Inside Justice Department investigation of Phoenix, Louisville police

It was no surprise when the U.S. Department of Justice landed in Louisville, Kentucky, last April to announce it was investigating policing in the troubled city.The Louisville Metro Police Department had been under a national spotlight for nearly a year, since protesters began demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman police shot dead in her home March 2020 while attempting to serve a search warrant.It seemed inevitable to Louisville’s embattled mayor when U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced days earlier the agency would probe Minneapolis, where an officer in spring 2020 held his knee on George Floyd’s neck until he died.”Minneapolis and George Floyd were announced first, and I said, ‘Well, it’s just a matter of time before we get the call here,'” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer told The Louisville Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.On April 26, Garland made it official: The Justice Department would investigate whether Louisville is guilty of discriminatory policing.The Justice Department’s next target, announced a few months later, wasn’t as obvious.While no single incident in Phoenix received as much national attention as the killings of Floyd or Taylor, its ongoing legacy of excessive violence and discriminatory justice by police made it stand out.Attorney General Merrick Garland announce that the Department of Justice is opening an investigation into Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department on Aug. 5, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/Associated PressIn 2018, Phoenix officers shot at more people than any other police agency in the nation. And 10 years of Phoenix police records released in 2020 revealed its officers were significantly more likely to use force against Hispanic, Black and Native American residents than white ones.”They are murdering us in the streets,” Mimi Arrayaa, co-director of Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, put it bluntly. “Our communities are being ravaged by a Police Department that says that they’re about justice but doesn’t want to do anything but harm and kill us.”On Aug. 5, Garland announced the Justice Department was adding Phoenix to its list of cities under investigation.In a nation still discontented by a summer of racial justice protests that swept over cities nationwide — including Phoenix, Louisville and Minneapolis — the cry for police reform has been taken up by the Biden administration.With Congress still in gridlock, Biden has turned to the Justice Department to dispense that reform and to send a message to law enforcement:Civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated PressWe’re watching how you do your job.Florida-based attorney Ben Crump, who has represented the families of Floyd, Taylor and others hurt and killed by police, said the Justice Department is sending a clear signal.”Police chiefs and public safety departments all across America are looking at these cities and saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to get the scrutiny of the federal government coming down on our city, so let us try to do things that are proactive,'” Crump said.Sadiqa Reynolds, CEO and president of the Louisville Urban League, said Louisville and Minneapolis are such “blatant examples” of policing problems, it is impossible for the Justice Department to ignore.She believes the Department of Justice should make examples of the cities.”If that will send a message to help clean up departments across the country, then that’s good,” Reynolds said. “We just can’t go on like this.”Louisville, Kentucky, (left) and Phoenix (right) and their police departments are both under investigation by the Department of Justice.
Louisville, Kentucky, (left) and Phoenix (right) and their police departments are both under investigation by the Department of Justice.
Louisville, Kentucky, (left) and Phoenix (right) and their police departments are both under investigation by the Department of Justice.
Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal; Getty ImagesThere are many similarities in the federal investigations into these two cities, 1,700 miles apart.The Justice Department will investigate how both departments used force, how they handled protests and any discriminatory policing.It will determine if Louisville police engaged in unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures, including unlawful search warrant executions, and whether they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, more specifically how they deal with people who are homeless or mentally ill.Likewise, Phoenix will be scrutinized over its practices for responding to people with disabilities and sweeps of homeless encampments. Garland said federal officials would investigate whether Phoenix officers used excessive force and retaliated against protesters.Attorney General Merrick Garland
Mandel Ngan/Associated PressUnder President Donald Trump, federal pattern or practice investigations all but ground to a halt. With Biden in the Oval Office, it was widely expected the Justice Department would be more aggressive.Mayor Fischer said the moves make it clear the federal government was focusing more on “discriminatory policing — very radically different than the Trump administration.”The Department of Justice did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the specifics of its investigations or how they would be carried out in either city.Mayors of both cities said they welcomed federal review, with Louisville’s Fischer, who is in his third and final term in office, characterizing it as “high-level audit.”Fischer said the city has collaborated with the Justice Department, with a six-person team meeting regularly with investigators, giving them access to computer systems and data, the mayor told The Courier Journal.”We need to address these things,” Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields told The Courier Journal. “To me, the DOJ was really just … added muscle behind the efforts that were already afoot here.”Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (left) and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (right) both welcomed the review by the Justice Department.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (left) and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (right) both welcomed the review by the Justice Department.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (left) and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (right) both welcomed the review by the Justice Department.
Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal; Rob Schumacher/The RepublicPhoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams rebuffed interview requests by The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, but Gallego has echoed Fischer’s contention the investigation will leave Phoenix “an even safer, stronger, more equitable city.”In October, Phoenix Police Chief Williams said the department has set up a team to respond to investigators, turned over documents and made officers available for interviews“It is what it is,” she said. “We have got to deal with it.”Unfairly targeted: How Louisville ‘no-knock’ warrants targeted Black residents mostLouisville recognized the need for changes months before the Justice Department set its sights on Kentucky’s largest city.Black residents’ trust in the Police Department had been eroding for decades, punctuated in 2002 with the fatal police shooting of James Taylor, a 50-year-old Black man whose hands were cuffed behind his back when he died.What followed was a series of police scandals: teens sexually abused in the department’s Scout Explorer program, questionable traffic stops Black residents said unfairly targeted them and accusations of high-profile killings where police were accused of misusing force.Last January an outside review by the consulting agency Hillard Heintze found Louisville police to be “in crisis,” with a “deeply strained” relationship with the Black community.Hillard Heintze found Louisville officers don’t provide equal treatment to communities of color. Though Black residents made up 21% of the city’s population in 2019, they accounted for 44% of police arrests and 33% of traffic stops.The cities’ police departments are run by Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Erika Shields (left) and Phoenix Police Department Chief Jeri Williams (right).
The cities’ police departments are run by Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Erika Shields (left) and Phoenix Police Department Chief Jeri Williams (right).
The cities’ police departments are run by Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Erika Shields (left) and Phoenix Police Department Chief Jeri Williams (right).
Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal; Sean Logan/The RepublicShields — Louisville’s fourth police chief in eight months — has been open about the need to change the department culture and police all neighborhoods the same.”Ultimately, that is how — particularly the Black community — is going to judge us, is by our performance day in and day out,” she told The Courier Journal.Concerns in Phoenix reach beyond the Black community. Long after controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio left office, the city still struggles with equitable policing.Ben Laughlin, policy coordinator for Phoenix activist group Poder in Action, says while organizers have been working for years in Phoenix to dismantle oppressive systems, the police department slid under the radar.”Arpaio just took up so much space,” he said of the former Maricopa County sheriff, whose traffic patrols unlawfully targeted Latinos. “He was doing terrible, racist, violent things, to be sure, but it also covered up what was really happening, which was that Phoenix police were the biggest part of the deportation machine.”An investigation by The Republic found Phoenix police called federal agents to investigate someone’s immigration status in 6,169 cases between July 2017 and December 2019.Beyond race, the investigation will look at police interactions with another growing community: people with disabilities. About 27% of Arizona adults and 35% of Kentucky adults live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control.Shifting policy: Justice Department’s police probes are part of a larger planThe 2017 case of Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr. brought to light Phoenix police’s troubled interactions with people with disabilities.Muhaymin, who was homeless and mentally ill, tried to take his dog with him to a bathroom at a city community center. After police were called and found he had an outstanding warrant, at least four officers got on top of him, with some putting their knees on his neck and head.Police body camera footage captured Muhaymin saying several times, “I can’t breathe.” When officers got off him, he had no pulse and lay in a pool of his own vomit.The Phoenix City Council recently approved a $5 million settlement to Muhaymin’s family.”Mr. Muhaymin’s case brought to life something that those of us working in this space have known for a long time,” said J.J. Rico, CEO of the Arizona Center for Disability Law. “Police interactions with people with serious mental illness and disabilities are usually not positive ones.”Protesters march against police brutality in Phoenix on June 9, 2020.
Michael Chow/The RepublicIn part because of their different dynamics, activists in Louisville and Phoenix have taken different attitudes toward the Justice Department investigations.Chris 2X, Louisville activist.
