PHOENIX - The Justice Department is launching a widespread probe into the police force in Phoenix to examine whether officers have been using excessive force and abusing people experiencing homelessness.
The investigation into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department is the third sweeping civil investigation into a law enforcement agency brought by the Justice Department in the Biden administration and comes as the department has worked to shift its priorities to focus on policing and civil rights. Few such investigations were opened during the Trump administration.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the probe will also examine whether police have engaged in discriminatory policing practices and will work to determine if officers have retaliated against people engaged in protected First Amendment activities.
Part of the investigation also examines whether police officers have been violating the rights of people who are experiencing homelessness by "seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution," Garland said.
The new investigation is known as a "pattern or practice" — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and is generally is a sweeping review of the entire police department.
"I welcome the U.S. Department of Justice review of the Phoenix Police Department," Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement.
"The top priority of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association is to maintain a high standard of community policing, and promote ethical policies that protect police officers and our community," the Phoenix Law Enforcement Associated said in a statement. "We are confident in the work of the Phoenix Police Department and our officers on the street, and we will fully cooperate with the Department of Justice investigation."
In announcing the probe, Garland also pointed to what he described as "straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems."
"Too often we asked law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system," he said "This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement and hinders public safety."
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said investigators will meet with police officers, supervisors and community members. They also plan to review body camera video, along with training materials and other records. She said the Justice Department spoke with Phoenix city officials and they had expressed support for the probe.
"Protecting the rule of law demands that those who enforce our laws also abide by them," Clarke said.
In 2018, the Phoenix Police Department led the nation in officer-involved shootings with a total of 44.
The city announced this year that $15 million is being invested into a new budget for community assistance programs.
Police say it may take about a year to get results from the investigation.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced it was opening similar investigations into police forces in Minneapolis, after the death of George Floyd, and in Louisville, Kentucky, after the death of Breonna Taylor.
Community reaction to the probe
Activists, community leaders and attorneys are speaking out saying their concerns about police brutality and discrimination within the Phoenix Police culture have finally been validated.
"And now, somebody's going to be looking at what you do every day. And we welcome it. Department of Justice, thank you for doing the right thing and looping us in with Minneapolis, with Louisville, with other places so we can make sure we're treated fairly when we get on the streets," said Kenneth Smith with Unity Collective.
"We're looking for accountability, we are looking for justice and create solutions that would see these issues no longer taking place," said Jacob Raiford, an activist.
Raiford was previously arrested during a demonstration and he says he's experienced unequal treatment by Phoenix police firsthand.
"Specific targeting of black and brown organizers, mistreatment of individuals exercising their first amendment right in non-violent ways."
The Phoenix City Council member that represents District 8, where many residents are minorities, says the relationship between police and residents is that of mistrust.
"The last couple of years we've seen incident after incident including officers rewarding each other with challenge coins, we've seen an officer threaten the mayor's life, we've seen repeated incidents in which has led to the DOJ now investigating our police department," said Carlos Garcia.
Over the years, the City of Phoenix has paid out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits against the department for wrongdoing. One local attorney who has filed several claims against the city believes this is the beginning of much-needed change.
"Citizens are calling for help, but once they get out there, the police end up hurting the people that called for help. The cases are piling up, the Department of Justice has to step in because there are so many citizen complaints out there," said attorney Benjamin Taylor.
Cynthia Garcia from the WE Rising project says she is glad the review included treatment of Phoenix’s homeless population, claiming the group has had its outreach efforts hampered by Phoenix PD.
"This was constant, for a good four or five months, we were harassed when we’d go out there and give people water and you know here in Phoenix the heat’s extreme."
But included in the calls for reform and justice was deep skepticism. They're extremely critical of responses from the Phoenix Police Department and the mayor's office welcoming the investigation.
"This city council is more invested in periphery like bike lanes, traffic, and dog parks than they are in reforming one of the most violent police departments in the country. It isn’t just Kate Gallego. It’s Laura Pastor. It’s Carlos Garcia," said JJ Westgate from the Black Phoenix Institute.
Community activists hope it brings about big changes to the department.
The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.
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