U.S. Department of Justice officials detail investigation into Phoenix Police as debate into probe continues

Officials with the Department of Justice held a public meeting on the night of Aug. 9, as the department launches an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department.

Related: Justice Department investigating Phoenix Police over use-of-force allegations

We first reported on the investigation on Aug. 5. 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.

DOJ officials detail investigation categories

Officials with the Department of Justice say the investigation into Phoenix Police and the City of Phoenix will be split into five categories.

  1. Use of excessive and deadly force
  2. Discriminatory policing
  3. Allegations of retaliation
  4. City of Phoenix and Phoenix Police's systems to respond to people with disabilities
  5. Whether officers have violated the rights of the homeless community

"We are investigating the Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix on a systemic level," said Ryan King with the Department of Justice. "These kinds of investigations are civil, not criminal, and look at patterns and practices conducted by the city or department."

During the public meeting, DOJ officials answered questions from the community, and what the investigation will look like moving forward. While there is no timeline on how long the investigation will last, DOJ officials say their plan is to to be thorough, fair and efficient.

"It will depend on a number of factors principally how quickly the city and department will give us the documents and information we need

Attorney David Chami, who helped launch the investigation and is representing a Phoenix man who died in police custody, says he's hopeful the DOJ investigation will get a better look at what is happening inside the department.

"It will make things more transparent, and I think that's really important, is that they're going to open up the veils," said Chami.

Families affected by alleged police misconduct react to DOJ investigation

As DOJ officials release more details on their investigation, families who have claimed mistreatment by Phoenix Police are speaking out in favor of the probe.

Some of the families who spoke out on Aug. 10 thought their cases might change things at Phoenix Police, but they say injustice continued, even after settlements and apologies.

One of the people who spoke out in favor of the investigation was Dravon Ames, whose encounter with Phoenix Police made international headlines.

Related: Family files $10M claim accusing Phoenix Police of violating their rights

A video of the encounter was published on social media, after a bystander captured the footage outside an apartment complex. after Ames and the mother of his then one-year-old daughter, Iesha Harper, had left a discount retailer, where a doll was reportedly taken.

The accounts of the encounter provided by the family and law enforcement are conflicting. Ames and Harper said an officer injured their daughter by pulling on one of her arms, after the mother refused a command to put the child down. The mother said the girl couldn't walk, and the pavement was hot.

The officer who pulled on the child's arm had profanely told Harper that he could have shot her in front of her children, according to a Notice of Claim that was filed in 2019.

Ames was reportedly injured by police who erroneously claimed he wasn't complying with their commands, after Ames exited the vehicle that the family was traveling in.

An officer is accused of throwing Ames against vehicle, kicking his leg so hard that Ames collapsed and punching him for no reason.

Phoenix Police officials, meanwhile, said no injuries were reported to them, and said there were other stolen items in the vehicle during the encounter besides the doll. No one was charged with shoplifting because the property was returned, and store employees didn't want the case prosecuted.

In August 2020, the City of Phoenix approved a nearly half-million settlement with Ames and Harper. There were also public apologies and an officer firing, but Ames said it is not enough.

"I still want to speak out because there are people whose cases weren't caught on video. There's people who don't have a voice, didn't fight back, didn't get justice. Probably were afraid to," said Ames.

Some saw the investigation as a reckoning.

"These are folks who haven't had a voice, and now's a chance for them to have a voice," said Civil Rights Attorney Robert McWhirter. "A young man shouldn't get shot in the back and not be able to talk to someone, and that's what's going on here. People have a voice."

The process is likely to be lengthy, and if it will yield anything is still very much an unknown.

"If cops are afraid of the DOJ, maybe they shouldn't be cops," said McWhirter.

Officials with the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) say its members aren't afraid, but they're skeptical.

"What I fear that our members may find is an unnecessary look at us by the Department of Justice," said Britt London with PLEA.

U.S. Department of Justice's Investigation into Phoenix Police

E-mail: phoenix.community@usdoj.gov

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