KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Phoenix police have pattern of violating civil rights, excessive force, Justice Department finds

hoenix Law Enforcement Association President Darrel Kriplean
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Darrel Kriplean at a press conference in Phoenix on June 13, 2024.

Phoenix police violate people’s rights, discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Native American people when enforcing the law and use excessive force, including unjustified deadly force, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday.

The investigation confirmed allegations of excessive force, unlawful treatment of homeless people, retaliation against protesters and more following a sweeping 34-month investigation.

The feds say outside reform is needed in each area reviewed by civil rights attorneys.

The government found a “pattern or practice” of the violations, saying the police department unlawfully detains homeless people and disposes of their belongings and discriminates against people with behavioral health disabilities when dispatching calls for help and responding to people who are in crisis. And the Justice Department said Phoenix police had violated the rights of people engaged in protected speech.

"Ultimately, our findings reveal evidence showing longstanding dysfunction at the Phoenix Police Department. The problems at their core reflect a lack of effective supervision, training and accountability," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

Phoenix police unions are reacting to the announcement with words like disappointing, frustrating and appalling.

Mayor Kate Gallego says the City Council will meet in secret later this month to discuss the findings.

Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Darrel Kriplean says the DOJ is only interested in appointing court ordered monitors who get rich off consent decrees. He says an informal technical assistance letter is more appropriate.

"And the department is still able to make decisions while talking with the Department of Justice on how procedures happen and certain things like that. I think it’s more of a collaborative effort versus a dictator effort," said Kriplean in a press conference on Thursday.

The DOJ has frequently used consent decrees in other cities to outline actions police departments must take to avoid being sued by the federal government. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego says the council will meet this month behind closed doors to get legal advice and discuss next steps.

Phoenix police motorcycles
Jasmine Spearing-Bowen/Cronkite News
Phoenix police motorcycles

Police chief says he's surprised about unlawful arrest

Phoenix’s police chief says he warned officers that Thursday’s announcement by the Department of Justice would feel like a gut punch.

"I want to tell the officers, 'Thank you.' They have very, very difficult work in very challenging situations," said Police Chief Michael Sullivan.

Since taking the job in 2022, Sullivan has focused on reform.

"And there is no finish line to that work," Sullivan said.

The DOJ’s report acknowledges changes but says they haven’t gone far enough or fast enough. The finding that Phoenix unlawfully arrests people experiencing homelessness surprised Sullivan.

"Since I've been here, we've seen to lead with services, we've seen to lead and really focus with our Office of Homeless Solutions with law enforcement not being the lead in those situations," Sullivan said.

City manager Jeff Barton said today’s Police Department is not the same as it was two years ago.

"What we want to do is position ourselves working collaboratively with our community to deliver the services that they're entitled to," Barton said.

He and Sullivan are hopeful the city can work out an agreement with the DOJ that doesn’t involve a court-ordered monitor like what happened with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

'An important step toward accountability and transparency'

Michael Sullivan
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Michael Sullivan, interim Phoenix police chief

The sweeping investigation found “pervasive failings” that have “disguised and perpetuated” problems for years, according to the report.

The Justice Department said certain laws, including drug and low-level offenses, were enforced more severely by Phoenix officers against Black, Hispanic and Native American people than against whites who engaged in the same conduct.

Investigators found Phoenix police use on “dangerous tactics that lead to force that is unnecessary and unreasonable.”

Phoenix police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorney General Merrick Garland called the release of the report “an important step toward accountability and transparency.”

“We are committed to working with the City of Phoenix and Phoenix Police Department on meaningful reform that protects the civil rights and safety of Phoenix residents and strengthens police-community trust,” he said in an emailed statement.

The investigation launched in August 2021. The police force in Phoenix has been criticized in recent years for its treatment of protesters in 2020, deaths of people who were restrained by officers, and a high number of shootings by officers.

The report also found that Phoenix police detain and arrest people who are homeless without reasonable suspicion that they committed a crime, and unlawfully dispose of their belongings.

“A person’s constitutional rights do not diminish when they lack shelter,” the report says.

The Justice Department zeroed on the city’s 911 operations. Even though the city has invested $15 million to send non-police responders to mental health calls, the city hasn’t given the 911 call-takers and dispatchers necessary training.

