Respect Equality

Justice Department investigating Phoenix Police Department over civil rights

department of justice phoenix police department arizona federal probe investigation first amendment civil rights racism deadly force merrick garland attorney kristen clarke
 U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, joined by U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke, announces a federal investigation of the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department during a news conference at the Department of Justice on August 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. Garland said the Justice Department has opened… Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is launching a probe into the operations of the Phoenix Police Department.
  • Phoenix law enforcement has been under fire in several cases, one being the mishandling of protesters.
  • Other city police departments that saw DOJ audits were the Minneapolis and Louisville Police Departments.

On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) announced it is launching a probe into the city of Phoenix, Ariz., and the Phoenix Police Department to investigate whether or not the department uses lethal force in unwarranted circumstances.

DOJ officials will reportedly assess all types of force used by Phoenix police officers and investigate if the department engages in retaliatory activity, discriminatory policing and whether the department unlawfully seizes the personal items of individuals experiencing homelessness. 

“When we conduct pattern or practice investigations to determine whether the Constitution or federal law has been violated, our aim is to promote transparency and accountability,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety. We know that law enforcement shares these goals.”

One of the catalyzing incidents that led to the current probe against Phoenix occurred in July, when a group of activists protesting were arrested and charged with being in a gang. The class action, Keisha Acton v. Allister Adel — the latter of whom is the Maricopa County District Attorney — accuses state law enforcement of false arrests and malicious prosecution, among other charges.   

The DOJ officials handling the probe plan on reviewing the Phoenix Police Department’s policies, trainings, supervision and systems of accountability. It will also focus on the department’s conduct surrounding the way officers respond to people with disabilities.

An office within the DOJ, the Civil Rights Division, will be working on the investigation.

“One of the highest priorities of the Civil Rights Division is to ensure that every person in this country benefits from policing that is lawful, effective, transparent, and free from discrimination,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. “Police officers across the country must use their authority in a manner that adheres to the Constitution, complies with federal civil rights laws and respects human dignity.”

The outcome of the investigation will determine whether Phoenix law enforcement violated the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expressly forbids state and local governments from violating individuals’ civil rights. 

There have been 73 investigations pursuant to violations of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act since its passage 27 years ago. Some of these have occurred in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, both of which occurred in 2020.

Floyd’s death put a spotlight on the racist and discriminatory policing tactics employed by dozens of police departments in the U.S.

In 2021, other police departments that were audited or investigated by DOJ officials include the Minneapolis Police Department, the Louisville Police Department and the Hazleton Police Department in Pennsylvania. 

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