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DOJ investigation into Phoenix Police Department may wrap up soon. What that could mean

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, November 27, 2023 - 11:28am
Updated: Monday, November 27, 2023 - 11:44am

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The Phoenix Police Department is bracing for the results of a two-year-long investigation by the Department of Justice into its practices. The investigation centers around whether officers use excessive force, retaliate against protesters and respect the rights of the homeless population. 

But, as the end of the investigation nears, concerns swirl about the feds essentially taking over the department in what is called a consent decree.

Morgan Loew, investigative reporter with Arizona’s Family has been reporting on what’s next and he joined The Show to tell us more.

Morgan Loew
Nate Boyle/KJZZ
Morgan Loew in the KJZZ studio in November 2023

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Morgan.

MORGAN LOEW: Hi, Lauren.

GILGER: So I want to begin with some background here because this has been going on, as I said a long time, when did this investigation begin and, and what prompted it?

LOEW: So we don't know a ton of what prompted this because the Department of Justice hasn't said anything other than an announcement at the beginning, which was August of 2021, where they laid out these five areas that they are going to investigate. We do know that there's been media coverage on each of these areas, and throughout this investigation, there's only been a couple of times where the DOJ has has released any other information. What we do know now though is that this, the results could come out anytime. The latest update on this was that the Phoenix police chief and the Phoenix City manager were interviewed at the end of October — or no in the beginning of — November by the DOJ. And that's one of the final steps, we think, before this report comes out.

GILGER: OK. So results expected any time now, and many are concerned and you've been reporting on this, that what the Justice Department is after here is what's called a consent decree. And it would essentially mean some say, you know, the feds taking over the Phoenix PD and running it in a way. Tell us what that means exactly.

LOEW: Basically what that has meant in other departments is that the Department of Justice installs a monitor. Basically, somebody who oversees the department, doesn't necessarily make day-to-day decisions, but the monitor is in charge of making sure that the department becomes compliant. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has had a monitor for over a decade now. And, and the problem here is that it is very expensive. $240-$250 million so far the county has paid because of that investigation, and they're at about 90% compliant, but there's no end in sight. And that's really one of the big sort of hesitancies there is to say, "oh, this is a good thing" because there's no end in sight.

GILGER: Right, And this came up In fact, when Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone essentially announced he's leaving early, that he talked about the consent decree. Right?

LOEW: Yeah, and that was one of the factors that he said has led to his decision to leave the department early. He said he was hamstrung this $240 million of a law enforcement budget you could use to hire deputies, that you could use to make the streets safer. And even the Department of Justice Merrick Garland commissioned a study within the department, and it concluded that this system that they've had installing monitors is not perfect and it doesn't always work and it is really, really expensive.

GILGER: Seattle has come up a lot in this conversation. That's a department where there the similar situation has played out and for a very long time. Tell us what happened there.

LOEW: Yeah, the Department of Justice stepped in there and installed a monitor. It's been 10 years, and it's cost $200 million and they're still involved. And the difference between what we're seeing in Phoenix and some of these other departments is that there were real specific incidents that happened in most of these other places. It either you know, a death in custody or some riot or something that went out of hand and there was, you know, documentation of police misconduct. Here, We have this sort of wide ranging these five areas and, and none of them are really clear cut. Every one of these situations that the Department of Justice is investigating, There's sort of a counterpoint to that in investigation. For example, we looked at the use of force for the Phoenix Police Department in the summer of 2020, and we found that yes, there was higher use of force in areas that were more minority populated, but there were also incidents of higher crime in those areas. So there is an argument there that yes, if there's going to be more crime in an area of violent crime, there's going to be more use of force and. And I'm not saying that that use of force is justified; I'm just saying that there, this is a very complicated situation, and it's not cut and dry.

GILGER: Yeah, OK. So let's talk a little bit about the other side of this. Are there people saying this would be a good thing, the Phoenix Police Department needs this.

LOEW: Yes, there are people who are saying that the Phoenix Police Department did step outside of its, you know, purview and was not following the law in, in carrying out what it, what it was mandated to do. I think the big question here is whether the department can get back within that law on its own or whether it needs something as heavy handed as a monitor stepping in. And sort of the argument that is coming out now is maybe they don't need the Department of Justice to step in with a monitor, but maybe the department can do it on its own. Or maybe there's a happy medium.

GILGER: We've also heard from some City Council members about this. They would have to sign off on it. What did they have to say?

LOEW: Yeah, the Arizona Republic this morning had a great story where they polled members of the Phoenix City Council. And at least four of them have said that they would not sign on to a consent decree at this point. Now, we don't know what that consent decree is gonna say because the Department of Justice has not been giving out information about what they have found or didn't find. But what it does show is that it doesn't appear that the city of Phoenix is just going to go along with anything that the Department of Justice comes up with. There is some skepticism even from the mayor, even from Kevin Robinson who was a police officer in the past. That there is skepticism about what these findings are going to be.

GILGER: It's interesting. So we don't know. And how much leeway do they have though, like how much leeway does the city or the Police Department have in coming to an agreement with the DOJ?

LOEW: Well, the city leaders will have to agree with the DOJ in order for this consent decree to move forward because it is a consent decree. It's the city saying, OK, we see your findings and we consent to this result.

GILGER: We'll have to leave it there for now. Lots more to come, obviously. Morgan Lowe with Arizona's Family joining us. Morgan, thanks as always. Appreciate it.

LOEW: Thank you.

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