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Head of police oversight in Phoenix questions office's independence in resignation letter

The head of Phoenix’s Office of Accountability and Transparency is out — raising questions about the independence of that office just as the city is trying to convince the Department of Justice that they don’t need further police oversight. 

Roger Smith was the first hire at the office — which was formed after years of debate — and as the city’s police department recorded a record number of police shootings. He is resigning at the end of this week after just two years on the job. 

He says the Office of Accountability and Transparency — or OAT — does not have the independence it needs to perform its responsibilities. ABC15 Investigative Reporter Melissa Blasius broke the story, and she joined The Show to tell us more. 

LAUREN GILGER: Tell us first about what Roger Smith is saying here about why he’s resigning. Why now?

MELISSA BLASIUS: Sure. Well, he sent a notice of resignation letter to the city manager last week, and he literally says that recent events had led him “to conclude that OAT does not have the independence required to effectively perform its responsibilities.” And those responsibilities are to provide independent civilian police oversight in the city of Phoenix.

He also says in his letter that he was not could not “perform — free of retaliation or undue restrictions — the responsibilities of the OAT director with the independence, impartiality and integrity required by Phoenix City Code.” And so basically he’s saying that he can’t do his job, which is to be independent.

GILGER: Now, this also had to do with a second in command he tried to hire, right?

BLASIUS: Right. So some of this has to do with the city’s rescission of a job offer for a candidate for the OAT attorney position — that’s the Office of Accountable and Transparency attorney. That would have been the second most senior position in the agency. Now other city leaders have told us that that person did not meet the criteria set out in city ordinance.

But there’s a dispute over whether or not that really is the case and that this person’s past employment history would have prevented them from actually taking the job under ordinance.

And so that is some of the back and forth that went between the two of them …

GILGER: Before (Smith) decided to resign. OK. So then let’s back up for a few minutes, Melissa, and just talk about the Office of Accountability and Transparency. It was a long road to get this office formed. There was a lot of debate about it. Tell us what was happening at the time that really made advocates push for accountability measures for Phoenix PD?

BLASIUS: This all came out of years of debate with lots of citizen comments about whether or not to create an Office of Accountability and Transparency. At the time when this was created, in 2021, Phoenix was one of the very few large cities in America that did not have some kind of civilian police oversight.

And this was in the aftermath of that terrible year in 2018, when Phoenix police shot more people than any other police force in America. And so there was a lot of concern about what Phoenix officers were doing and whether they were respecting people’s rights, if they were using excessive force and their own ability to be accountable and transparent themselves.

And that is why this office was created after a lot of debate.

GILGER: But it was changed, right? In 2022, there was a law signed by then-Gov. Doug Ducey that seemed to really curtail the office’s powers. What did that law do?

BLASIUS: Originally OAT was set up to involve a director then and then kind of a robust citizen oversight board. The law in 2022 basically said that you couldn’t have an investigation of police officers without the majority of the board reviewing the police having some kind of prior law enforcement experience or training.

Now, OAT was set up to be the absolute opposite of that. So instead of being able to fully investigate Phoenix police allegations of misconduct, they instead had to take more of a monitoring role.

So what they basically are able to do is they’re able to get the police investigation and then go through it. And then after that, issue some sort of monitoring report which would talk about, for example, whether the investigation was complete; whether it had the necessary aspects; whether there needed to be changes in policy; what tactics were used and if those were appropriate; and disciplinary recommendations, whether those were appropriate.

Now we know, based on a report that OAT issued — a quarterly report about the office — that as of the end of September, that OAT had actually opened at least 38 of these monitoring investigations. The interesting thing is, though, after two years in existence and 38 open investigations, some with reports pending, the office has never been able to issue an actual monitoring report on any of these police internal affairs investigations that they’ve looked into. We are still trying to figure out exactly why.

GILGER: This all also happened kind of around the same time that the Department of Justice, the feds had come in and have been investigating Phoenix police for use of force, for how it treats homeless people, many issues on the table there. How does that sort of play into what’s happening now and Roger Smith resigning?

BLASIUS: Quite a bit plays into that. Before Roger Smith came to Phoenix, he actually worked in the City of Cleveland in a similar position. And as part of that job, he actually worked very closely with the DOJ in provisions of that city’s consent decree in order to ensure their police officers were not violating people’s civil rights.

Now, Phoenix remains under a DOJ pattern or practice investigation, where they’re looking into whether people's civil rights are being violated in the city and whether or not the city of Phoenix should have a similar consent decree to something like Cleveland had when Roger Smith was over there.

So the city has been — city leaders, City Council, city manager have come out and said, “We don’t think we need a consent decree in the city of Phoenix.” In fact, they issued a 50-page report just last month saying all of the reasons that they think that they don’t need a consent decree, that they need a lesser intervention from the Department of Justice. And in fact, part of that 50-page report that they called the Road to Reform Report said that OAT provides robust, independent and civilian review of the Phoenix Police Department.

Now, again, Roger Smith, just two weeks after that report was issued, came out and said, well, he doesn’t think under the current terms that he can be independent.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.