Boiling Point: Use Of Force Is Embedded In Arizona's History
In the five-part series "Boiling Point: Policing In Arizona At A Crossroads," KJZZ examines policing in Arizona, from the Wild West to the current day, exploring the complex intersection between race and policing, the culture of law enforcement, the impact of modern technology — and what lies ahead.
In the 1993 movie “Tombstone,” the Earp brothers hear that some members of the outlaw group named the Cowboys planned to take them out.
“They’re back there in that lot behind the O.K. Corral,” they’re told.
Morgan, Wyatt and Virgil next face a choice: Risk a deadly confrontation to enforce the law. Or pause to see if those breaking it calm down.
“Wait ‘til the liquor wears off. Soon as they start getting headaches, they’ll lose interest,” said Wyatt, played by Kurt Russell.
“Lose interest? Hell, they’re threatening our lives,” replied Virgil, played by Sam Elliott.
Wyatt disagreed and questioned if trying to disarm the Cowboys was worth the danger.
“Damn right I’ll risk it, they’re breaking the law,” Virgil answered.
The Earps and Doc Holliday then walked into one of the most historic scenes of the Old West. The shootout at the O.K. Corral won international fame for Arizona. The movie remembers it as a righteous fight between defenders of the law, and those who broke it. Nearly 150 years later, police in this state are still known for a propensity to use force. Until recently, peace officers have mostly gotten the benefit of the doubt.
“I guess those were the Wild West times. But no, I think in large part Arizona is a law-and-order place,” said Britt London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.
London is a former Marine with almost 25 years as a local cop. Arizona’s law-and-order status is one reason why he’s still doing the job.
But a tumultuous 2020 has brought a new civilian oversight board, the murder of a police commander by a suspect who started out cooperative, and outrage over deadly encounters where critics say police were too quick to shoot.
“I think it’s definitely challenging. But I think that we are also evolving, and that’s not always bad,” London said.
The renewed push for police reform goes back to 2014, when the Black Lives Matter movement emerged after an officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Controversial police shootings continue. And the Valley’s own list has been growing.
Days before civil unrest over police violence began to swell, Phoenix police fatally shot Ryan Whitaker after he answered the door holding a gun. Recently released body camera footage appears to show Whitaker being shot in the back as he tried to surrender.
On the morning of May 25, the same day George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, an Arizona State Trooper shot Dion Johnson. Police said there was a gun in Johnson’s car, and that Johnson fought with the Trooper as he tried to arrest Johnson on suspicion of DUI.
And on Independence Day, Phoenix police shot James Garcia after he refused to get out of a car parked in a Maryvale driveway. Officers said Garcia had a gun too. But body camera footage released so far does not show Garcia holding one.
London believes that thinking about headlines generated by stories like these have made officers more hesitant to use force, which is sometimes needed to de-escalate and stay safe. “That we are violent racists, it’s just not right. It’s not fair,” London said is the biggest misperception of police that has emerged since Floyd and Johnson died.
Last year, the Plain View Project scoured police social media across the country, and found some officers in Phoenix had posted racist, violent material.
Statistics make it clear that some officers are racist and the problem must be rooted out, said Scott Halverson, a trial lawyer who’s been doing police violence cases for almost 25 years.
A catalyst for excessive force can be if officers won’t budge from a take-charge attitude.
“And I’m going to give a command. And if this person doesn’t do that command, then it’s on,” Halverson said.
Do what the officer tells you is common advice from police. But Halverson said it’s easy for fear, anger, intoxication or mental illness to get in the way.
“There’s so many reasons why people don’t take the logical step of just do what the officer says. And officers need to understand that,” he said.
People in Maricopa County courtrooms have also struggled to grasp it. Halverson said juries have often concluded that obedience could have kept clients from getting hurt. He thinks the public mindset is changing due to video and more diversity through population growth.
“People are going to be more open-minded because of the movement and because [of] what they’ve seen,” he said.
The W.E. Rising Project is one of the local groups that’s grown out of a galvanizing police reform movement that Halverson called long overdue.
“That’s why we’re out in the streets. That’s why we’ve been out for almost two months at this point.
It’s because we have reached that boiling point,” said Jacob Raiford, who is communications director for the group with goals to end systemic bias against people of color and police brutality.
Raiford called recent events in metro Phoenix a mass-awakening.
“If you look at these protests, the pictures are individuals of different walks of life, different races and creeds,” he said.
This is just one reason why Raiford now believes that real change is possible. He used to think Arizona would always have a law-and-order attitude that can be traced to Wild West culture.
“It’s 2020 and it’s time to adapt,” he said.
Raiford said total success is dismantling the entire system. He knows it can’t happen overnight. So he’s planting a seed with a hope that his grandchildren can harvest the fruit.