DOJ finds pattern of civil rights violations in Phoenix Police Department

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has uncovered a pattern of civil rights violations, discrimination and excessive force in the Phoenix Police Department.

According to a DOJ report released Thursday, Phoenix police discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Native American people when enforcing the law, including when they use excessive and unjustified deadly force.

“Phoenix residents deserve nothing less than fair, non-discriminatory, and constitutional policing,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

“Our comprehensive investigation revealed unlawful and unconstitutional practices in the Phoenix Police Department’s enforcement activities that impact some of Phoenix’s most vulnerable residents, including Black, Hispanic, and Native American people, homeless people, and those experiencing behavioral health crises.”

The DOJ launched its investigation in August 2021 following criticism around how Phoenix treated protesters in 2020, deaths of people who were restrained by officers and a high number of shootings by officers.

In the years leading up to the investigation, Phoenix officers shot and killed people at one of the highest rates in the country, the report said.

“Some city officials blamed a ‘more violent population’ for the number of shootings, rather than police conduct,” the report said. “But we found a significant number of the shootings did not meet constitutional standards.”

The report added that the department has a “distorted” view of de-escalation.

“Rather than teaching that de-escalation strategies are designed to eliminate or reduce the need to use force, PhxPD has misappropriated the concept and teaches officers that all force — even deadly force — is de-escalation,” the report reads.

For instance, the report found, police have shot projectiles at people without evidence that the person was an immediate threat, including in the case of a man who was accused of taking his mother’s car without permission.

In that particular incident, an officer fired PepperBalls at the man and continued to fire “after the man was on his knees and had curled his body onto the sidewalk,” the report said.

Phoenix officers also enforce certain laws more severely against Black, Hispanic and Native American people than against white people who engaged in the same conduct, the report said, though the city has claimed it is “unaware of any credible evidence of discriminatory policing.”

According to the report, a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic drivers have been stopped for traffic violations by Phoenix police compared to violations recorded by neutral traffic cameras in the same locations. Officers also enforced traffic laws more severely against Black and Hispanic drivers than it did against white drivers exhibiting the same behaviors.

Police also enforced quality-of-life laws such as loitering and trespassing more severely against Black, Hispanic, and Native American people than against white people.

Other issues in the report included police delaying necessary medical aid.

In one incident, the report said, officers shot a woman 10 times, then waited more than nine minutes to approach her, even as she lay immobile on the ground.

In another, the report said officers fired multiple rounds from a less-lethal projectile launcher after shooting a man, then sent a police dog to drag the man back to the officers. More than nine minutes passed from when officers shot the man to when they moved in to complete the arrest and render aid.

Thursday’s report found that Phoenix police also arrest homeless people without reasonable suspicion that they committed a crime and unlawfully dispose of their belongings.

“A person’s constitutional rights do not diminish when they lack shelter,” the report states.

The DOJ also expressed “serious concerns” over the Phoenix Police Department’s treatment of children. Phoenix police do not take into account the vulnerability of children and their stage of development, according to the report, with one sergeant reporting, “We don’t really treat youth any differently than adults.”

The DOJ’s report said this can have long lasting mental and physical repercussions on children’s well-being.

The department’s problematic de-escalation tactics persist with children, and in fact have escalated situations instead.

In one incident, the report detailed how two officers threw a 15-year-old Latino boy against a bus stop pole, held the back of his neck and handcuffed him after he asked to call his mother. Police questioned the boy as he was handcuffed without reading him his Miranda rights.

“The release of today’s findings report is an important step toward accountability and transparency, and we are committed to working with the City of Phoenix and Phoenix Police Department on meaningful reform that protects the civil rights and safety of Phoenix residents and strengthens police-community trust,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland.

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