Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday that the Justice Department is investigating the city of Phoenix, Arizona, and its police department over charges of excessive use of force and abuse of the homeless.
The department wants to find out whether the Phoenix Police Department is engaging in discriminatory policing, retaliating against people for activities protected by the First Amendment, and illegally seizing belongings from homeless people.
Investigators say they are planning to assess all types of use of force by city police officers, as well as the city and police department’s methods for responding to those with disabilities.
“The investigation will include a comprehensive review of PhxPD policies, training, supervision, and force investigations, as well as PhxPD’s systems of accountability, including misconduct complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition, and discipline,” the Justice Department said in a press release.
Kristen Clarke, leader of the department’s Civil Rights Division, said during a press conference that the “pattern or practice” probe stems from a review of court files, media reports and citizen complaints.
“And we also considered factors that we ordinarily weigh in determining whether to open an investigation, including the nature and seriousness of the allegations, the number of allegations, the steps that a department may be taking to address the allegations and the history of the department,” she said.
Ms. Clarke added that the evidence“warrants a full investigation” but the Justice Department is approaching it “with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions.”
She did not specify any of the allegations, but the Phoenix New Times recently reported that police and city officials have been conducting “homeless sweeps.” During the sweeps, homeless people reportedly have been forced to leave certain areas and officials are said to have taken and thrown away their personal belongings.
Officials are planning to contact local residents and community groups “to learn about their experiences” with Phoenix police.
“When we conduct pattern or practice investigations to determine whether the Constitution or federal law has been violated, our aim is to promote transparency and accountability … This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety,” Mr. Garland said. “We know that law enforcement shares these goals.”
The new pattern or practice probe is among five others being conducted around the country, two of which were started by Mr. Garland this year in Louisville, Kentucky, and Minnesota.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said during a virtual press conference that she is confident in the department’s ability to police.
“I’m also confident that at the end of the day — that if they tell us to do some things differently, we will fully embrace that and work towards that,” Ms. Williams said.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said she welcomes the investigation.
“The recommendations that will result from this review will assist us in our ongoing efforts to become an even safer, stronger, more equitable city,” the mayor said in a press release.
Ms. Gallego added that public safety reform in the city of more than 1.6 million residents is an “ongoing process” that will continue with help from the Justice Department.
The Democratic mayor noted that the city’s first-ever Office of Police Accountability and Transparency will independently review allegations against police. She also pointed to the expansion of the Community Assistance Program, in which mental health experts respond to certain 911 emergency calls for mental health crises.
“By using the right professionals for the right situations, we improve outcomes and release police officers from handling work they were never trained to do,” she said. “I pledge to continue this work to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
• Emily Zantow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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