Phoenix police, fire unions urge mayor to 'part ways' with DOJ police investigation
Five city worker unions and two neighborhood groups called on the Phoenix mayor to stop cooperating with the Department of Justice and reject federal oversight as the agency appears to be concluding its investigation into the Police Department.
The Phoenix police and fire unions, three city employee unions and two neighborhood groups sent Mayor Kate Gallego a letter saying it was time to "part ways with the DOJ’s unlimited access to the Phoenix Police Department, and officially inform them there will not be a consent decree agreement with the City of Phoenix."
Consent decrees are official agreements cities and the Justice Department typically agree to at the end of civil rights investigations. They're enforced by a court and typically require cities to make reforms and pay for independent monitors to oversee the implementations. Other cities under consent decrees have spent tens of millions of dollars on compliance.
The unions, at more than 12,000 members, represent roughly 84% of the city's employees.
Kate Gallego responded in a statement on Thursday. “I understand the sincere frustration that some have about the investigation, but I and the City remain committed to cooperating," she said.
"Our most important goal here is to improve public safety outcomes in the city, which we’re already doing through many meaningful reforms. Closing the door on cooperation in the final stages of the investigative process simply doesn’t help advance that goal.”
Buy-in from five of the city's seven worker unions represents an escalation in the pre-existing pressure campaign on Gallego and the City Council to preserve the Phoenix Police Department's autonomy.
Arizona House Republicans, in a letter sent earlier this week, urged the council to fight the DOJ. Previously, neighborhood groups put up billboards, launched websites and organized emailing campaigns urging the same.
Council members, meanwhile, must ponder the costly litigation that likely would ensue should they attempt to resist changes sought by the feds. In a 2017 report, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said seven jurisdictions had tried — unsuccessfully in the end — to resist agreements for reform.
While the majority of Phoenix councilmembers said they would refuse to sign any legal agreement with the Justice Department before reading the findings report, most councilmembers said they want at least to read the report before deciding on the consent decree.
However, Ann O'Brien and Jim Waring — the two Republican councilmembers — said they totally opposed a consent decree in Phoenix.
What is a consent decree?What would federal oversight mean for Phoenix police?
The letter: Reject federal oversight and we'll have your back
The union and neighborhood groups in the letter say they believe the Phoenix Police Department has been working on reforms and was doing a good job. Federal oversight, they say, won't work and would cost taxpayers too much.
Beyond rejecting a potential consent decree, the letter says Gallego should prepare to fact check the DOJ's findings report "line-by-line" and prepare to tell the story about the department's "long-running status as a self-assessing, self-correcting agency."
The letter concludes that if the city rejected a consent decree, it would "have the total and complete support from the majority of the city’s employee associations, and more importantly, the majority of Phoenix residents."
The signing unions included the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, Phoenix Fire Local 493, AFSCME 2384, AFSCME 2960 and ASPTEA. Other groups included Operation Blue Ribbon, the Violence Impact Project Coalition and the Phoenix Mid-Century Modern Neighborhood Association.
The two unions that did not sign the letter were the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 77 and the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association.
What is the DOJ investigation about?
The Justice Department opened its inquiry in August 2021, promising to look into claims of excessive use of force by Phoenix officers, retaliation against protesters, discriminatory policing practices and the department's response to people with disabilities or who were experiencing homelessness.
The inquiry came after criticism from the community about the department's use of force and investigations by The Arizona Republic and other media into Phoenix's high rate of police shootings and disproportionate use of violence against people of color.
The wide-ranging two-year probe has involved more than 100 interviews and 80,000 documents. It has cost the city $5.5 million as of June, and the City Council voted Wednesday to spend another $700,000 related to legal services and software for the investigation.
Reporter Taylor Seely covers Phoenix for The Arizona Republic / azcentral.com. Reach her at email@example.com or by phone at 480-476-6116.