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Justice Dept. opens civil rights investigation into Phoenix police department

The Justice Department on Aug. 5 announced an investigation into the Phoenix police department’s use of force. (Video: Reuters)
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The Justice Department on Thursday announced a sweeping civil rights investigation into the Phoenix police department’s use of force and its policies on dealing with homeless residents — the third federal probe of a local law enforcement agency launched since President Biden took office.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the pattern and practice investigation will seek to determine whether the Phoenix police engaged in excessive force or discriminatory behavior. He emphasized that investigators also will examine how the police department has treated residents with mental and physical disabilities and whether the agency unlawfully has disposed of the belongings of homeless residents — an issue that Garland did not mention when he began police investigations in Minneapolis and Louisville this spring.

At Thursday’s announcement, Garland waded into the heated debate over whether to continue an eviction moratorium as the coronavirus delta variant fuels a new wave of infections across the country. Biden this week said he would continue the ban in most places, amid pressure from his party’s left flank. Yet he also acknowledged that such a move might not prove to be constitutional.

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“Millions of tenants are at risk of losing shelter,” Garland said. “The impact on families would be devastating. The impact on public health likewise would be devastating.”

He warned that the specter of mass evictions of tenants unable to pay rent could also lead to greater burdens on police departments. “Too often we ask law enforcement to be the first and last option,” Garland said. Such situations, he added, “make police officers’ jobs more difficult, increase unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement and hinder public safety.”

Garland noted that associate attorney general Vanita Gupta had sent a four-page letter in June to state court administrators warning that the pandemic had exacerbated a housing crisis and urging them to pursue “eviction diverse strategies” to help renters remain in their homes. “Losing one’s home can have catastrophic economic and psychological effects,” Gupta wrote. “The entire legal community, including the Department of Justice, the bar, and the judiciary, has an obligation to do what it can to ensure that each and every individual has meaningful and equal access to justice before facing such consequences.”

Phoenix leaders said they welcomed the federal intervention.

“The recommendations that will result from this review will assist us in our ongoing efforts to become an even safer, stronger, more equitable city,” Mayor Kate Gallego (D) said in a statement.

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said her department has already engaged in reform efforts and would cooperate with Justice Department officials.

“We are looking forward to seeing what we’re doing right and also looking forward to what we can improve on,” she said at a news conference in Phoenix with City Manager Ed Zuercher. “Public trust is essential, and effective policing and accountability is a big part of that.”

Michael “Britt” London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said his organization remains confident in the work of the police department and will cooperate with investigators. The organization’s top priority “is to maintain a high standard of community policing, and promote ethical policies that protect police officers and our community,” London said in a statement.

Since becoming the nation’s top law enforcement official in March, Garland has revitalized the Justice Department’s use of federal intervention into local law enforcement agencies, a tactic the Trump administration viewed as federal overreach and had largely abandoned.

The first two investigations he announced targeted cities where recent police killings had fueled national demands to hold problem officers accountable: Breonna Taylor was fatally shot after three plainclothes officers forced entry into her Louisville apartment during an apparent investigation into drug dealing; and George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer while being restrained on the street.

There has not been a similarly high-profile recent incident involving Phoenix police.

Federal monitors cost millions, with disputed results. Seattle’s police watchdog was a case in point.

Officials said the Phoenix investigation will take months to complete. If Justice Department lawyers conclude the police engaged in systemic misconduct, they may pursue a court-approved consent decree mandating broad reforms.

Yet such settlements have produced mixed results in other cities, lasting longer than local leaders expect and costing the jurisdictions millions of dollars a year in fees for federal monitors, revamped officer training programs and new technology.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said federal investigators in Minneapolis and Louisville have spoken with more than 1,000 community leaders, participated in several dozen patrol rides with local officers and held meetings with police command staff. Those probes remain ongoing.

“One thing we have learned over the decades is that we must and will work collaboratively with the Phoenix community and police department,” Clarke said.

Phoenix officials said they agreed with Garland that police are too often asked to respond to situations involving social problems that officers are not adequately trained to handle.

Zuercher said city officials have approved $15 million in city funds to develop a new community assistance program that would train staff members on crisis intervention.

“It’s always our responsibility to treat people well, with dignity and respect, and this cannot be solely a police responsibility,” he said.

But Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia, a longtime social justice activist, was more critical of the police, saying in a statement that the department “is unfit to serve our community” and was a “clear message” to other political leaders who have “diminished this problem.”