“Too frequently, they dispatch police alone when it would be appropriate to send behavioral health responders,” the Justice Department said. Officers assume people with disabilities are dangerous and resort to force rather than de-escalation tactics, leading to force and criminal consequences for those with behavioral health disabilities, rather than finding them care, the Justice Department said.

The Justice Department found that police use unjustified force against people who are handcuffed and accused of low-level crimes.

“Officers rely on less-lethal force to attempt to resolve situations quickly, often when no force is necessary and without any meaningful attempt to de-escalate,” the report said.

Police shoot projectiles at people without evidence the person is an immediate threat, the report said, citing the case of a man who was accused of taking his mother’s car without permission.

“The man was leaving a laundromat when an officer immediately fired Pepperballs at him, and continued to fire after the man was on his knees and had curled his body onto the sidewalk,” the report said.

Reaction to the DOJ findings

Phoenix Police Headquarters is the oldest operating police building.
(Photo by Christina Estes- KJZZ)
Phoenix Police Headquarters is the oldest operating police building.

Darrell Kriplean, Phoenix Law Enforcement Association president

“We are frustrated and appalled by the Department of Justice’s decision to release the findings report to the public and the media before allowing the decision makers and the department to review. This tactic is nothing more than an irresponsible and unprofessional smear campaign against the men and women who have continued to courageously serve the community amidst dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric by political activists and violent attacks from criminals.

The Phoenix Police Department has a long history of self-assessment and self-correction as outlined in a letter that was prepared and disseminated by the City of Phoenix in January to the Department of Justice and the local media. In fact, the department is either in the process or has already implemented significant reforms, many of which the DOJ has called for in other agencies that they have investigated and bullied into federal oversight.

The Department of Justice is not interested in making local police departments and the communities they serve better. This action demonstrates they are only interested in removing control of local police from the communities they serve through consent decrees that only enrich the “monitors” who are generally DOJ insiders. Consent decrees have a 30-year track record of significant increases in violent crime, hundreds of millions of dollars in new unfunded costs, and a systematic destruction of police staffing and morale. Look no further than our own Sheriff’s Office.”

Poder In Action, a social justice advocacy group

“We are disgusted, furious, and heartbroken at the findings, but we are not surprised. Community members have paid for the failure of current and past Phoenix city leadership to hold this department accountable with their lives. The report validates what community members have been saying for decades – racism, violence, and corruption runs rampant within this department. This report makes it exceedingly clear that community members who are Black, Indigenous, Latine, unsheltered, or having a mental health crisis are at alarming risk of discrimination, harm, and death at the hands of the Phoenix Police Department.”

Kesha Hodge Washington, Phoenix City Council

“This report undoubtedly recalls painful incidents affecting our community, but it also offers an opportunity to see what reforms the city and the Police Department can implement moving forward. Both the city and the Police Department have acknowledged the need for improvement and have made intentional strides toward reform, which were modeled after recommendations made in reports concerning other cities. Our officers are charged with carrying out an extremely difficult job, and I am optimistic that the city and the Police Department will continue to proactively make changes and transform our practices, underscoring our commitment to continuous improvement and accountability.”

Ann O’Brien, Phoenix City Council

“During today’s press conference, the DOJ made clear their intent is for the City of Phoenix to enter into a consent decree and agree to federal court-ordered monitoring. They continued to refer to this model as a ‘track record of success.’ Time and time again, this has proven to be a broken model for fixing and reforming police departments across the country.

Assistant Attorney General Kristin Clarke pointed to Seattle, Albuquerque, and Baltimore as examples of this successful model. If success to AAG Clarke looks like Seattle’s violent crime increasing by 37% in the first 10 years under a consent decree or a 53% increase in violent crime in Albuquerque since they entered into a consent decree in 2015, then we absolutely should sit down to negotiate other options for reform.”

Phoenix City Council members Laura Pastor, Betty Guardado, Carlos Galindo-Elvira and Kesha Hodge Washington, in a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland

“We jointly express our sincere disappointment regarding the Department of Justice’s failure to simultaneously release the investigation of the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department in both English and Spanish. This oversight is deeply troubling, as it leaves a significant portion of the community in the dark about the critical information contained in the report. … We strongly urge the Department to take immediate action to rectify this issue.”

Related Content