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This city led the U.S. in police shootings last year. After a viral video, tensions are boiling over.

Civil rights lawsuits, fatal shootings and reports of officers’ racist Facebook posts have pushed public concerns about policing here to a breaking point

Edward Brown, 36, sits yards away from where he was shot in the back by a Phoenix police officer in August. (Caitlin O'Hara/for The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — Anna Hernandez called the police for help.

Her 26-year-old brother, Alejandro, was in the throes of a drug binge — crystal meth, she said — so the family phoned in an order-of-protection violation in an attempt to get him off the street and into treatment. Police found Alejandro a few blocks away from their parents’ door. Hernandez heard their gunshots from the driveway.

Her brother, she would soon find out from a local news station’s alert, had been killed.

The police department has not released a photograph or description of the replica rifle they say Alejandro pointed at officers, she said. The family is still waiting for a copy of the police report.

“We had multiple officers stationed in front of our house,” Hernandez said. “To not get word properly — we’re still very upset about that. It’s very hurtful.”

Tensions are running high in this city of infinite sunshine, as the relationship between the city’s police force and some members of the community has frayed, spinning into a mess of lawsuits, protests and angry public hearings. A daunting statistic hovers over every conversation about police here: Phoenix, a city of 1.6 million, led the country in officer-involved shootings last year, eclipsing much larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

This month, a watchdog group released a study that found racist, violent or otherwise problematic memes on the Facebook pages of 97 current and former Phoenix officers. The city also settled a lawsuit this month with a woman whose husband and 19-year-old son were killed in separate incidents, for $200,000.

But the breaking point came after a video, viewed tens of millions of times online, showed officers threatening to shoot a pregnant mother and her fiance in front of their two children as they responded to a complaint about theft from a Family Dollar store. Police were responding to a complaint about shoplifting, but the family was never charged. The couple, Iesha Harper, 24, and Dravon Ames, 22, filed a $10 million civil rights lawsuit against the city and the police department.

More than 2,600 residents packed into a church for an emotional public hearing with local officials last week that included lengthy testimony from families of people who had been killed during interactions with the police. Many described fruitless efforts to get reports and other basic information from the department or said they found discrepancies in the evidence when they did.

The crowd booed Police Chief Jeri Williams when she said, “Real change doesn’t start with our police department. Real change starts with our community” — a comment she later said was misinterpreted. She said she believes police are part of the community.

“This month really brought everything to a boil,” said Viri Hernandez, the executive director of the activist group Poder in Action. “What we’ve seen is that this is the first time community members are starting to speak about it in a different way. Having the courage to film them. Having the courage to speak up.”

Years after protests in Ferguson, Mo., prompted increased public scrutiny of law enforcement, many residents say policing problems in this city of dusty sprawl seem to have taken a turn for the worse.

The shooting surge in Phoenix — police fired their weapons 44 times last year, well above the average of 21 shootings per year during the previous decade — disproportionately affected black residents. They make up 7 percent of the city’s population, but represented 20 percent of those shot by police in 2018.

Local officials have attempted to assuage public concern. The city commissioned a $150,000 study from the National Police Foundation that concluded the spike was a “statistical yet tragic anomaly,” saying officers had faced more assaults by suspects with guns than in past years.

In an interview, Williams, who grew up in the city and has led the department since October 2016, said she understands the relationship between the police and the community needs repair.

"What I heard at that meeting were people who had just years and years of feeling as though they’ve not been listened to or not been heard,” she said. “It was very clear that the police department has some work to do when it comes to regaining some of the trust that we lost as a result of several incidents we’ve had over the course of a couple months.”

She declined to comment on individual cases but said she hopes to improve the quality of report writing, data collection and officers’ understanding of behavioral health issues. But Williams, who is black, said she does not believe there are systemic racial issues in her department. She noted police shooting incidents are down by more than half this year, to nine from about 22 at the same point last year. Violent crime is down, as well.

She said her department is investigating the officers involved in the Facebook posts and the incident in the viral video. The couple in that video has called for the officers to be fired.

