Last year, Edward Brown was skinnier, had dreadlocks and could walk, he told Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, before an officer’s hollow-point round shattered his spine after police responded to allegations of drug dealing.
“Chief, I’ve waited a long time to speak with you,” Brown said from a wheelchair in a community meeting Tuesday. He spoke in a crowd of thousands following the release of video showing a police confrontation with a family that has triggered nationwide anger and revealed deeply rooted fear in a city plagued by officer shootings.
City officials called the meeting weeks after Dravon Ames and his fiancee, Iesha Harper, said their 4-year old daughter took a doll from a bargain store. Officers, responding to reports of shoplifters, then pulled weapons and threatened to shoot them.
The incident was filmed by bystanders, some of whom rushed to protect the couple’s two children from violence. The police department said they learned of the video last week and that the officers have been assigned to desk duty during an investigation into their actions.
The Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church was at its 2,600-seat capacity for the emotionally charged meeting, the Arizona Republic reported, as families of slain citizens and people wounded by police passed around a microphone to voice their anger and frustration. Hundreds more waited outside to get inside.
Dozens of citizens, one after another, vividly recounted police encounters. Roland Harris, his hands trembling, told city officials he had to sue the department to get a police report after he said officers killed his son Jacob in January after responding to a potential armed robbery.
Ames demanded the department fire one of the officers involved to help solve what many community members described as a systemically violent force that targets the black community.
“I want to thank God for sparing my family that day,” Ames said, adding that the incident had altered their lives. The family’s comments drew a standing ovation as Williams and Mayor Kate Gallego (D) looked on from a stage.
“If there’s no action then it’s going to be pointless — if there’s no action done to those officers,” Ames told the Republic later.
The family left before officials responded, the Republic reported. Williams took the microphone two hours into the meeting.
“Real change doesn’t start with our police department. Real change starts with our community,” Williams said, drawing a fierce round of boos and jeers from the audience. She tried to clarify her remarks, saying officers were part of the community, but her comments drew more skepticism and shouts from the crowd.
“I am listening to what you say. You don’t have to believe me,” Williams said. “The proof is in what happens after this meeting. And as we’ve said, this is not the last of these meetings.”
Williams’s department recorded the most police shootings nationwide last year, the Republic reported.
Williams and Gallego had each offered public apologies, but the couple said it fell well short.
“This feels like it’s a half-apology,” Ames said during a news conference Monday. “The officers are still working. It’s just basically a slap in the face.”
On June 14, Williams said on Facebook that she opened an internal investigation into the incident once she became aware of the footage.
“This incident is not representative of the majority of Phoenix police officers who serve this city,” Williams said.
The mayor said she was “sick” over what she had seen in the video and found the incident “beyond upsetting.”
The couple, who are planning to file a $10 million lawsuit against the city and the police department, told the Republic that placing the officers on desk duty is not enough — they want the officers to be held accountable for their actions.
“Behind the desk is not good enough for me because, sooner or later, they’re going to be right back out on the streets,” Harper told the newspaper. Instead, she said, the officers “should be fired. Their job is to protect and serve.”
On May 29, Ames, Harper and their two children had gone to a Family Dollar Store, where their preschooler, Island, took a small doll without their knowledge, according to a notice of claim, which notifies a party there is an intent to file a lawsuit against them. A police patrol unit followed their car as they drove to their babysitter’s apartment complex, then an officer approached the vehicle with his gun drawn and yanked open the door, according to the claim.
The claim said that despite police department rules that require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, the officers were not wearing them.
However, passersby recorded the encounter, showing one officer handcuffing Ames while another was shouting at Harper and the two young children.
“I’m going to put a cap in your a--,” one officer said to Ames as a second police officer, whose weapon was also drawn and pointed at Ames, walked up to the car, the video showed. “I’m going to shoot you in your f---ing face.”
Those statements were made in front of the couple’s children, who were in the rear of the vehicle, the claim said.
The first officer — who has not been named by the department — pulled Ames from the car, pushed his head to the pavement, handcuffed him and yelled that Ames had better follow orders, according to the claim. The officer threw Ames against the car, ordered him to spread his legs and “kicked him in the right leg so hard that the father collapsed,” the claim said. Then, the officer dragged him upright and punched him in the back, according to the claim.
Once Ames was handcuffed and inside the patrol car, the officers focused their attention on Harper and the children, the claim said.
"The first officer grabbed the mother and the baby around both of their necks, and tried to take the baby out of the mother’s hand,” it alleged. “He told her to put the baby on the ground, which she was unwilling to do because the baby could not walk, and the ground consisted of hot pavement.”
The claim stated that the officer tried to rip Harper’s youngest child from her arms and, after she handed the children to a bystander, he threw her into the police car face first and handcuffed her. “I could have shot you in front of your f---ing kids,” he said, according to the claim.
Although the couple were detained by the police officers, neither Ames nor Harper was arrested or ticketed, according to the Phoenix New Times.
The Phoenix Police Department told The Washington Post only that the investigation is ongoing and that the officers are still in “nonenforcement assignments,” but in a statement posted to Facebook on Saturday, authorities contested many details in the claim. The department said the incident occurred on May 27, not May 29, and began when a store manager alerted authorities of alleged shoplifters.
Officers located the vehicle at an apartment complex about a mile away and claimed the “male driver” told officers he had stolen a package of underwear, which he had thrown out the window, and that he was driving with a suspended license. Police claimed a woman in the vehicle said she believed the child stole the doll and that she heard officers tell “the driver to stop the car several times, but he didn’t.”
According to Phoenix police, no one was arrested for shoplifting because the store manager declined to prosecute.
Still, the couple said they believed their lives were in danger, and they want the officers to be punished.
“This can happen to anybody,” Ames told the Arizona Republic about his 4-year-old daughter taking a doll. “I really, really would hate to see that happen to anybody or someone dies over that, because I really feel like my family would have died over this — a Barbie doll.”
Lindsey Bever contributed to this report, which has been updated.