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Justice Department Will Investigate Phoenix Police Practices, Use of Force
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=60397"><span class="small">Chelsea Curtis, Jen Fifield, BrieAnna J. Frank and Justin Price, Arizona Republic</span></a>   
Friday, 06 August 2021 08:24

Excerpt: "Three months after launching investigations of high-profile police abuses in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, the Justice Department on Thursday announced that it has opened a far-reaching inquiry into claims of abuse, excessive force and discrimination by police in Phoenix."

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a civil rights probe into the Phoenix Police Department. (photo: iStock)
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a civil rights probe into the Phoenix Police Department. (photo: iStock)

Justice Department Will Investigate Phoenix Police Practices, Use of Force

By Chelsea Curtis, Jen Fifield, BrieAnna J. Frank and Justin Price, Arizona Republic

06 August 21


hree months after launching investigations of high-profile police abuses in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, the Justice Department on Thursday announced that it has opened a far-reaching inquiry into claims of abuse, excessive force and discrimination by police in Phoenix.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division announced during a news conference that federal officials would investigate allegations of excessive use of force by Phoenix officers, retaliation against protesters, discriminatory policing practices and the department's response to people who have disabilities or are experiencing homelessness.

Those categories closely reflect a range of criticisms the department has faced over its police response in recent years, including investigations by The Arizona Republic and other media into Phoenix's high rate of police shootings and disproportionate use of violence against people of color.

"The investigation will determine whether the Phoenix Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law," Garland said and added that this was the third investigation of its kind launched under his leadership. "Each time, I have noted, that these investigations aimed to promote transparency or accountability — this increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety."

Clarke later explained that the department reviewed various court filings, media reports and citizen complaints before launching its investigation.

"Protecting the rule of law demands that those who enforce our laws also abide by them," she said. "Ensuring that law enforcement acts in a lawful and accountable manner is a priority for the Civil Rights Division."

“We found that the evidence here warrants a full investigation, but we approach this process with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions," Clarke added. "Our pattern or practice investigations have been successful at identifying not only whether systemic misconduct is occurring but also its root causes so that those root causes can ultimately be fixed."

Investigation comes after national scrutiny of recent killings, arrests

Phoenix police officers have been involved in a number of incidents that have drawn criticism from activists and city officials alike.

In May 2020, police officersresponding to a noise complaint fired at a man after mere seconds of interacting with him.

Officer Jeff Cooke fatally shot Ryan Whitaker, 40, after Whitaker opened the door to his Ahwatukee Foothills apartment, not knowing police were on the other side of his door. Police knocked, saw him holding a gun and shot at him without question.

Steven Whitaker, Ryan's brother, told The Republic on Thursdayhe “100%” believes the department has systemic issues and he hopes that the Department of Justice investigation “peels back the onion.”

“They (Phoenix police) preach transparency, they preach openness and all that, but they don’t actually practice what they preach, so hopefully the DOJ coming in forces that,” he said.

He added that the investigation doesn’t have to be about punishment for individuals but rather long-term improvements within the department.

“You’re always, as an institution, trying to sharpen your own sword and make sure you’re doing the right thing on a daily basis,” he said. “You do raise your right hand and swear to protect and serve, and you want to make sure that’s being done.”

Less than two months after Phoenix police killed Whitaker, on July 3, 2020, officers fired 16 times at James "Jay" Porter Garcia, who was sitting in a friend’s car outside his house in Maryvale.

Police responded to the house looking for a stabbing suspect. García was asleep in the car and, upon being awakened by the two officers, grabbed his gun and pointed it downward. Thirteen minutes later, they fatally shot him. Records show that Garcia was not the suspect police were looking for.

Muslim Advocates, a national organization in Washington, D.C., said in a statement that the investigation comes two months after they requested one from Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. The organization has been demanding justice for Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. since his 2017 in-custody death at the hands of Phoenix police.

The 43-year-old's death has been called Phoenix's own "I can't breathe" case after at least four officers got on top of Muhaymin and held him down, some with their knees on his neck and head.

"I can't breathe," Muhaymin could be heard saying several times in police body camera footage. He died unarmed and lying in a pool of his own vomit.

"For more than four years now, no officer involved in the cruel and heartbreaking killing of Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. has been held accountable in any way. Everywhere the Muhaymin family has gone for justice, they have been denied," Muslim Advocates Co-Interim Executive Directors Asifa Quraishi-Landes and Farah Brelvi said in a statement.

"His death must not just become another statistic," the statement continued.

In 2020, many people across Arizona and the country participated in demonstrations against police use of force and unfair treatment of people of color. Phoenix police arrested hundreds, including community activists.

Law enforcement officers across Maricopa County were monitoring the actions and plans of those participating in protests, according to court records. Community activists started telling participants that police were targeting protesters.

Phoenix police arrested 15 adults at an October protest and a Maricopa County prosecutor brought gang-related charges against all of them. The case raised the level of prosecution of demonstrators and drew national scrutiny from people alleging the case was weak and designed to silence protesters. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office later acknowledged the case was "deeply flawed” and permanently dropped all charges.

