The Justice Department on Thursday announced a broad investigation into the Phoenix Police Department, examining whether its police officers use excessive force, conduct “discriminatory policing” and retaliate against members of the public who exercise their First Amendment rights.
The “pattern or practice” inquiry, unveiled by Attorney General Merrick Garland, is the third such investigation launched since the Biden administration came into office in January and reinvigorated far-reaching examinations of the tactics of individual police departments.
“These investigations aim to promote transparency and accountability,” Garland said during a news conference at Justice Department headquarters in Washington. “This increases public trust, which, in turn, increases public safety.”
While the issues the investigation will examine are serious, Garland seemed eager not to take a confrontational tone with police or the city.
Garland said Phoenix Mayor Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams were briefed on the investigation earlier Thursday and pledged full cooperation.
“They, too, recognize that we share common aims,” the attorney general said.
Garland said the Phoenix investigation would also include how police deal with people experiencing mental health crises, as well as whether the department had illegally seized property belonging to people experiencing homelessness.
The attorney general stressed that some of the issues the investigation will explore were driven by failures in other parts of society to address mental health and housing needs, leaving police to deal with the consequences on the street.
“Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems,” Garland said. “Too often, we ask law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system. This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement and hinders public safety.”
In April, the Justice Department announced similar investigations into the Louisville and Minneapolis police departments. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke told reporters on Thursday that Justice Department officials had consulted more than 1000 “community stakeholders” in those cities as they probe the tactics used by police there.
Phoenix, the largest city of the three now under federal investigation, tallied the largest number of officer-involved shootings in the nation in 2018.
In 2020, there were 26 police shootings in the city, up from 15 the previous year, according to statistics compiled by the Arizona Republic.
Clarke did not respond directly to a question about whether there was a “final straw” in Phoenix that led the Justice Department to announce the probe.