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Boiling Point: Police Reform Efforts Gaining Strength And Support

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 part five of this series, long-standing efforts to reform and reimagine policing have gained strength nationally and locally. Why is now different, what do calls to "defund the police" really mean?

People have been pushing for police reform for many years, but the George Floyd case nationally and a number of cases locally have finally given traction to those efforts. 

Viri Hernandez, director of Poder in Action, says civilian oversight of police is not a new idea.

“There were organizations and people and families that brought this up as a primary issue 20 years ago,” Hernandez said.

But she says increased reports of police brutality in the Valley in recent years have triggered a resurgence in public interest in civilian oversight.

“Especially those families, those mothers, whose children were killed by police," she said. "They started to speak out in ways that we had not seen before. They started going to city council meetings. They started meeting with their council representatives. They started doing more marches and more protests.”

Hernandez says Poder’s role was to focus that energy and to use it to apply pressure on city leaders. The first tangible results came in February when the Phoenix City Council approved new oversight measures for the police department. The council created a Civilian Review Board, which will be composed of members of the community, and an Office of Accountability and Transparency to be run by professional staff.

So far, the makeup of the independent bodies and their scope of work has not been established.

But Britt London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, says civilians already had a seat at the table.

“We’ve had civilians on our discipline review and use-of-force boards,” London said.

The Tempe and Mesa Police Associations declined to weigh in on civilian review boards for this story and the Arizona Police Association did not return a request for comment.

London says the Phoenix police officers he represents don’t believe the new civilian review board is necessary, but he understands the calls for more oversight. “The public deserves to know about their police department,” he said.

London says he has concerns about the scope of the board, and other unknowns, like who will be on it and how they will measure police conduct.

“But as far as someone looking at an investigation regarding a police officer — that kind of stuff, of course — we’re not afraid of that. You can look at it all day, because it’s either right or wrong," London said. 

Valena Beety is the deputy director for the Academy For Justice at the ASU Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, where she is also a law professor.

She says Phoenix is actually one of the last major cities in the country to adopt a police oversight board. "The great news about that for Phoenix is that we’ve been able to learn a lot about how these boards can be effective and what roadblocks they face,” Beety said.

She says there are a lot of different standards. In Rochester, New York, for example, Beety says all members of the civilian review board are trained mediators.

“Or you look at Orange County, which requires that the composition of the civilian review board reflects the ethnic, the racial and the economic diversity of the community,” Beety said.

She says for Phoenix, it will be important that the most policed neighborhoods have a voice.

“So we think of Alhambra. We think of South Mountain, Maryvale, Central City — those communities need to be heavily represented on the board,” she said.

Beety says the power invested in the board is just as important as its makeup.

"If we look at the 50 largest police departments in the nation, only six of them have civilian review boards that have some form of disciplinary authority,” she said.

City Councilman Carlos Garcia says he wants the Phoenix board to be able to call out misconduct but also offer solutions.

“So that they can give recommendations on individual cases or situations but also on the inner workings or policies of the police department,” he said.

Garcia says the COVID-19 pandemic nearly derailed the oversight board as the fight shifted from its creation to how it would be funded.

But Garcia said the death of George Floyd and the public reaction was overwhelming and a majority of his colleagues on the City Council approved the funding.

He says they haven’t finalized the number of people on the board and in the office of accountability and transparency, but total funding will likely be between $2 million and 3 million.

Garcia says he hopes to have finalized the specifics of the oversight process with the rest of the City Council this fall.

He says he knows the review board alone won’t solve police brutality, but he believes it is a step toward real reform.

“I think we’re going to need everyone to collaborate and trust this new process for it to be able to work,” Garcia said.

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Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.