US Justice Dept launches investigation into Phoenix police force

US Attorney General Merrick Garland opens a probe looking into allegations of police using unlawful excessive force and retaliation.

Police block a protest in Arizona
Police block protesters during a visit by US President Donald Trump to the Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, US, June 23, 2020 [File: Ash Ponders/Reuters]

The US Justice Department has opened an investigation into whether police in Phoenix unlawfully have used deadly force, retaliated against peaceful protesters and violated the rights of homeless people in the latest such inquiry involving a major American city, officials said on Thursday.

The investigation into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department is the third sweeping civil investigation into a law enforcement agency brought by the Justice Department in the Biden administration and comes as the department has worked to shift its priorities to focus on policing and civil rights. Few such investigations were opened during the Trump administration.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the probe will also examine whether police have engaged in discriminatory policing practices and will work to determine if officers have retaliated against people engaged in protected First Amendment activities.

Part of the investigation also examines whether police officers have been violating the rights of people who are experiencing homelessness by “seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution,” Garland said.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke, right, accompanied by Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, speaks at a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, August 5, 2021 [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice” — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and is generally is a sweeping review of the entire police department.

In announcing the probe, Garland also pointed to what he described as “straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems.”

“Too often, we asked law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system,” he said “This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement and hinders public safety.”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said investigators will meet police officers and supervisors and review body camera video, along with training materials and other records. She said the Justice Department spoke with Phoenix city officials and they had expressed support for the probe.

“Protecting the rule of law demands that those who enforce our laws also abide by them,” Clarke said.

The Justice Department had reviewed an array of publicly available information, including lawsuits and news reports before it decided to open the Phoenix investigation, Clarke said.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement, “I welcome the U.S. Justice Department review of the Phoenix Police Department.”

“Along with the City Manager, and Chief of Police, I stand ready to support the USDOJ throughout this review process.”

The police force has come under fire in recent years for its handling of protests. One lawsuit alleged that police and prosecutors colluded to target protesters during a demonstration last year. In February, a local television station reported that a team of police officers had celebrated with commemorative coins the shooting of a protester in the groin during another protest.

“We found that the evidence here warrants a full investigation, but we approach this process with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions,” Clarke said.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced it was opening a similar investigation into police forces in Minneapolis, after the death of George Floyd, and in Louisville, Kentucky, after the death of Breonna Taylor.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies