Justice Department opens civil rights investigation into Phoenix police

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Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday announced a wide-ranging civil rights inquiry into the operations of the Phoenix Police Department to include the agency's use of deadly force.

The inquiry marks the third police agency, in addition to Minneapolis and Louisville, that has become the focus of a federal investigation into a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing.

Garland said the inquiry also would assess the police department's treatment of the homeless, whether officers engaged in discriminatory policing and possible retaliation against protesters engaged in peaceful demonstrations.

More: As federal oversight of police comes to new cities, Oakland serves as cautionary tale

"The evidence here warrants a full investigation," said DOJ Civil Rights Division Chief Kristen Clarke.

Attorney General Merrick Garland at the Justice Department on June 15, 2021.
Attorney General Merrick Garland at the Justice Department on June 15, 2021.

The Justice action comes just days after Phoenix police released video of officers fatally shooting a 31-year-old man who appeared to be approaching police with a knife during a July domestic violence call.

Last year, the Phoenix City Council also approved a settlement for a couple after local officers threatened to shoot a man in front of his fiance and children during a 2019 incident in which officers suspected that one of the children had taken a doll from a store. The incident prompted local officials to require police to report incidents in which people were held at gunpoint.

Earlier this year, lawyers representing more than 100 Phoenix protesters swept up in social justice demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis filed a federal lawsuit alleging that police retaliated against them by arresting them on baseless charges.

Justice officials did not reference the incidents, but said that the federal action was supported by local officials, including Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams.

A Phoenix police vehicle.
A Phoenix police vehicle.

“When we conduct pattern or practice investigations to determine whether the Constitution or federal law has been violated, our aim is to promote transparency and accountability,” Garland said. “This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety. We know that law enforcement shares these goals.”

Garland said Justice's focus on potential abuses of the homeless and those with mental illness "speak to an important issue that is broader than the Phoenix investigation:

"Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems," Garland said Thursday. "Too often, we ask law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system.

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"This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement, and hinders public safety."

Clarke outlined the parameters of a sweeping inquiry in Phoenix that would examine body-worn camera footage, training policy, supervision, public complaint investigations and officer discipline.

"Our career attorneys have decades of experience working on investigations like the one we open here today," Clarke said. "One thing we have learned over the decades is that we must and will work collaboratively with the Phoenix community and with the Phoenix Police Department."

If Justice concludes that there are no systemic constitutional violations, Clarke said the department "will make that known."

"If, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a report describing our findings and then aim to work cooperatively with the city to reach agreement on the best remedies," she said. "If an appropriate remedy cannot be achieved through agreement, the attorney general is authorized to bring litigation to secure an appropriate injunctive remedy."

In short order, the Garland Justice Department has revived federal scrutiny of local police agencies, a strategy that was all but halted during the Trump administration when officials opened one such investigation. The Obama administration, meanwhile, launched 25 inquiries into police operations.

More: Police oversight languished under Trump. Biden's DOJ is bringing federal inquiries back

Before taking office, President Joe Biden had been planning a rearming of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, hosting an online meeting in December with civil rights leaders to hash out a path forward.

Among those on the call was Clarke, then-president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and now Biden's Civil Rights chief.

Contributing: The Arizona Republic

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ opens civil rights inquiry into Phoenix Police Department

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