What is OAT, the City of Phoenix office that is ready to hold the city's police force accountable?

The City of Phoenix's Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT), which was created in May 2021, is entering 2022 with a new director who has a plan to hold the city's police department accountable.

Here's what you should know about the office and its powers.

What does the OAT do?

According to Phoenix's City Code, the Office of Accountability and Transparency has mandatory oversight powers over a number of issues. The office will either monitor a Phoenix Police Department investigation, or investigate the following:

  1. Any shooting involving uniformed police personnel, whether duty related or not
  2. Any in-custody death
  3. Any duty-related incident during which, or as a result of which, anyone dies or suffers serious bodily injury, as defined by state law

In addition, the OAT, under the City Code, has the discretion to monitor or investigate the following, under certain circumstances:

  1. Any incident, whether duty-related or not, where a uniformed police personnel is under investigation for, or charged with homicide, assault, kidnappings and sexual offenses, as defined by the relevant state laws.
  2. Any incident, whether duty-related or not, where a uniformed police personnel is under investigation for, or charged by, any jurisdiction with a misdemeanor or local law violation in which a use of force (defined by City Code as assaulting, beating, striking, fighting, or inflicting violence on a person) or threatened use of force is an element of the offense.

The OAT can also monitor investigators or investigate alleged misconduct by a uniformed police personnel when requested to do so by the City Manager, as well as make recommendations to the City Manager or the city's police chief on whether an investigation is sufficient, determine whether department rules or policies were violated, or whether the disciplinary actions, if any, were appropriate.

What else do they do?

The City Code stipulates that the OAT will need to submit a report by March 15 of each year that details work the OAT has done in the past year, as well as, among other things, identify trends regarding complaints, investigations and discipline of police, without identifying specific persons.

The OAT, under City Code, will also cooperate with Phoenix Police in monitoring disciplinary processes, with the police department establishing departmental policies regarding such cooperation, thus allowing the OAT to, among other things, make recommendations on whether department rules or policies were violated, as well as making recommendations on the appropriateness of disciplinary actions, if any.

So, what can't they do?

The OAT, according to the City Code, cannot take part in criminal investigations, or investigate matters when a criminal investigation is pending.

The wording of the relevant portions of the Phoenix City Code also gives the OAT the power to merely recommend administrative action to the city's police chief, rather than handing them out directly.

"We cannot compel anything. We cannot compel suspensions, terminations, exonerations, any of that," said Roger Smith, the OAT's director.

Why was the OAT created?

In a 2020 report, we noted that the Phoenix City Council has been examining different proposals for policing the police, after the department broke a national record for the number of officer shootings in 2018. In addition, video of an encounter between officers and a black family whose young daughter took a doll from a dollar store have sparked an uproar.

The aforementioned incidents happened before it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Phoenix Police for how officers use types of force, as well as allegations of retaliation against protesters.

Are there police accountability offices in other cities?

Yes. Phoenix is far from the only city with a police accountability office.

Other major cities, such as Chicago and Seattle, have police accountability offices. Some smaller cities, such as Fresno and Tucson, have offices to audit or review police internal affairs investigation into citizen complaints.

Is the OAT controversial?

Some members of the community have voiced concerns over the OAT.

In September 2021, prominent activist and former Missouri lawmaker Bruce Franks Jr. said he is not satisfied with the language that outlines the OAT's duties.

Meanwhile, at least one Phoenix City Councilmember has voiced their opposition to the OAT.

"The ordinance is being mandated to employ a future director and staff members who don’t have a background in law enforcement, or any family members who previously served in law enforcement," said District 1 Councilmember Ann O'Brien. "Essentially, we’re creating an office to work in tandem with our police department, but do not have any background or experience in how these types of investigations work or are carried out."

In addition, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association has also voiced their opposition to the OAT.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Phoenix City Council chose to ignore the concerns of local law enforcement and establish a new political entity that will continue the divisive narrative against our men and women in uniform. Our existing mechanisms provide civilian oversight with the opportunity to question officers in Discipline Review Boards and Use of Force Boards," read a statement issued in 2021. "We support transparency and accountability, and we’ve worked diligently with community leaders on real solutions. Yet, this effort to create the Office of Accountability and Transparency is led by activist organizations that seek to eliminate our police department and implement their own progressive agenda."

Supporters of the OAT, however, say it can provide closure for some families who have suffered losses in police incidents.

""This office may not stop future families from going through what some of the families that we talked to today have," said Phoenix Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia, in 2021. "But at the minimum we’ll be able to be responsive to them, and help them figure out, get some closure."

"We are hopeful that the Office of Accountability and Transparency will provide some relief, some recourse to families who have been subjected to police violence and police misconduct who have lost their loved ones because of murder at the hands of [the] Phoenix Police Department," said Jamaar Williams of Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, in 2021.

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