Marty Pearl/Special to Courier JournalActivists in Louisville largely have welcomed the federal investigators’ presence and their work has inspired some confidence within the community, although one activist group has voiced discontent.”I can only say I was extremely impressed,” said Rabbi Bob Slosberg of the Adath Jeshurun Congregation and the interfaith advocacy group CLOUT. “This was as high-level and as professional as any investigation I’ve seen in my 40-year career. … I think their coming here was a wake-up call that was long overdue.”Louisville antiviolence activist Christopher 2X said the only frustration he’s heard is the wait before people can speak with investigators.But Rachel Hardy, an activist with The 490 Project, said it’s hard to see the Justice Department as a “white knight” because it still sees “policing as the answer.”Mimi Arrayaa, Phoenix Metro Black Lives Matter organizer.
Megan Mendoza/The RepublicIn Phoenix, the reaction has been more skeptical.Mimi Arrayaa, co-director of Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, says initial talks with the Department of Justice weren’t promising.Arrayaa said Justice Department officials acted condescendingly toward her organization and representatives of Mass Liberation Arizona when presented with a list of demands.”They were gaslighting us,” she said. “They told us we were being confrontational and said we needed to calm down and be fair.”Mass Liberation Arizona Lead Organizer Bruce Franks Jr. says its organization had to “crash the party” to be included.”That’s when it got really uncomfortable for them. But that’s how we make change — by making folks uncomfortable,” he said.Protesters surround a police cruiser in Louisville on May 28, 2020.
Michael Clevenger/Courier JournalAs the Justice Department investigates, the cities are trying to police themselves.In June 2020, the Louisville Metro Council banned the use of no-knock search warrants like the one obtained for Taylor’s apartment, though officers insist they knocked and announced their presence. The city created a civilian review board and hired an inspector general.Viri Hernandez of Poder in Action speaks during a protest on June 21, 2019, outside Phoenix police headquarters.
Sean Logan/The RepublicMayor Fischer and top police officials also earmarked $17 million in American Rescue Plan funding over the next four years for police reform, including better auditing and accountability systems.The Phoenix City Council in May approved, and funded, a group to monitor Phoenix police and conduct potential misconduct investigations. The Office of Accountability and Transparency “will independently investigate allegations involving police while also creating greater transparency and accountability within the Phoenix Police Department,” Mayor Gallego said.City Councilmember Carlos Garcia sees the investigation as an affirmation of his fight for greater local oversight of police. But he said the community cannot become complacent.”My first concern was that we, as a city council, and as a city, we’re going to wait back and allow the DOJ to tell us what to do,” Garcia said.Both cities have called on one man to guide them through the Justice Department investigation: Danny Murphy.Formerly the deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department and the Deputy Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, Murphy is now a full-time police reform consultant, helping cities prepare for a review by the federal government.Danny Murphy, police reform consultant
Courtesy of Danny MurphyHe was never a police officer, working instead as a civilian helping the departments on compliance issues.Phoenix signed a contract with Murphy in August for $400 an hour, up to $64,000. In Louisville, Murphy could earn as much as $160,000 for work through June 2022.”They brought me in to try to provide guidance and perspectives on how these reform agreements have played out,” Murphy said.He’s been meeting regularly with Louisville police, and “they’re really interested in trying to move forward, substantively and quickly on the reform process.”Murphy says Biden’s Justice Department placed emphasis on issues like police interactions with people who have disabilities or who are experiencing homelessness.”There seems to be a more pronounced focus on it with this new set of investigations, and that seems to be in some way, an outgrowth of the previous work” from the Obama administration, he said.A Phoenix police officer keeps watch during a clean up of a homeless encampment in Phoenix on April 29, 2020.
Eli Imadali/The RepublicThe DOJ’s Phoenix investigation calls out one thing not spelled out in Louisville or Minneapolis: police treatment of people who are homeless.In his announcements for each city, Garland specifically mentioned Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, which cities have interpreted as police attitudes toward mental health and homelessness. In Phoenix, homeless encampment sweeps were specifically listed on the agenda for the DOJ.A man experiencing homelessness moves his belongings by a Phoenix police officer during an encampment removal on Feb. 5, 2020.
