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Phoenix seeks to end Justice Department probe of its police department without court supervision

Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Phoenix has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to end its two-year civil rights investigation of the city’s police department through an agreement in which it would take recommendations for changes from the federal agency but wouldn’t be subject to costly court supervision.

The city made the request Thursday in a letter to the Justice Department, complaining that the federal agency won’t share a report on its investigative findings prior to its public release. Local officials also released a report that highlights changes that the department has made over the last decade.

“These changes demonstrate a powerful commitment to reform, a commitment that warrants a different approach from the DOJ than has been the case over the past dozen years,” wrote Michael Bromwich, an attorney representing the city who previously worked as an inspector general for the Justice Department.

The investigation that began in August 2021 is examining whether Phoenix officers used excessive force, engaged in discriminatory policing practices, seized and disposed of the belongings of homeless people and violated the rights of people who are disabled, including whether decisions to criminally detain people with mental disabilities are proper. The Justice Department also investigated whether officers retaliated against people participating in protests.

The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday on the city’s request. It also would not say when its investigation of Phoenix police was expected to conclude or whether it plans to file a lawsuit against Phoenix.

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

Jared Keenan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said the city’s request to resolve the investigation through a “technical assistance letter” — rather than through a lawsuit that could lead to court supervision and the appointment of a court monitor — is a public relations move intended to shape impressions of the investigation before the Justice Department releases its findings.

“There is a concerted effort by city officials and also the police union to create this false narrative that the DOJ report shouldn’t be trusted and that they need to see the findings before they can negotiate in good faith,” Keenan said.

Darrell Kriplean, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a union representing about 2,100 officers, applauded the city’s effort to resolve the investigation, saying court supervision of the police department would slow the pace of changes at the agency and be a “red tape nightmare.”

“It grinds everything to a halt,” Kriplean said.

The union president pointed to heavy compliance costs that taxpayers are footing in the 2007 racial profiling lawsuit filed over then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. Since the sheriff’s office was found to have profiled Latinos in those crackdowns, the county agency remains under court supervision. By this summer, the legal and compliance costs of that case are projected to reach $273 million.

Before the investigation was launched, civil rights advocates had complained that Phoenix police and prosecutors were pursuing gang charges as part of abusive political prosecutions intended to silence dissent and scare protesters.

A criminal case brought by Phoenix police in the fall of 2020 was dismissed against 15 demonstrators at a protest because there wasn’t credible evidence to support the claim that they were members of an anti-police gang. A report by the outside lawyers hired by the city concluded the decision to charge them with assisting a street gang was made without seeking input from Phoenix police’s gang enforcement unit.

The agency was criticized for a “challenge coin” circulating among Phoenix officers in 2017 that depicted a gas mask-wearing demonstrator getting shot in the groin with a pepper ball and contains a vulgar comment about his injury.

The image on the police souvenir closely resembled a protester who was shot with a pepper ball during a 2017 protest outside a rally held by then-President Donald Trump in downtown Phoenix. Video of the encounter, which also showed the protester kicking a smoke canister back at officers, became viral on social media. The outside attorneys hired by the city also said the coin was circulated among officers in late 2017 while they were on city property and on the clock.

The police department’s leadership changed one year into the investigation with the retirement of Chief Jeri Williams after 33 years in law enforcement. She was replaced on an interim basis by Michael Sullivan, who previously served as deputy commissioner overseeing police reform in Baltimore and was expected to serve up to two years while the city searched for a permanent chief.

In an interview Thursday on KTAR radio, Sullivan said his agency is self-correcting and noted the bureaucracy that comes from oversight by the federal government. “We can accelerate reform, we can be better, faster and provide better service and continue to fight crime and hold ourselves accountable outside of that process,” Sullivan said.

Under Sullivan’s leadership, the department changed its use of force policy, including adding a requirement that force used by officers be not only reasonable but also proportional and necessary in the circumstances.

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