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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks on Justice Department Findings of Civil Rights Violations by the Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon. I am here today to announce the findings of the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into the Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix.

Based on a comprehensive review, we find that there is reasonable cause to believe that the police department and the city engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. We have also identified violations of the Safe Streets Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Specifically, we found that the Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix engage in a pattern or practice of using excessive force; unlawfully detaining, ticketing and arresting homeless people; discriminating against Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people in its policing enforcement; violating the rights of people engaged in demonstrations and protests and discriminating against people with behavioral health disabilities.

First, we found that the Phoenix Police Department uses excessive force, often unreasonably escalating the level of force within the first few minutes, or even seconds, of an encounter. This behavior includes improper use of tasers, projectiles, leg restraints, police dogs and even deadly force – including guns and neck restraints and compression restraints. Officers also routinely delay medical aid and employ excessive force on wounded people. For example, Phoenix officers shot a man, and after he fell, fired multiple projectiles at him and then sent a police canine to drag him back to them. The pain they inflicted was extraordinary. But for nine minutes, officers failed to provide medical aid. Tragically, that man died.

In addition, contrary to accepted practices throughout the nation, the Phoenix Police Department trains officers that “escalation” is “de-escalation,” meaning that you could “escalate” a situation with force, including deadly force, in order to defuse it — an approach that places community members and the officers themselves at unnecessary risk. The police department not only instructs officers to be “proactive” in using projectiles but has adopted a “use it or lose it policy,” taking the weapons away from officers who did not fire them enough.

Second, we found that unhoused people in Phoenix have suffered a pattern of unconstitutional conduct. This finding is historic. This marks the first time the Justice Department has found violations of the civil and constitutional rights of people who are homeless. Homelessness is a challenge in Phoenix and in many cities across the country. The homeless population in Phoenix has nearly tripled over the last decade. Over-policing of the homeless has become a central pillar of the police department’s enforcement strategy. In fact, 37% of all the department’s misdemeanor arrests and citations were of homeless people. The criminalization of homelessness has no place in our society today. Based on our review, Phoenix’s enforcement activities violate the rights of homeless people because police frequently stop, detain and arrest the homeless without reasonable suspicion that they have committed any crime. In addition, the city and the police department seize and destroy the property of homeless people without providing adequate notice or an opportunity to collect their belongings. This behavior is not only unlawful, but it conveys a lack of respect for the humanity and dignity of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Third, our investigation found that the police department discriminates against Black, Hispanic and Native American people in its enforcement activities. Police officers have an obligation to enforce the law fairly and equally, but in Phoenix, officers are disproportionately targeting communities of color. For example, Black drivers in Phoenix are 144% more likely than white drivers to be arrested or cited for low-level moving violations, and Hispanic drivers are 40% more likely to be arrested or cited for the same thing. We also found that Phoenix police enforce drug and alcohol offenses more severely against Black, Hispanic and Native American people than against white people. Data show that Phoenix cites and arrests Black people for marijuana possession at nearly seven times the rate of white people; for Hispanic people, the rate is more than three times higher. And Native American people in Phoenix are 44 times more likely than white people to be cited or arrested for possessing or consuming an alcoholic beverage. Phoenix also disproportionately brings quality-of-life charges, like trespassing, pedestrian traffic violations and loitering against Black, Hispanic and Native American people. For instance, per capita, Black, Hispanic and Native American pedestrians were all more likely than white pedestrians to be cited or arrested simply for walking in the street when there is a sidewalk.        

The police department claims it was unaware of these significant racial disparities. But longstanding and frequently voiced community concerns about discriminatory policing, as well as overt displays of bias within the police force, should have spurred the department to analyze its own data. Instead, the police department turned a blind eye to the data, ignored these unmistakable warnings and failed to uncover its own discriminatory policing patterns.

