Aug 5, 2021
Merrick Garland Announces Investigation into Phoenix Police Department Briefing Transcript
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department on August 5, 2021. Read the transcript of his briefing remarks here.
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Attorney General Merrick Garland: (00:00)
Good afternoon. I’m 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. Thee 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 protect 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.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (01:00)
Our investigation in Phoenix will be led by the Justice Department 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.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (02:07)
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.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (02:46)
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 effected communities. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta is leading a Justice Department effort with state court leaders on this problem. On June 24th, 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.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (03:30)
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.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (04:13)
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 grant making technical assistance and training, supports law enforcement and community-based programs to tackle these challenges.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (04:34)
I will now turn the podium over to Assistant Attorney General Clarke, who will talk more about our pattern or practice investigation.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (04:48)
Thank you, Mr. Attorney General. Protecting the rule of law demands that those who enforce our laws also abide by them. Ensuring that law enforcement acts in a lawful and accountable manner is a priority for the Civil Rights Division. As the Attorney General has just announced following an extensive review of publicly available information regarding the Phoenix Police Department, today we are opening a civil pattern or practice investigation into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (05:22)
We have reviewed court files, media reports, citizen complaints and we also considered factors that we ordinarily weigh in determining whether to open an investigation, including the nature and seriousness of the allegations, the number of allegations, the steps that a department may be taking to address the allegations and the history of the department. We found that the evidence here warrants a full investigation, but we approach this process with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions. Our pattern or practice investigations have been successful at identifying not only whether systemic misconduct is occurring, but also its root causes so that those root causes can ultimately be fixed.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (06:14)
As part of our investigation in Phoenix, we will meet with officers and command staff, as well as members of the broader Phoenix community. We will review incident reports, body-worn camera footage, and other data and documentation collected by the department. We will also review the department’s policies, training materials and supervision records, as well as documents related to systems of accountability, including how complaints are investigated and how discipline is imposed.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (06:49)
As you know, about three months ago, we launched similar investigations into the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department, as well as the City of Louisville and the Louisville Police Department. In both cities, as in Phoenix, we’ve been fortunate to have the support of city officials and police chiefs. In that short time, Justice Department lawyers have had in-person and virtual meetings with close to 1,000 community stakeholders in Minneapolis and Louisville. Hundreds more have submitted messages to the Justice Department. Department lawyers have participated in over 50 ride-alongs with officers, we have had four meetings with full command staff and spoken to officers across both individual interviews and roll call briefings. We will take the same approach in Phoenix.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (07:48)
Our career attorneys have decades of experience working on investigations like the one we open here today. One thing we have learned over the decades is that we must and will work collaboratively with the Phoenix community and with the Phoenix Police Department. If we conclude that there are no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the city or Phoenix Police Department, we will make that known. If, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a report describing our findings and then aim to work cooperatively with the city to reach agreement on the best remedies. If an appropriate remedy can not be achieved through agreement, the Attorney General is authorized to bring litigation to secure an appropriate injunctive remedy.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (08:49)
This morning, our team had the opportunity to speak with city officials about our investigation. We are pleased that Mayor Gallego and Chief Williams have pledged their full support. I will repeat the same message our team conveyed to city officials and city leaders this morning, we’re committed to following the facts where they lead and doing so in a timely matter so that we can expeditiously address any pattern or practice of unlawful conduct that may be identified.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (09:23)
We look forward to working together with the city and the Phoenix Police Department toward the shared goals of ensuring constitutional policing and fostering greater cooperation between law enforcement officers and the community members that they serve.
Speaker 1: (09:45)
Great. [inaudible 00:09:46] questions. Yeah.
Speaker 2: (09:52)
[inaudible 00:09:52] Garland. Was there a final straw in Phoenix?
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (09:58)
I’m going to leave that question, because it’s specifically about the Phoenix investigation, to the Assistant Attorney General.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (10:07)
Our investigation looked into a number of issues. What we’re planning to roll up our sleeves and look at closely is whether or not the Phoenix Police Department uses force unconstitutionally, including deadly force, whether the department engages in discriminatory policing, whether the department engages in retaliatory conduct by making arrests or using force against individuals engaged in peaceful, expressive activities. We’re going to look at whether the city and the police department discriminate against people with disabilities in violation of the ADA. We’re going to look at the department and whether they violate the rights of people experiencing homelessness by unlawfully seizing or disposing of personal property during cleanings or sweeps of encampments. And we’re also going to look at the Department’s policies and training, as well how they investigate and hold officers accountable for misconduct, as failures of these systems may contribute to violations of federal law.
Speaker 3: (11:21)
This is also for Ms. Clarke. Sorry. The nature of the investigation with respect to people experiencing homelessness seems new, I wonder if you could speak as to some of the legal issues you’re looking at that are Fourth Amendment and the like, and also whether this is intended to send a message to other law enforcement entities, which routinely sweep across the country and cities across the country, the belongings of the homeless.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke: (11:48)
The basis for our investigation concludes the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, whether those sweeps, unlawfully seizing and disposing the belongings of persons experiencing homelessness may indeed trigger a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. So that is another basis for the investigation that we are launching today.
Speaker 3: (12:15)
Speaker 4: (12:17)
Mr. Attorney General, you mentioned the eviction crisis and the dangers posed by mass evictions, can you tell us, in light of what’s gone on the last day or two, were you or the Justice Department consulted about the administration’s reversal in policy on the eviction ban? Are you confident that you’ll be able to get it through the Supreme Court?
Attorney General Merrick Garland: (12:40)
So as I said, the effects of mass evictions would be devastating both on individuals and, as the CDC has said, on communities because of the risk of spread of COVID. The Department has vigorously defended the statutory authority of the CDC to issue eviction moratorium, and we will continue to do so. As I’m sure you know, there was a filing last night by plaintiffs in that case, we will be making our own filings and, as is appropriate, we will respond in our filings to those kinds of questions. Thank you.
Speaker 1: (13:13)
Thank you, everyone.
Speaker 4: (13:13)