DOJ Announces Investigation Of Phoenix PD's Use Of Excessive Force And Abuse Of Homeless People
from the information-and-belief-on-top-of-patterns-and-practices dept
With a new Attorney General in charge and a new President in the White House, the Department of Justice is getting back to taking care of the uncomfortable business of investigating local law enforcement agencies. This part of the DOJ’s responsibilities was largely abandoned under Trump, who opened up his presidency by declaring he would “end” the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere.”
Trump actually made it worse. His enthusiastic support for police and police violence did nothing to discourage the sorts of actions that create “anti-police atmosphere.” Concurrently, the DOJ — under AGs Sessions and Barr — looked the other way as law enforcement agencies engaged in activities that violated the rights of the public.
The latest law enforcement agency to under the DOJ’s scope is the Phoenix, Arizona police department. The Phoenix PD last made news here at Techdirt after its union offered cops access to paid service that would “scrub” social media services of their posts. This was deployed in reaction to multiple investigations opened all around the nation after transparency activist group Plainview Project was able to link bigoted and violent social media posts to current law employment officers.
There are some specifics to this investigation that indicate some parts of the Phoenix PD’s enforcement efforts are more problematic than others.
This investigation will assess all types of use of force by PhxPD officers, including deadly force. The investigation will also seek to determine whether PhxPD engages in retaliatory activity against people for conduct protected by the First Amendment; whether PhxPD engages in discriminatory policing; and whether PhxPD unlawfully seizes or disposes of the belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness. In addition, the investigation will assess the City and PhxPD’s systems and practices for responding to people with disabilities. The investigation will include a comprehensive review of PhxPD policies, training, supervision, and force investigations, as well as PhxPD’s systems of accountability, including misconduct complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition, and discipline.
The city is also being investigated to see what culpability it carries for the PD’s anti-homeless actions. It appears the city (and the PD it employs) has been unwilling to obey court precedent finding certain policies unlawful.
A 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals banned cities from arresting or imposing fines on people sleeping in public places in the absence of meaningful housing alternatives.
As a result, local governments in western states have begun to reassess their urban camping ordinances. Among them are cities in Arizona like Glendale and Tempe, which have stopped enforcing urban camping laws.
But little has changed in Phoenix, said Elizabeth Venable, treasurer for the Fund for Empowerment.
Despite the court decision, the Phoenix Police Department is “doing the same thing they’ve always done,” said Venable.
The state appears to believe the proper solution to being on the wrong end of court decisions is to change the law. A new proposal would create sanctioned “camps” for homeless people while still allowing the state to punish homeless people for sleeping in public areas without permission.
The bill would authorize the state to create designated camping areas on state land with access to water, electricity and bathrooms where people experiencing homelessness could stay. Residents of the designated camping area may be required to attend substance abuse treatment or mental health services.
He said the camps would be similar to the temporary parking-lot shelters opened by Maricopa County last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Security would be provided at all camping areas.
The bill would prohibit homeless encampments anywhere else on state property.
Yes, this would create other options for temporary housing of homeless people. But it won’t do much to prevent police officers from harassing and arresting homeless people for simply existing in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it’s this leeway that appears to have led to this investigation — the encouragement of heavy-handed enforcement by city reps, which has manifested as the abuses the DOJ is now digging into.
Unfortunately for the DOJ, it may soon discover it doesn’t have a whole lot of information to work with. As was discovered by Justin Price of AZCentral last year, the city’s contract with the police union allows misconduct records to be destroyed almost at will.
Over 500 of the city’s 3,000 officers have had their pasts memory-holed by the union contract, covering over 600 misconduct incidents ranging from failure to complete reports to deployments of excessive force.
The purging prevents even internal investigators from discovering patterns of misconduct that should result in harsher discipline or termination. It also prevents plaintiffs suing officers over violated rights from obtaining key background info that could indicate an officer is a longtime abuser of citizens. In one case cited in Price’s report, the PD began purging an officer’s records as soon as the officer had been served.
Beyond the impediments posed by a lack of documentation, there’s the question of how much the DOJ can actually change by performing an investigation. At best, it prevents law enforcement agencies from claiming any abuses uncovered are just a matter of perception. At worst, it just forces agencies to keep their heads low for a while and wait for the DOJ (and the public’s interest) to head elsewhere.
It should be noted, however, that every closed DOJ investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing, usually of the “substantial” and “pervasive” varieties. By the time the DOJ decides to step in, the problem is generally too big to ignore. This means the agency being investigated is already aware of the problem but has done nothing to correct it. That mindset — one that views bad cops as victims of public perception — tends to stick around long after the DOJ has dropped off a consent decree and blown town.