DOJ's findings in Phoenix Police Department probe to be released any day: What to know

For the last two years, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating the Phoenix Police Department.

The investigation involves several issues, including excessive force, discriminatory practices and how they treat the homeless community.

It's an investigation that could lead to big changes, and big fines, for the city and the department.

While we await the results of the DOJ's investigation, we're breaking down the timeline of how we got here and why.

Investigating the Phoenix Police Department

In the summer of 2021, the DOJ opened its investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department. It was Merrick Garland's third such investigation as United States Attorney General.

Unlike the Minneapolis case following George Floyd's murder, and the Louisville case involving Breonna Taylor's death, the case against Phoenix wasn't centered around one incident, but many.

"We are announcing the justice department is opening an investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department," Garland said on Aug. 5, 2021.

The investigation by the DOJ has officially begun.

But really, it began months before when Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke and her staff began extensively reviewing all publicly available information. 

"Court files, media reports, citizen complaints. We also considered factors that we normally weigh when considering to open an investigation," Clarke said.

They took into account, that in 2018, Phoenix Police officers led the nation in police shootings.

In 2020, the police department was accused of arresting Black Lives Matter protesters, falsely claiming they were part of a gang. Those charges were eventually dropped. 

Activists also claimed that officers, assigned to clean up the homeless encampment known as "The Zone," were throwing away people's personal belongings, things like ID cards and birth certificates.

All of this led to a DOJ civil patterns or practice investigation, highlighting five issues within the Phoenix Police Department.

  • Whether the department uses excessive force.
  • Whether it engages in discriminatory policing practices.
  • Whether it retaliates against individuals engaged in protests or demonstrations.
  • If it violates the rights of those with behavioral health disabilities in a crisis.
  • If it violates the rights of those experiencing homelessness by unlawfully seizing and disposing of their belongings during sweeps and clean-ups.

In fall 2021, the DOJ began interviewing department employees.

They conducted ride-alongs, witnessed recruit training and began to comb through thousands of documents.

And in the middle of all of this, there was a shakeup at the top of the department. Police Chief Jeri Williams announced her retirement in May 2022.

Several months later, in October 2022, her successor was named. Michael Sullivan.

He's a significant hire considering his previous experience leading the Baltimore Police Department's efforts to comply with its own consent decree.

Then, in January 2023, a new "use of force" policy was released by the Phoenix Police Department. That was followed by public comment and feedback from DOJ experts.

"We hope to have dialogue with the community on a variety of topics," Bryan Chapman, assistant Phoenix Police Chief, said on Jan. 11, 2023.

By the numbers

As of November 2023:

  • 150,000 documents shared by city officials
  • Over 22,000 body camera videos shared by city officials
  • 200 911 calls shared by city officials
  • 130 interviews conducted, including with the Phoenix City Manager and the interim police chief.

A consent decree

So, if the DOJ investigation concludes that changes are indeed needed to fix issues within the Phoenix Police Department, they could order what's called a consent decree.

We're taking a look at what that means and what it could cost taxpayers for years to come.

A federal consent decree is a court-ordered mandate – typically handed down when a Department of Justice investigation uncovers patterns or practices by police that are deemed unconstitutional.

The order must first be negotiated and agreed upon by the DOJ and the city under investigation.

Then, a monitor is assigned. That's someone who oversees the consent decree and tracks certain goals that those cities and departments must meet before the oversight can be removed.

The use of consent decrees around policing began as a result of the 1994 Crime Bill, which included accountability measures for law enforcement. It came in the wake of the 1992 beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles Police Officers.

Consent decrees were handed down frequently during the Obama administration, but were curtailed in 2018, at the order of then-president Trump, who believed they reduced morale among police officers and led to more violent crime.

Currently, there are more than two dozen active consent decrees across the country, including in Chicago and New Orleans.

Some agreements can last up to five years, while others have lasted much longer. They can also be expensive.

The Los Angeles Police Department was under a federal consent decree for 13 years. It cost taxpayers there more than $300 million.

Phoenix has already spent millions on this investigation.

Add to that, the cost of paying for a third-party monitor, attorney fees, training costs, and the potential for lawsuits, and the cost for Phoenix taxpayers could be felt for decades to come.

If a law enforcement agency doesn't meet the court's standards, then it can be held in contempt. That could also lead to hefty fines.

The DOJ's findings could be released any day.

City officials hinted that they have no intention of entering into a consent decree.

Community meetings planned

Over the next few weeks, the Phoenix Police Department will be holding community meetings at a number of its precincts to update the public on the progress of the investigation and its reform efforts.

The meetings scheduled are as follows:

  • Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Mountain View Community Center (1104 E. Grovers Ave.)
  • Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Eastlake Park (1549 E. Jefferson St.)
  • Jan. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Burton Barr Library (1221 N. Central Ave.)
  • Jan. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at South Mountain Library (7050 S. 24th St.)
  • Jan. 29 at 6:00 p.m. at Beuf Community Center (3435 W. Pinnacle Peak Rd.)
  • Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Sunnyslope Community Center (802 E. Vogel Ave.)
  • Jan. 31 at 6:30 p.m. at Desert West Senior Center (6501 W. Virginia Ave.)