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Phoenix City Council Had 'No Idea' Federal Investigation Into Police Was Coming

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, August 5, 2021 - 4:11pm
Updated: Friday, August 6, 2021 - 2:48pm

Phoenix police logo
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Phoenix police headquarters.

News of a federal investigation into the city and Phoenix Police Department took leaders by surprise Thursday.

“We had no idea that this was coming,” said Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia.

He told KJZZ that city leaders were notified about an hour before the U.S. Department of Justice’s news conference in Washington, D.C.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said the investigation will determine whether the Phoenix Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.”

Garcia, who has continuously criticized the police department during his two years on the council, said a federal representative told city leaders that the Justice Department had been looking at Phoenix for a couple years and “there was more of a cumulative process of all the issues that have been happening over the last years.”

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Garcia believes there’s a culture of impunity within the police department that some council members haven’t acknowledged.

“Hopefully this is an awakening,” he said.

“Hopefully this is an awakening."
— Phoenix Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia

But that’s not how Councilman Jim Waring sees it.

“You know I’m a proud supporter of the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department,” he said. “That should not be interpreted as I support every single action that they take either, you know when they’re in the office or when they’re out on the street, but I respect the fact that they are trying to do the best job that they can every day.”

He said Phoenix has fewer than 3,000 officers involved in 1.2 million public contacts a year.

“Not every single one of them is going to go exactly the way we would all prefer,” he said. “I’m not defending every single case or every single example the federal government may look at or every single behavior that’s been engaged in in the squad room, but as a whole I do not believe the Phoenix Police Department should be singled out as it is here or that the city of Phoenix should be singled out like it is here."

“... I do not believe the Phoenix Police Department should be singled out as it is here or that the city of Phoenix should be singled out like it is here."
— Phoenix Councilman Jim Waring

“I think it’s really important that the families and the community organizers who had the protests, who continuously came to council, had a huge role in this happening,” Garcia said. “And it’s going to be very important for people to come forward, meet with the Department of Justice can give them their testimony.”

In addition to investigating all types of use of force by Phoenix officers, the DOJ said: “The investigation will also seek to determine whether PhxPD engages in retaliatory activity against people for conduct protected by the First Amendment; whether PhxPD engages in discriminatory policing; and whether PhxPD unlawfully seizes or disposes of the belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness. In addition, the investigation will assess the City and PhxPD’s systems and practices for responding to people with disabilities.”

Woman sitting outside next to tent
Christina Estes/KJZZ
A woman sits outside a tent at 11th Avenue and Madison Street in Phoenix on Feb. 2, 2020.

Garcia said, "In Phoenix and across the country, we continue to make the mistake to overfund the police department in order to handle societal ills. And, so when we’re now being investigated for how we deal with unsheltered people or with behavioral health, that should signal to myself and our colleagues that we need to find other ways of doing it, not just sending police to handle these situations.” 

“All the time and money that will be spent on this on the city of Phoenix side will not be used to help the homeless, it will not be used to build whatever it is people would like to do. It’ll  be spent on lawyers and staff time to fill out papers,” Waring said.

The investigation is expected to take roughly a year. 

More Phoenix Mayor, Council Member Statements

Mayor Kate Gallego: “I welcome the U.S. Department of Justice review of the Phoenix Police Department. Comprehensive reform of policing in the city of Phoenix has been my priority since the first day I took office. The recommendations that will result from this review will assist us in our ongoing efforts to become an even safer, stronger, more equitable city. Along with the city manager, and chief of police, I stand ready to support the USDOJ throughout this review process. 

Public safety reform is an ongoing process in Phoenix, and now, with the help of the USDOJ, this robust reform program will continue. We have implemented many reforms since 2019 but recognize there is much more work to do. With the approval of the FY 2021-22 budget, we have undertaken one of the largest investments in public safety reforms in the city’s history, including the massively expanded Community Assistance Program (CAP). CAP fundamentally changes our response to mental and behavioral health calls for service by placing trained mental health professionals in the field. By using the right professionals for the right situations, we improve outcomes and release police officers from handling work they were never trained to do. 

For the first time in city history, we will now have an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency (OAT). OAT will independently investigate allegations involving police while also creating greater transparency and accountability within the Phoenix Police Department. 

I thank the residents of Phoenix for being strong advocates and raising their voices during a time of great change. As your mayor, and along with members of the Phoenix City Council, I pledge to continue this work to achieve the best possible outcomes.”  

Councilwoman Debra Stark: “The women and men of the Phoenix Police Department have a difficult job where they must make split-second decisions to protect others while putting their lives on the line every day. For police officers, trust is a vital component to building relationships with the community members who police officers swear to serve and protect. My hope is the outcome of the investigation will help restore trust and increase accountability and transparency.

Our officers are often called to respond to situations that are better handled by experts trained in behavioral and mental health crisis. I am proud that my City Council colleagues and I approved funding in the budget to expand the Community Assistance Program to have civilian mental health experts respond to crisis calls, rather than police. This approach is long overdue and will help strengthen health outcomes and avoid negative interactions.

During this time of review, I hope our officers know that scrutiny does not diminish the good work they do every day. I welcome any necessary improvements to restore the relationship between our Police Department and Phoenicians.”

Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari: “While Phoenix has made significant strides toward public safety reform with a $15 million investment in the Community Assistance Program and a new, historic Office of Accountability and Transparency in this year’s budget, an independent review of the Phoenix Police Department by the Department of Justice is necessary and welcome.

In the aftermath of local and national attention to police misconduct, Phoenix must be ready to identify actionable steps to reverse alarming statistics in a transparent and accountable manner.

I want to commend the Department of Justice’s focus on listening to community groups and families’ experiences with Phoenix PD, especially those with disabilities and who may be experiencing homelessness.

Throughout this review process, my hope is that we can strengthen public trust in transformative change and bring us closer to equally serving every Phoenician with the utmost respect and integrity.

I look forward to working with the Department of Justice, chief of police, city manager, mayor and my colleagues to continue ongoing work to make us a stronger, safer, and more just city.”

Councilman Sal DiCiccio: "I was informed earlier this morning of the Department of Justice investigation. Our police department has been under extreme attack by activists bent on defunding the police.

I welcome another set of eyes to see what we already know: that we have a department staffed by dedicated individuals who go to great lengths to protect our community, and do so honorably and fairly."

Councilwoman Ann O'Brien: “Earlier today, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into our Phoenix Police Department.

Let me be very clear, I stand with our men and women in blue. Our officers are the first to run into danger and the last to leave. Phoenix police officers keep our neighborhoods and streets safe. The Phoenix Police Department has a proven track record of continuous improvement for many years now.

The attorney general correctly states the “risks are enormous” for police to respond to situations of a mental health crisis. This is why I championed, and the city of Phoenix council voted, to approve $15 million to expand the Community Assistance Program (CAP). These dollars will provide resources so calls for mental health situations can be responded to by public health officials with the proper training. In addition, I voted against cutting any positions from the Phoenix Police Department which would have negatively impacted our communities.

The city is already facing a shortage in our sworn officers and many are contemplating retirement as soon as it becomes available. I shudder to think what this “investigation” will do to the morale of our officers.

As chair of the Public Safety and Justice Council Subcommittee, I will ensure our police know we stand with them and will to continue to support them as they diligently protect our Phoenix families and visitors with integrity.”

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