This enforcement strategy also results in stark disparities in how officers treat Black, Hispanic, and Native American people,” the report says.

The DOJ said the department should have been aware of the problem.

“The police department claims, it was unaware of these significant racial disparities, but longstanding and frequently voiced community concerns about discriminatory policing, as well as overt displays of bias within the police force, should have spurred the department to analyze its own data,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke said during a press conference about the findings.

“Instead, the police department turned a blind eye to the data, ignored these unmistakable warnings, and failed to uncover its own discriminatory policing patterns.”

Unlawful restriction of protected speech and expression

The DOJ found that Phoenix officers violated the First Amendment by retaliating against protesters who were engaged in protected speech.

The report recounts multiple incidents where police fired pepper balls and other less-lethal munitions at protesters during anti-police demonstrations in 2020.

“First, PhxPD retaliates against people engaged in core political speech by using unjustified punitive tactics against peaceful protestors and by targeting lawful protestors for arrest. Second, PhxPD retaliates against people in everyday encounters, reacting with unjustified force or arrest when people talk back or attempt to record officers’ activities,” the report says.

Discrimination against people with behavioral health disabilities

Investigators found two problems with Phoenix police policy regarding situations involving people with behavioral health disabilities.

“First, the PhxPD 911 call center routinely fails to identify when callers need help with behavioral health issues. As a consequence, call-takers default to sending regular patrol officers, even though they have options to transfer the caller to clinical specialists or to send a specially trained team. Second, when PhxPD officers respond to behavioral health calls, they seldom make reasonable modifications to their approach when appropriate,” the report says.

The upshot is that the police department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act during the emergency response process, according to the DOJ.

Failing to modify practices during encounters with children

The DOJ determined that Phoenix officers at times treat children the same as adults when the situation calls for a different approach.

“During encounters with children over minor issues — sometimes where no crime has been committed — PhxPD officers escalate situations with combative language and needless force. In one such incident, two officers threw a 15-year-old Latino boy against a bus stop pole, held the back of his neck, and handcuffed him after he asked to call his mother,” the report says.

Such experiences can leave children feeling traumatized and degraded, according to investigators.

“Disparaging and disrespectful language from adults in positions of power can have a lasting effect on kids. It can also contribute to fear and distrust of law enforcement from the next generation of Phoenix residents,” the report says.

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Here’s what DOJ found during civil rights investigation into Phoenix Police Department