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Justice Department Is Investigating Phoenix Police After Reports Of Excessive Force

Protesters rally in June of last year in Phoenix demanding that the Phoenix City Council defund the Phoenix Police Department.
Matt York
Protesters rally in June of last year in Phoenix demanding that the Phoenix City Council defund the Phoenix Police Department.

The Justice Department is launching an investigation of the Phoenix Police Department over allegations of excessive use of force and homeless abuse.

"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," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement announcing the investigation Thursday afternoon. "This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety. We know that law enforcement shares these goals."

Earlier this year, a local ABC investigation foundsome in the department were circulating "challenge coins" that depicted a protester who had been shot in the groin area with the words "GOOD NIGHT LEFT NUT" on one side and "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN ONE NUT AT A TIME" on the other.

The coin also had the date of a 2017 protest when former President Donald Trump was speaking in Phoenix.

Another incident this year involved video of a police officer repeatedly strikingsomeone on the ground in a homeless encampment.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said Justice Department lawyers will look for evidence of excessive force, discrimination against people with disabilities and whether law enforcement is violating the rights of homeless people when they toss their belongings.

Clarke said that could run afoul of the Fourth and 14th Amendments. It could also represent a new front for federal civil rights enforcers, as cities across the country conduct regular sweeps of homeless camps.

This is the third civil-rights investigation of police undertaken by the Biden administration. The department is also probing the practices of police in Louisville, Ky., and in Minneapolis.

In the months ahead, civil rights investigators will fan out in Phoenix.

Garland said the mayor and police chief in Phoenix have pledged to cooperate in the probe.

"I welcome the U.S. Department of Justice review of the Phoenix Police Department," Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Comprehensive reform of policing in the City of Phoenix has been my priority since the first day I took office."

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said in a news conference Thursday, "Any police department has room for improvement; mine is no different."

"We have reformed this police department from top to bottom" in the past year, she added, and noted that if the Justice Department tells them to do something different, they will do so.

Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher said, "We look forward to taking this step" and "will fully cooperate" with the Justice Department.

He also praised the police officers of Phoenix and said, "I know that good officers do not want to work in a system that allows bad practices."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.