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DOJ report: Phoenix police engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination

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DOJ report: Phoenix police engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination

Jun 13, 2024 | 7:48 pm ET
By Emily Holshouser
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DOJ report: Phoenix police engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination
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A protester asks Phoenix police officers why a protest was unlawful on June 23, 2020. Photo by Chloe Jones | Arizona Mirror

In a scathing report released following a three-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice accused the Phoenix Police Department of violating the civil and constitutional rights of the people it polices, and of using excessive and illegal force. 

The 126-page report, released Thursday, analyzed police data from 2016 to 2022, with additional data from 2024. In the report, the DOJ alleged that the department violated the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, according to Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

“The police department claims it was unaware of these significant racial disparities,” Clarke said during a news conference on Thursday. “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.”

The department faces a laundry list of allegations, including a pattern of discrimination against Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people, and the targeting of protesters.

The report makes five allegations against the department:

Pattern of racial discrimination

Investigators found that Black drivers in Phoenix are 144% more likely than white drivers to be arrested or cited for low-level traffic violations and Hispanic drivers are 40% more likely to be arrested or cited. 

Investigators found that officers “use tactics that place themselves at risk and increase the risk of deadly encounters,” such as directly stepping into harm’s way rather than seeking cover or stepping in front of a moving car and firing their gun at it. 

Treatment of unhoused Phoenicians 

The investigation, according to Clarke, also marks the first time in history that a police department has been found in violation of the civil and constitutional rights of homeless people.

Phoenix PD has faced significant scrutiny for its treatment of homeless people, frequently throwing away the belongings of people living in encampments during cleanups.

The report found that between 2016 and 2022, 37% of all people arrested by Phoenix PD were experiencing homelessness.

Response to protests

Phoenix PD routinely “used indiscriminate force against protestors, falsified allegations to arrest protest leaders, retaliated against people critical of the police, and prevented people from lawfully recording police conduct,” according to the report.

Investigators found that the department has no policy for responding to lawful demonstrations, and that its existing policy conflates “civil unrest and spontaneous demonstrations.” According to the report, that policy includes directives to “incarcerate as many people as possible,” and “arrest as many of the crowds’ leaders as possible.” 

Until the Department of Justice investigation was opened, the report found, Phoenix PD did not have a policy for when officers could use less-lethal force such as pepper balls on protesters. In 2020, after officers used tear gas, projectiles and chemical sprays on protestors, there was no review of the policy. One officer, who was an instructor in pepper ball usage, used more than 1,000 pepper balls on a single night in 2020. He retained his position and coordinated a crowd control course in 2021.

Response to people experiencing behavioral health crises 

The report found that Phoenix PD violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against people experiencing behavioral health crises, including the actions of 911 dispatchers and first responders.

Investigators found that the Phoenix PD call center repeatedly failed to identify callers with behavioral health issues, sending patrol officers even when there were options to send a specially trained clinician or team. 

In one interaction described in the report, an officer knelt for several minutes on the neck of a suicidal man who had stabbed himself with a nail file, with three other officers helping to hold the man face-down on the pavement. 

Phoenix PD banned the use of “carotid restraints” — neck restraints designed to decrease blood flow and cause a person to lose consciousness — in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by a Minnesota police officer who knelt on his neck. After that, officers were trained on the use of different restraints. 

“If you are a big fan of the carotid and really miss the use of the carotid, we’ll give you some ideas for what you can use that are still within our policy,” one training video said. 

The path forward

Investigators recommended several dozen changes at the Phoenix PD, including a major overhaul of use-of-force policies and training, tightening accountability measures, and significant changes to department policies for responding to protests and interactions with homeless people.

Investigators say that the department should find a way to provide more notice before removing the possessions of homeless people, and that there must be changes to what counts as reasonable suspicion for stopping or detaining them. 

Additionally, investigators recommended that the department find ways to decrease racial disparities, such as analyzing more data and increasing the documentation for every police encounter. 

Police unions slam report 

In a press conference on Thursday, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a union that represents over 2,000 local police officers, and the Arizona Law Enforcement Association slammed the report.

“We are frustrated and appalled by the Department of Justice’s decision to release the findings report to the public and the media before allowing the decision makers and the department to review,” said PLEA president Darrell Kriplean. “This tactic is nothing more than an irresponsible and unprofessional smear campaign.”

Kriplean said that the union objects to a consent decree, which would hold the department under intense scrutiny by the Department of Justice. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has been under a consent decree since 2015 for its unconstitutional treatment of Latinos

“The announcement made today by the U.S. Department of Justice to seek federal oversight of the Phoenix Police Department is a shameful and unfounded decision by the federal government,” said Maricopa County District 2 Supervisor Thomas Galvin in a statement released late Thursday. “I stand with the Phoenix Police Department and hope a resolution can be reached that will keep Washington D.C. out of Phoenix.”

Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego said in a brief statement that the Phoenix City Council will review the report during a special meeting on June 25.