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Phoenix police violated the rights of homeless residents and minority communities, scathing DOJ report finds

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A Justice Department report criticized in scathing terms some of the policies and practices of the Phoenix Police Department. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP via CNN Newsource)

By Hannah Rabinowitz and Devan Cole, CNN

(CNN) — The Phoenix Police Department has for years violated the constitutional rights of residents experiencing homelessness and regularly discriminated against minority communities, according to a Justice Department report released Thursday.

Justice Department investigators found that Phoenix police targets “people experiencing homelessness, retaliates against people who criticize the police, and disproportionately uses force against people with behavioral health disabilities.”

The report also found that officers disproportionately enforce laws more severely against Black, Hispanic, and Native American people than against White people engaged in the same behaviors, even though “the city still claims it is ‘unaware of any credible evidence of discriminatory policing.’”

The blistering report marks the end of a nearly three-year investigation into the police department that began in the wake of several high-profile incidents, including the 2020 fatal police shooting of a man in a parked car.

This investigation was the first time that a department’s so-called pattern and practice investigation focused on officers’ conduct toward people experiencing homelessness – a clear warning for cities around the country where police sweeps of homeless communities have become a common response to the growth of tent cities in public spaces.

DOJ investigators found that “in the early mornings, officers cite or arrest homeless people for conduct that is plainly not a crime, such as sitting or lying down on public property or for ‘trespassing’ on private property when they are on a public sidewalk.”

Officers also repeatedly seized and destroyed the property of people experiencing homelessness under the guise of the city’s “clean-up operations,” according to the report.

“A person’s constitutional rights do not diminish when they lack shelter,” the report concludes.

Kristen Clarke, the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, told reporters on Thursday that “homelessness is a challenge in Phoenix and in many cities across the country.”

“Over-policing of the homeless has become a central pillar of the (Phoenix) police department’s enforcement strategy,” she added. “The criminalization of homelessness has no place in our society today.”

How US cities have responded to a surge in unhoused residents has become a major flashpoint in recent years, prompting people experiencing homelessness and their advocates to push for greater accountability among local officials.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the coming days in a case challenging an Oregon city ticketing its unhoused residents. The justices have been asked to consider whether the practice violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The DOJ report acknowledges that the Phoenix Police Department has instituted several changes to address unconstitutional policing since the beginning of the federal investigation.

CNN is reaching out to the police department for comment.

DOJ report finds police used excessive force

The Phoenix Police Department frequently and inappropriately used deadly force, the report found, and has one of the highest rates of fatal shootings in the country per year.

Among the causes of Phoenix officers’ use of excessive force is that officers are taught a “misguided notion of de-escalation,” the report says.

“Rather than teaching that de-escalation strategies are designed to eliminate or reduce the need to use force, (the Phoenix Police Department) has misappropriated the concept and teaches officers that all force – even deadly force – is de-escalation,” the report reads.

Officers also delayed rendering aid to people whom they have shot, the report found, or continued to use force against those who were already incapacitated – sometimes even unconscious – because of gunfire.

In one example highlighted by the Justice Department, officers shot an individual in the chest who had pointed a handgun at police. A supervisor at the scene instructed officers to use a non-lethal weapon to give “a couple pops before we approach” the man, who had fallen to the ground, and then said that there was “no rush” in administering CPR. The man was later pronounced dead.

In other examples, officers were quick to physical violence or arrests when they felt that people were being disrespectful or criticizing the police.

Police officers have also used excessive force against protesters to deter First Amendment-protected speech, the report found, including by firing less-than-lethal weapons indiscriminately and without legal justification. Officers have used arrests to deter people from protesting, used criminal charges that were “far more serious than the evidence supported,” and have “sought to justify serious charges with false evidence.”

The police department’s “recent commitment to protecting free speech is important, but it would be premature to claim any new efforts are working,” the report adds.

Police target minority communities, report finds

The sprawling report also found that the Phoenix Police Department disproportionately polices the city’s minority communities, including through excessive tickets and arrests for less serious offenses.

The DOJ probe found that the department “cites and arrests Black, Hispanic, and Native American people for low-level traffic, drug, alcohol, and quality-of-life offenses at rates disproportionate to their shares of the population.”

The offenses cover a range of misconduct, according to the report, which said as an example that the department arrested “cyclists for biking on the wrong side of the road almost eight times more in predominantly non-white neighborhoods, compared with white neighborhoods.”

DOJ also said that the Phoenix Police Department lacked the ability to “adequately investigate” complaints from community members that an office acted with “overt bias.” Many complaints lodged against officers were classified by investigators at the department as “officer ‘rudeness,’” according to the report.

“In the vast majority of cases, (the police department) simply dismisses complaints of discriminatory policing absent evidence that an officer made an overtly racist statement or admitted to engaging in racist profiling,” the report found. “Since people are unlikely to admit to such things, (the department’s) practice of requiring this evidence means that these complaints will necessarily be given short shrift.”

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