Eli Imadali, Eli Imadali/The RepublicPeople living in a downtown Phoenix encampment say police routinely ask them to move and confiscate their belongings under the guise of maintaining sanitation.Homeless encampment sweeps are part of a Phoenix policy the city council has unanimously reaffirmed, voting to spend federal CARES Act money to increase the frequency of sweeps.’You have some justice for me?’ Homeless in Phoenix say police throw away tentsSanitation workers and police officers often discard homeless people’s possessions during cleanups, claiming items are mistaken for trash or thought to be abandoned after being left unattended. It’s this potentially inappropriate property disposal that the DOJ is investigating.The Rev. Daniel Ponisciak, executive director at Andre House, which serves the homeless in Phoenix, said police target his staff for helping the homeless, pulling them over as they head home.But since the Justice Department investigation, he’s noticed less harassment of his staff and those experiencing homelessness since August.”Night and day,” he said. “But if they can flip everything so quickly and make everything good, it makes me worried that they can flip it all back and it will go bad again.”Protesters in Louisville (left) and Phoenix (right) call for police reform during summer protests in 2020.
Protesters in Louisville (left) and Phoenix (right) call for police reform during summer protests in 2020.
Protesters in Louisville (left) and Phoenix (right) call for police reform during summer protests in 2020.
Alton Strupp/Courier Journal; Thomas Hawthorne/The RepublicIt’s widely assumed the investigations of Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix and, most recently, Mount Vernon, New York, will lead to federal oversight and significant policy changes for police.It might take months or years to find out what, exactly, that will look like.Those investigations often result in an injunction or a negotiated settlement, called a consent decree, said Bob Driscoll, a former chief of staff of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who supervised the special litigation section that runs pattern or practice investigations.Family and friends of David McAtee, who was fatally shot by Kentucky National Guard members, hold a vigil in Louisville on June, 2, 2020.
Matt Stone/Courier Journal”The local department might have to rewrite their use of force policies,” he said. It could also mean beefed up internal affairs or citizen complaint reporting, “things that would remedy the pattern of constitutional violations that was uncovered.”One thing that is certain, when the federal government forces changes on local jurisdictions, they aren’t cheap.New Orleans and Ferguson, Missouri, spent millions of dollars over several years to meet the conditions laid down by Justice Department consent decrees — resulting in tax hikes and budget problems.”I get it. It’s a heavy expense to taxpayers,” said Shields, Louisville’s police chief, “but you also have to know that if you’re not prepared to invest in the product and demand change, you’re probably going to keep getting the same results.”How we got here: Distrust of Louisville police started long before Breonna TaylorPhoenix City Councilmember Garcia says he hopes the Justice Department will reach the conclusion that the answer to ending police brutality is less policing.”Officers should probably never show up to certain calls for mental health or drug abuse,” he said. “The uniform is not the answer for all our problems.”Still, Bruce Franks, who was a prominent activist in Ferguson, worries a consent decree for Phoenix could pour power and resources into systemically racist agencies that should be dismantled.”What happens if the investigation results in more funding for police training? We’re still dying” Franks said. “Take those funds and put them into our community. Put them toward the root causes of some of the harm that’s been caused in our community.”Bruce Franks, Phoenix activist.
Mark Henle/The RepublicWhatever the investigations determine, research shows it may take years to see any effects from negotiated reforms.Zachary Powell, an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino, said it’s tough to gauge the impact of consent decrees, since there are no national data.Powell and fellow researchers reviewed lawsuits filed against 23 police departments under consent decrees from 1990 to 2013. They compare what happened before the consent decree and what followed.The big takeaway? Evidence suggests federal intervention may help reduce civil rights lawsuits, though the change happens slowly, Powell said.”You have to retrain officers, maybe you have to hire some new people, you’re implementing new reporting systems and things like that, so this effect gradually happens over time,” he said.Activists are prepared to be in it for the long haul, Franks said.”Because when the DOJ is gone, it’s still going to be us — the directly impacted people — in the streets, fighting for liberation.”Reporters Jessica Boehm, Darcy Costello, Jenn Fifield and Kala Kachmar contributed to this story.Follow reporters Jimmy Jenkins and Tessa Duvall on Twitter: @JimmyJenkins, @TessaDuvall

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