Police Abuse

Justice Department Says Phoenix Police Violated Rights of Children, Minorities, Protesters, Homeless People

Phoenix police are trained that "deescalation" means overwhelming and immediate force, whether or not it's necessary.


The Phoenix Police Department regularly violates the constitutional rights of its most vulnerable residents, including minors, homeless people, racial minorities, and those experiencing mental health crises, according to a report released Thursday by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The investigators documented incidents where Phoenix police fabricated incident reports, needlessly used physical force and dangerous restraints, illegally detained homeless people and destroyed their property, delayed medical aid to wounded suspects, and assaulted people for criticizing or filming them.

The report concluded that "systemic problems" and "pervasive failings" in the department's policies, training, and accountability mechanisms have led to widespread use of unconstitutional tactics, excessive force, and illegal retaliation against residents, violating their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

"Phoenix residents deserve nothing less than fair, non-discriminatory, and constitutional policing," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division said in a press release announcing the findings.

"Officers enforce certain laws, including drug and low-level offenses, more severely against Black, Hispanic, and Native American people than against white people engaged in the same behaviors," the report also said.

The Justice Department launched the investigation, known as a "pattern or practice" probe, in 2021, following years of controversial police shootings and allegations of civil rights violations. Those calls for reform escalated after the department's violent and farcical response to the 2020 George Floyd protests, where police and prosecutors tried to charge a dozen protesters for assisting a fictional criminal gang, "A.C.A.B." (The acronym stands for All Cops Are Bastards and is a popular slogan among anti-police activists.)

Justice Department investigators found that during protests, officers fired pepper balls, stun bags, and other less-than-lethal munitions indiscriminately and without legal justification at protesters engaged in protected First Amendment activity. One officer fired more than 1,000 pepper balls in one night during the George Floyd protests. Officers also made false statements to support arrests of protesters.

In one training session reviewed by Justice Department investigators, an instructor used a picture of a protester being shot in the groin with a projectile as a laugh line. The instructor also bragged about how a search warrant of another protester's home and workplace had led the man to become "jobless and homeless at the same damn time."

And although the Phoenix Police Department was prohibited from using neck restraints after 2020, officers continued to use dangerous and unnecessary compression restraints on suspects. The report recounts one instance where officers

stopped a group of people in a parking lot for trespassing, ordered them to sit on the curb, and asked each person for identification to check for outstanding warrants. An officer approached one man who stood up to get to his wallet, and told another officer, "He's not listening, let's just hook him." The man told the officers that he was trying to follow directions, but both officers grabbed him, twisted his wrists, and slammed him down on the sidewalk. The man protested, "You're breaking the law, I didn't do anything!" One officer can be heard on body-worn camera saying, "It's not breaking no law, bro!" as he wrapped his hands around the man's neck. In his report, the officer wrote he did not "apply pressure to the male's throat or squeeze his throat in any way." 

Phoenix police do not modify their aggressive and demeaning behavior when dealing with minors. The report notes numerous instances of officers using excessive force and unprofessional language with young teenagers.

The report also criticized Phoenix police for harassing the homeless through illegal detentions, ID checks, searches, and arrests, despite a binding Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that prohibits cities from criminalizing homelessness when shelter space isn't available.

"Without suspicion of a crime, officers roust people sleeping on public property, demand their identification, detain them to ask questions unrelated to their welfare, and to tell them to move," the Justice Department wrote. "Such encounters are coercive, unnecessary, and routinely lead to constitutional violations." 

The report also found that Phoenix police retaliated against citizens for criticizing or filming them in day-to-day interactions, even though filming the police is a firmly protected First Amendment right. In one example, a man filmed officers while he leaned out of his car window. "Officers surrounded the car, pointed a gun at the man's head from less than a foot away, and then booked him for felony rioting," the report said.

In another instance, an officer repeatedly tased a handcuffed suspect for calling him a "bitch."

This is not simply a problem of rogue officers. According to the Justice Department report, Phoenix police are trained that the best way to deescalate is through overwhelming and immediate force.

In "some trainings we observed, trainers encouraged officers to use force without warning or just seconds after arriving at a scene, regardless of whether the person presented an apparent risk to officers or others," the report said. "In one PhxPD video used to train 40mm operators, a PhxPD officer shot a 40mm impact round at a man standing directly in front of a toddler in a crib. When someone in the training expressed concern that the toddler could have been struck had the officer missed the target, the trainer responded that the deployment was 'one of the best executions of the safety priorities' and the only room for improvement was to fire the projectile sooner."

In fact, officers had an incentive to shoot: The investigators found that the police department "took the weapons away from officers who did not use them enough."

City leaders and police officials did not welcome the Justice Department's findings or recommendations. The Arizona Republic reported, "One city leader said federal oversight would 'neuter' the department, while a police leader said the report's findings were riddled with 'innuendo' and 'half-truths.'"

The Phoenix report is Justice Department's third major civil rights investigation of a metropolitan police department to be released under President Joe Biden. Last year it released reports on pervasive civil rights violations by police in Minneapolis and Louisville.