Fourth, our investigation found that the Phoenix Police Department violates the rights of people engaged in protected speech, including retaliating against people who criticize the department. For example, following a protest at which officers unloaded cannisters of tear gas on peaceful protestors, PhxPD officers circulated a “challenge coin” — a memento normally used to commemorate moments of valor and pride during service. This challenge coin instead depicted a protestor whom an officer shot in the groin with a 40mm impact round. When police officers abuse their power to silence people asserting their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly it erodes the community’s trust in law enforcement.

Fifth, we found that the police department and the city discriminate against people with behavioral health disabilities, particularly when responding to calls for assistance. For example, 911 call-takers too often fail to identify when callers have behavioral health issues and default to sending most such calls to police officers. Phoenix’s own experts estimate that, on average each month, about 10% of Phoenix’s dispatch calls for service relate to behavioral health. And our analysis found that officers spend significant patrol time responding to these calls. Even though resources are available for an alternative response, Phoenix directs only a small fraction of those calls to them, even when there is no violence, no weapon, no immediate threat and no need for a police officer to immediately respond.

Further, when sending behavioral health calls to the police, call-takers often fail to pass on critical information that could help officers respond appropriately. Particularly in this area, the hair-trigger tendency of Phoenix police to use indiscriminate, overwhelming force is both pronounced and harmful. We saw officers, including those with specialized training, quickly escalate encounters, by using force and making arrests even when the police were on-scene specifically to transport the person to behavioral health treatment. These harms could be eliminated by dispatching behavioral health responders where appropriate – and where a law enforcement response is needed, the harms could be mitigated by sending behavioral health responders together with police.

Finally, we found that the police department makes no concession for the particular vulnerabilities of children, instead treating them just the same as adults. The problematic tactics and unlawful conduct of Phoenix police can significantly harm children’s physical and mental wellbeing. Not only does such conduct harm children, but it can contribute to fear and distrust of law enforcement by the next generation of Phoenix residents.

Our findings are not based on any one incident or event, but on a comprehensive investigation. Career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division conducted many hours of interviews, participated in ride-alongs, reviewed thousands of documents and watched hundreds of hours of body-worn camera video.

Ultimately, our findings reveal evidence showing long-standing dysfunction at the Phoenix Police Department. The problems at their core reflect a lack of effective supervision, training and accountability.

To the city and police department’s credit, during our investigation, they have taken preliminary steps to institute reform. Interim Chief Sullivan revised the department’s use-of-force policy and introduced new training on de-escalation and the duty to intervene. The city has invested in additional shelters and resources for the city’s homeless population. And the department has developed additional policies and training to guide 911 call-takers in appropriately responding to requests for emergency assistance involving people with behavioral health disabilities. Recently, the city issued a “Road to Reform” report, laying out what the city has done and intends to do to achieve constitutional policing. However, today, many reforms have not yet been implemented. Other reforms exist on paper, but not in practice. In total, these efforts are simply not enough to address the full scope of our findings today.

To achieve sustainable reform, we will need input from many sources – community members, patrol officers, command staff and non-police emergency responders. Change is possible here. While the path to reform may not be quick or easy, through collaboration, partnership and cleared-eyed realism about the solutions that can achieve change, we can help to usher in a new chapter in Phoenix – one that creates lasting change and respects the civil and constitutional rights of the residents of Phoenix while promoting public safety.

We appreciate that the city has committed to engage in continued conversation with the Justice Department about next steps.

As I close, I want to acknowledge that police officers have a difficult job and perform often unrecognized acts of heroism to keep the public safe. I also want to acknowledge the countless number of people in Phoenix who worked with us throughout this investigation, including community advocates and leaders and families of people subjected to deadly police force and police officers. We know that sharing your thoughts and experiences with us was not always easy, but it made a difference. We look forward to continued engagement with the community in the months ahead.

Phoenix residents deserve nothing less than fair, non-discriminatory and constitutional policing. Our findings provide a blueprint and a roadmap that can help transform the police department, restore community trust and strengthen public safety efforts in one of America’s largest cities. We are committed to working collaboratively with the police department, city officials and the public to institute reform and remedy the violations we identified in our investigation. An important task lies ahead, and we will persevere until we get the job done.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated June 13, 2024