Attorney Ken Countryman, who represented one of the protesters accused of being a gang member, said the way police treated his client was “unconscionable.”

“They filed two charges against her that were completely unjustified, they incarcerated her and caused her an extreme amount of mental distress and all she did was want to exercise her First Amendment rights,” he said. Suvarna Ratnam spent a month in jail on charges related to protesting that were later dismissed permanently.

Phoenix police in 2018 shot at more people than any other department in the US

For years, investigative reporting has raised questions about the department's rates of fatal shootings, how its officers use force, how it confronts protesters in public spaces, and how it suppresses information from its own internal investigations of officer misconduct.

After a record-breaking year in which officers shot at people more than any other police agency in the nation, The Arizona Republic spent 19 months compiling details of every shooting. A 2019 special report detailed each of Phoenix police’s 201 police shootings over the prior eight years. The Republic later reported that some people involved likely had a history of mental illness or were experiencing some type of crisis and that Black and Native American people were disproportionately shot when compared with their population numbers in the city.

Later in 2019, The Republic examined a little-known departmental policy that enables officers to erase their disciplinary history. An analysis of data obtained by The Republic showed that over a five-year period, internal records of 90% of all sustained misconduct investigations had been erased. The practice, known in the agency as “purging,” has enabled officers to choose which records of their past can be seen by internal investigators and supervisors, making it more difficult to discipline them in the future and easier for them to get promotions.

In 2020, as the department grappled with unprecedented protests that swept the city in response to the murder of George Floyd, The Republic revealed for the first time the extent to which Phoenix police use force department-wide. The newspaper obtained 10 years worth of use-of-force data that the department had, for years, refused to release to the public.

The paper's analysis uncovered significant racial disparities in the makeup of people who experienced police use of force. Hispanic, Black and Native American residents were all subject to a larger share of police force than their share of the city’s population, compared with the city’s white residents. People of color were also subject to force more often during arrests. Despite Latinos and whites being arrested at similar rates, police use force most often on Latinos and least often on whites when making an arrest.

Law enforcement in Arizona has been involved in 57 shootings so far this year, which was on track to outpace the total number of police shootings in 2020 and 2019, according to an analysis by The Republic.

The Republic's yearly analysis identified 74 police shootings across the state in 2020, an increase from 2019, which saw 58 statewide. The number of shootings was roughly the same as the statewide average for the 10-year period measured by The Republic but trailed 2018 when Arizona police shot people in 118 different incidents, the most the state had seen in a single year since at least 2011.

Having shot 13 people so far in 2021, seven of whom died, Phoenix police were also on track to outpace their total number of shootings in the last two years, according to The Republic's analysis. Phoenix police shot at 26 people in 2020 and 16 people in 2019.

As part of the investigation led by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, officials would review Phoenix police policies, training materials and supervision and force investigations, a news release said. It would also review the department's "systems of accountability," such as misconduct complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition and discipline, the news release said.

Officials also planned to contact community groups and members of the public to learn about their experiences with the Police Department, according to Thursday's news release.

Community, activists applaud but are skeptical about investigation

Whitaker said the Thursday announcement, which came two weeks after the department announced it would fire the officer who shot his 40-year-old brother, was a “morale booster” for him and his family. Still, Whitaker said he is not holding his breath until conclusions are drawn and change is made.

“It gives you a little bit of hope, but I’m not a big one on hope,” he said. “I like to see action, so I temper my expectations.”

Phoenix-based attorney Benjamin Taylor, who represents 23-year-old AaRone Fowler in a lawsuit against Phoenix police alleging excessive use of force, said the Justice Department’s investigation into all aspects of the Police Department was a step in the right direction.

“Finally,” he said. “In order to get true justice for the community, you need an independent agency to come in and do an investigation to help clean up shop and clear the culture of the Phoenix Police Department.”

“Hopefully, this is what they’re going to be able to do,” he continued.

Taylor has represented numerous people across the state, alleging mistreatment by law enforcement, including another ongoing case against Phoenix police for mistaking 19-year-old Dion Humphrey for a robbery suspect last January.

Advocacy group Poder in Action, which has been helping to lead the push for greater police accountability in Phoenix, said in a statement on Thursday that it’s validating to hear that the problems with policing in Phoenix are being recognized at a national level.

The group believes that the mayor and the City Council have not just failed to address the issues, but have been “accomplices to Phoenix Police violence” by refusing to recognize the root causes of issues and invest in solutions that don’t involve police.

But the organization is wary of the Justice Department’s investigation, saying these types of investigations “have a long history of being extremely costly to taxpayers while increasing funding to police departments, recycling ineffective police reforms, and failing to end the killing of Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor, disabled, unsheltered and LGBTQ+ people.”

The organization said it is essential that the investigation assess the root causes of police interactions with the community and focus recommendations on community programs to address the causes.

“As long as Phoenix continues to create the conditions for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), poor, disabled, and LGBTQ+ communities to be harassed, ticketed, and criminalized, police will continue to hurt and kill community members,” the organization wrote. “There is no magic combination of federal investigations, reports full of recommendations, changes to training, or new police leadership that will change that.” your social media marketing partner