US finds Phoenix Police Dept violates civil rights of city residents

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By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday took aim at the Phoenix Police Department, accusing its officers of systemically violating peoples’ civil rights and using excessive and at times “unjustified deadly force” against city residents.

In a new investigative report, the Justice Department Civil Rights Division said it has reasonable cause to believe that police in Phoenix routinely discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Native Americans, and unlawfully detain homeless people and dispose of their belongings.

The report also found that the police frequently violate people’s protected free speech, discriminate against people with behavioral disabilities and use aggressive tactics with children that could have a “lasting impact” on their wellbeing.

A spokesperson for Phoenix could not be immediately reached for comment.

The department’s findings end a nearly three-year-long investigation, first announced in August 2021, that examined whether the Phoenix Police Department engaged in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights abuses.

“In the years leading up to our investigation, PhxPD officers shot and killed people at one of the highest rates in the country,” the report found.

“PhxPD relies on dangerous tactics that lead to force that is unnecessary and unreasonable. PhxPD has taught officers a misguided notion of de-escalation. Rather than teaching that de-escalation strategies are designed to eliminate or reduce the need to use force, PhxPD has misappropriated the concept and teaches officers that all force—even deadly force—is de-escalation,” the report said.

The report also found that police frequently retaliated against their own critics.

In one example, police created a so-called “challenge coin” that depicted the image of a protester whom an officer had shot in the groin.

The coin had a star over the image of the man’s groin with the words: “Good night, left nut.”

On the back, the coin read, “Making America Great Again – One Nut at a Time.”

“Police officers abused their power to silence people asserting their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly,” said Kristen Clarke, the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, during a virtual press conference.

The Justice Department’s findings could possibly be met with some resistance by Phoenix city officials, who have declined prior requests by the department to enter into a court-monitored consent decree.

Some of the Justice Department’s other high-profile civil rights investigations into police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville were spurred by police killings of unarmed Black citizens. The probe into Phoenix, by contrast, was not prompted by any single incident.

However, the report noted that in the years leading up to the investigation, Phoenix Police shot and killed people at one of the highest rates in the nation.

Thursday’s report by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was delivered to Phoenix without any agreement between the parties on how to implement policing reforms.

In a January 2024 letter to Justice Department officials, the city’s outside counsel Michael Bromwich accused the department of a “lack of transparency” and failing to share any of the tentative conclusions from the investigation.

He added that the city was already implementing policing reforms and asked the Justice Department to consider an alternative approach to a consent decree.

Clarke on Thursday called the department’s findings “severe.”

She said the department is prepared to sit down with the city to identify a “mutually beneficial path” toward reform.

“This is one instance where we can’t count on the police to police themselves,” she said.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Josie Kao)

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