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.

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Comments on “DOJ Announces Investigation Of Phoenix PD's Use Of Excessive Force And Abuse Of Homeless People”

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Anonymous Coward says:


most people don’t like the homeless. those that think that all homeless should be rounded up and put in a cage think that ALL homeless are junkies, criminals, scumbags that wont get a job! when the truth is most homeless don’t want to be homeless. they are people that have lost jobs, cant afford housing, have mental issues, cant get housing. when you group them all up into one little package, we get the hate for anyone that is homeless!

the blue lies mafia is the same EVERYWHERE! they don’t the homeless and do everything possible to get rid of them!
so you can’t use a camping ban, OK, just go with trespass, loitering, failure to obey a lawful order, disorderly conduct, littering, and any other step around’s that violate the camping ban.

so now this pig farm is now under the microscope! with the usual excessive force, harassment, civil rights violations, destruction of records. they will most likely end up with a consent decree and be ordered to clean there shit up! so they will do some window dressing changes and when the smoke clears, they will be back to business as usual…..

Anonymous Coward says:

The consent decrees that were the hallmark of Obama’s police reform have almost been worse than nothing. In Seattle it has promoted minor changes, but by and large has done nothing to change the department as a whole.

During the protests last year a federal judge banned SPD from using chemical munitions for 2 weeks in a separate lawsuit. They kept using them. Nothing happened.

Recently, the judge overseeing the consent decree remarked how the city was trying to change too much about policing too fast. So not only has the consent decree not made the changes needed, a judge used it as a way to discourage the city from making necessary police reforms.

At the end of the day the consent decrees end up being overseen by the same people who have allowed the police to run wild, the federal judges who have given us qualified immunity.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
RyanNerd (profile) says:

As far as punishing homeless people for well...being homeless

I’ve worked at a homeless shelter for nearly three years. Want to know what would be the best change possible for this situation? Nearly 80% in shelter right now are struggling with drug addiction (of those about 25% self medicated due to mental health issues).

The solution: End the war on drugs. Treat drug addiction as a social issue and not a criminal issue. This way people struggling with drug addiction can get the treatment and help they need without fearing being incarcerated for the victimless crime of injecting, ingesting, or smoking something bad for them.

This isn’t the end all solution to ending poverty (there are many facets to this issue including education, housing availability, job market, access to affordable health care, etc.), but ending the failed war on drugs would be a gigantic step forward in helping those who are in an impoverished situation.

Annonymouse says:

So the police union put into their contact an illegal act? In this case destroying records and evidence.
Doesn’t something like that invalidate the contract and make the parties responsible for their inclusion fully liable for said acts?

So how soon will the union administration be incarcerated? Pfft, yeah, right, as if the whole CRIMINAL justice system would actually do something that isn’t criminal.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Melvin Chudwaters says:

Masnick’s quarantining my comments, so no one will ever read this.

Homelessness, it turns out, is a math problem. It’s not a failure of compassion or an excess of greed or any other moral issue. It’s just math. Specifically, game theory.

Have you ever asked yourself why it is that it’s never solved anywhere? I mean, sure in Alabama or some red-controlled city it’s going to be shit. But what about California, bastion of the Democrats? Why is there no Bernie Sanders-esque mayor or AOC-wannabe city councilwoman somewhere who has fixed it?

Hell, even if you think they’re just cynical sellouts, wouldn’t they get alot of political clout for fixing something no one else has, couldn’t they ride that to the White House?

There is a reason why that never happens. It’s because they can’t. Some would want to, some would be clever enough to figure out a solution… but any solution to homelessness doesn’t reduce the number of homeless, it increases the number.

If your city has 50 homeless people (roughly), or it has 5,000 (roughly), the problem is the same. If you solve homelessness, you’ll soon end up with 120 homeless people (or 15,000). The homeless are not stupid, they are not nailed to the ground where they are now. If they heard of a place where they could go that they wouldn’t have to live under a bridge anymore, they’d panhandle until they could afford a bus ticket to that place. Or they’d hitchhike. Hell, the most desperate would hoof it all the way there, even if it was 3000 miles away on the other side of the country.

And so, instead of 50 you now have 120, instead of 5,000 you now have 15,000.

But your budget did not increase. You were a compassionate genius, you did what no one was ever able to do before and ended homelessness (for the 3 weeks it took for more to show up). You found money in the budget to do the right thing.

But that budget was for 50 people. Or 5,000. Sure, maybe there’s some money left… but if you somehow get enough to deal with the 120 (or the 15,000) even more homeless will show up in the coming months and years.

Worse, some places are governed by assholes. Why would they spend even one penny solving homelessness where they are, if they can just terrorize their own homeless until they leave for your city? Maybe they can try the carrot too, and give them a bus ticket (and hell, $100 spending money!) if they promise to go to your city.

Hint: For those that don’t believe me, you can go read about them already doing that now. Hawaii will even buy them plane tickets (bus tickets not being very viable, obviously).

All politicians recognize what I’ve described, even if they don’t talk about it. They instinctively know that this will happen, it’s always in the back of their heads. They know they will fail if they try, and they will fail in a way that spectacularly torpedoes their careers.

And so they never bother. They don’t bother whether they are Republican or whether they are Democrat.

And until people can recognize this as the game theory problem that it is, we can never solve it, we can never end the misery.

The solution to this meta-problem is quite simple, it’s cheap as hell, it raises no ethical issues, and it would eliminate the obstacle I’ve just described. Sure, some of the weeniest of the lefty liberals will complain that "it just doesn’t have enough love in it", but love’s already proven itself incapable of fixing this.

If I knew who to even talk to about this, I would. I don’t want credit. I don’t want anything, other than to see it happen.

Melvin Chudwaters says:

Re: Re: Re:

When I see comments like yours, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside that the human species is so utterly incapable of being intelligent. You really are all monkeys who haven’t even bothered to stop slinging turds and screeching.

Your behavior is best described as "another monkey has marked this one as being not one of us and therefor I must also signal that he’s not one of us or else I might become tainted too".

We’re quite literally in a thread about a social system that wallows in abject failure and causes untold human misery, and your comment stinks of "but this social system I participate in is flawless and would never falsely harm someone".

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Utah runs a program where they simply put homeless people in houses, and the vast majority, once they have a permanent address, manage to get on their feet. They have had a bit of an issue where homeless people move there to get housing but, once they are housed, they can get jobs, and once they have jobs, they become taxpayers paying into the system that houses people. This is a positive feedback loop. While Utah still has a homeless problem, it’s not nearly as bad as anywhere else in the US.

RyanNerd (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not exactly true — I’ve worked at a homeless shelter in Utah for nearly three years. We recently built an apartment complex for those in an impoverished situation and it has been very successful. It is worth noting that 80% of the funding for this project came from community donations. The remaining 20% was from a government grant.

See my comment above for one of the major reasons for homelessness and a major step to take to fix it.

ECA (profile) says:

there is an article

about how well our gov. loves to balance numbers.
Unemployment, only reports certain people out of work, not compared to the population.
Cost of living allowance, COLA, keeps getting adjusted.
Min wage is based on Federal min wage. And many companies give an extra $0.50-$1 to NOT be on that list. And allot of states have made their Own ‘living wage’, which isnt counted.

What happened to all the monitoring agencies that we are paying for? why arnt they doing the jobs paid for?

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