Justice News

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks Announcing a Pattern or Practice Investigation into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department
Washington, DC
United States
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Thursday, August 5, 2021

Remarks as Delivered

Good afternoon. 

I am joined here today by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke.

Today, we are announcing that the Justice Department is opening an investigation into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department. The investigation will determine whether the Phoenix Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.

This is the third pattern or practice investigation I have announced as Attorney General. Each time, I have noted that these investigations aim to promote transparency and accountability. This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety. 

We know that law enforcement shares these goals.

The Justice Department has briefed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams about the investigation. We are pleased by their pledge of support. 

They, too, recognize that we share common aims.

Our investigation in Phoenix will be led by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. It is based on the Division’s extensive review of publicly available information and it will consider several issues.

First, whether the Phoenix Police Department uses excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Second, whether the Phoenix Police Department engages in discriminatory policing practices that violate the Constitution and federal law.

Third, whether the Department violates the First Amendment by retaliating against individuals who are engaged in protected expressive activities. 

Fourth, whether the City and its Police Department respond to people with disabilities in a manner that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. This includes whether decisions to criminally detain individuals with behavioral health disabilities are proper.

And fifth, whether the Phoenix Police Department violates the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness, by seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution.

Those last two areas of investigative focus speak to an important issue that is broader than the Phoenix investigation: Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems. 

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.

This past week, there has been much attention to the impending risk of mass evictions, which would put millions of tenants at risk of losing shelter.

Needless to say, the impact on individuals and families would be devastating.  And as the CDC has made clear, the impact on public health would likewise be devastating, fueling the spread of Covid-19 infections in the affected communities. 

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta is leading a Justice Department effort with state court leaders on this problem. On June 24, she sent a letter to state courts urging them to implement eviction diversion strategies that will increase the chances that families can stay in their homes.

Mass evictions would also have serious implications for law enforcement — adding to a crisis of homelessness that strains but cannot be solved by the criminal justice system. 

The ramifications do not end there.

Far too often, police officers are the first ones called when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis in any setting. But it is almost certain that police will be called to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis if that person is also without housing. And as we have repeatedly seen, the risks to everyone involved in such interactions are enormous.

These issues must be addressed if we are to ease the burdens that our society places on law enforcement and ensure the safety of our communities. The Justice Department, through grantmaking, technical assistance, and training, supports law enforcement and community-based programs to tackle these challenges.

I will now turn the podium over to Assistant Attorney General Clarke, who will talk more about our pattern or practice investigation.

Updated August 5, 2021