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Díaz and Kwok: Expect Phoenix Police to fight a DOJ consent decree

Phoenix Police officers in riot gear outside their headquarters during a protest.
Scott Bourque/KJZZ
editorial | staff
Phoenix police officers in riot gear outside their headquarters during a protest Friday, May 29, 2020.

The Department of Justice leveled the Phoenix Police Department with the findings of a yearslong investigation last week, saying the department uses excessive force, discriminates against people experiencing homelessness and the Black, Hispanic and Native American communities.

The department’s leaders have said it is “materially different now,” and the officers’ unions denounced the report and its findings.

But now the question is what comes next? Will the department put the city under a so-called consent decree, an option that many on the city council have already said they want to avoid?

To break it all down, The Show spoke to Elvia Diaz, editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic, as well as columnist Abe Kwok.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: Abe, I want to start with you here. Was there any clarity last week about what might happen next, how any of these major allegations might be resolved?

ABE KWOK: No, that’s and that’s a big question. So far, we have a very choreographed process. We had the city and police department supporters coming way out in front of the report, saying that we don’t want to consent decree, we don’t want to be under federal oversight.

And then now DOJ has presented this shock-and-awe show with its findings — without giving the city or anybody else a heads-up. And what’s next is it’s going to be interesting.

And the most immediate question for me is: We have an election coming up in about five months that very well could determine the course of what happens next. Should the Biden administration prevail or Biden wins reelection, then the DOJ investigation and the process continues. But if Trump gets elected, all that could come to a screeching halt.

GILGER: Elvia, can you back up for us and remind us just how big of a deal these findings were last week? I don’t think a lot of this was unexpected. A lot of this is reporting we have seen before, but these are serious allegations.

ELVIA DÍAZ: Yes, of course. And this coming from the Justice Department after working nearly three years with the city of Phoenix, sometimes on good terms and most times not.

But let’s remember how it all started. It began with a big protest with Black Lives Matter, as you know, throughout the country. We had huge protests after the killing of George Floyd.

And quite suddenly, the whole country really paid attention to the plight of African-Americans, of Latinos, of minorities at the hands of police officers across the country — not just in Phoenix, but obviously here as well.

And through that, both of you will recall that as a result, one of the most high-profile and talked about cases came out of those protests. And that’s the fact that the City of Phoenix Police Department essentially colluded with prosecutors to charge protesters as gangsters essentially.

And so that showcased what so many minorities have been saying for years and years, that they are unfairly targeted. So this one really puts on paper what we have known, what we have heard from minority communities, from African-Americans, from Latinos, from Native Americans.

And now, hopefully someone will do something. But unfortunately, we still don’t know what that’s going to be.

GILGER: Abe, reaction to this report has been swift, as you’ve both mentioned. The department says it’s changed. The DOJ says not fast enough and not in ways that are material to what they have found. What do you make of the reaction, the strong reaction from the police unions, from the department itself and the city council sort of saying we don’t want oversight?

KWOK: I think we have to be cautious here because the city’s response to the report itself is muted because they want time to actually digest it. And it’ll be interesting to see what their response is going to be.

As you alluded to, part of that response is going to be, “Yes, look, we know we have problems. We’re addressing, we’ve been addressing some of that. We revamped our use of force policy. We have devoted a lot more resources to both homelessness and behavioral health response.”

What will be interesting is what will be the city’s reaction to the allegation, the assertion that you have a police department that emphasizes force first? So use force to stop everything in its tracks and get to a point of resolution. That’s a shocking finding for me, and it’ll be interesting to see what the city’s response is and whether they can touch that.

DÍAZ: And Lauren, we’re kidding ourselves. We already know what the city is going to do because they have already told us for months and months The city council has been on this aggressive campaign talking about that they would not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree.

And a consent decree really means that, right? The federal government and the city consent that they’re going to do certain things and that the federal government is going to be watching them. Many of the council members and the police union and even some state lawmakers have said, “No way. There’s no way in hell that we are going to agree to a consent decree.”

So we already know that they’re going to go to court, we already know that they’re going to fight it tooth and nail, and we already know what supposedly the city is going to do.

If you Google the City of Phoenix website, you will see a lot of the things that they say they have been doing outlined there. And the Justice Department report did address that. It commended police officers. They commended the city for thinking of some reform. But it did say specifically that that’s only on paper, that in practice it hasn’t happened.

I mean, the police union called this report a farce, for instance. City council members who had been against this from the beginning call it ridiculous, essentially ready to fight it. So we already know what the city is going to do. So that's my biggest concern here: Then what?

GILGER: Abe, me end with you here. Because this is, as Elvia is kind of getting at, about control of the department, about the future of this department. Who’s going to control it in the end? You talk about in your latest column that this is going to take a long time and that there is little clarity here about who will prevail.

But we’ve seen this before. If a jurisdiction does take the DOJ to court and try to litigate this, what have we seen happen?

KWOK: There’s been about half a dozen jurisdictions that have taken DOJ or allowed DOJ to take them to court rather than settle. And most notably and immediate for us is Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. That administration refused to cooperate, and DOJ took them to court, and the resulting … lawsuit and a consent decree that continues to this day, $250 million to upwards of $300 million that the county has spent trying to comply, and they’re not in the clear yet.

So yes, the city might be wise to contest this and take this in court, because even if it’s a small chance that they prevail, that route would be considerably less costly than entering into a consent decree and having to be under federal control — most likely for a minimum of five years and more than likely stretching beyond.

DÍAZ: What’s wrong with that?. That's a discussion that Abe and I have had. What is wrong with that when this pervasive kind of practice has been happening not since Black Lives Matter — that’s only when the society really took hold of it. But this has been happening for years, for decades. And then we talk about, “Well, it’s going to take, you know, so much money and it’s going to take years.”

Well, yes. If the department has been doing that since the beginning of time or who knows when, then what’s wrong with taking the time to actually dig into it and actually try to do something instead of immediately thinking, “No, you’re attacking the police department, this is going to be bad for police, this is going to be bad for our pocketbook”?

How about for once we stop and say, “What is it that we need to do to police our society equally and fairly in every part of the city, not only in certain areas and not targeted areas of certain zip codes? What’s wrong with that?

KWOK: I get your point. But the counterpoint is, at best it’s been a mixed result when cities and police departments have been under consent decrees, certainly in terms of benchmarks like violent crime rate. A number of cities that are under federal oversight have had higher, 10 or 20 percentage points higher in violent crime after a consent decree took place.

Does it lead to better, safer communities? I don’t think you can use history to dictate the future. But for for the critics of DOJ, that certainly has some relevance in the whole discussion.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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.
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