Phoenix resident Edward Brown was one of the 44 people shot by Phoenix police last year, among the 22 who were not killed.

A hollow tip bullet fired from an officer’s gun in August exploded inside of him, shattering his spine. The 36-year-old now must use a wheelchair and is paralyzed from his upper stomach down, the divide between the body he can control from the body he can’t so familiar to his fiancee that she can trace the invisible line across his back.

Brown, who is black, had run away from the police, who were responding to a call about drug activity. No one disputes he was unarmed and shot in the back, though police say he doubled-back and “swiped” at the officer’s handgun, possibly hitting its tip. Police records indicate Brown’s DNA was not found on the officers’ gun.

Brown is charged with aggravated assault, something lawyers and activists say is common in cases in which they believe police have used excessive force.

“The officer, he took a lot from me,” said Brown, who is being represented by former Arizona attorney general Tom Horne in a $50 million lawsuit against the city. “More than he knows. I just want justice.”

The Washington Post's police fatal force database

Advocates say their calls for reforms in recent years have not been heeded, including the creation of a civilian review board to oversee police misconduct issues and improvement of department diversity. About 72 percent of the department is white in a city where white residents make up 43 percent of the population. Only 20 percent of officers are Latino, compared to 42 percent of residents, according to census data.

A $5.7 million body camera program is rolling out this year, but a small subset of Phoenix officers have been outfitted so far. Criminal defense lawyer Michael Kimerer said he had seen three or four cases in which officers had not turned on their cameras during encounters with civilians.

“The credibility of the police department in terms of how they deal with their cases is not very good,” said Kimerer, who has been practicing in the city for nearly 50 years.

Lawyers, activists and other community members said the department’s disciplinary procedures — a byzantine system of internal investigations and review and appeal boards — have created a climate in which officers can act without fear of significant discipline. The Maricopa County Attorney, which reviews all of the department’s shootings, has not charged a Phoenix officer since 2011, though some from recent years are still under review. The police department said 13 officers had been disciplined internally for use-of-force incidents since 2016.

Daniel Garcia, who served as Phoenix police chief from 2012 to 2014, said he tried to focus on disciplinary procedures during his tenure but struggled with the police union, which organized a no-confidence vote against him. The five-person disciplinary review board, which is appointed by the City Council, routinely overturned his decision to fire or discipline officers, he said.

Fired / Rehired: Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets

Garcia was fired after he held a news conference in which he criticized the police union and called for an extended contract, a conference the city manager said he had forbidden.

Britt London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said the union was not standing in the way of officer discipline.

“We have walked plenty of folks off this department from this union office,” he said. “We have to have a good thorough investigation and ensure we’re doing the right thing. We don’t want to be like the old cowboy movies where a crowd comes, yanks a guy out of jail and hangs him, and then they find out its the wrong guy.”

Lei Ann Stickney, a resident of nearby Mesa, said she was a lifelong donor to fraternal police organizations before her faith was shaken by stories about police use of force in recent years. The issue struck her own family when Phoenix officers found her son Casey Wright-Wells, 40, unarmed and naked in February, praising Jesus, Stickney says, in the middle of meth-induced haze.

Police in the area had found Wright-Wells, who was white, in similar states before and were able to get medical treatment for him. But this time, a team of officers tried to subdue him, and he was shocked with stun guns at least twice, police said. Stickney says she believes her son was also beaten; he had welts on his head, broken ribs, and a broken sternum. Police said he punched and spit blood at them.

He was taken to the hospital unconscious and died days later from severe brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen, she said, though it’s unclear what led to that problem.

She said she was unable to get the police report or the autopsy for the past five months, despite regular calls to the department. The report was made available to her on Wednesday, after repeated inquiries from The Washington Post.

“I believed in them; I felt like they were there to really help people,” she said of police. “But here in Arizona, the things I’m seeing, something’s wrong.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location where Iesha Harper and Dravon Ames were confronted by police. It was in the parking lot of an apartment complex after they had visited a Family Dollar store, not directly outside the store.