Phoenix is poised to be the nation’s latest, and possibly the largest, city to refuse to cede control of its police department to the Biden Administration’s DOJ. The request is the result of a two-year-long investigation by the Feds stemming from allegations made by the Arizona Republic of excessive force used against people of color.
Following the Republic series, the investigation began in August 2021 as part of a nationwide crackdown by the DOJ against local police departments in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protest riots. The inquiry also included allegations of harsh treatment of supposedly “peaceful” protestors and discrimination against the homeless and people with disabilities.
The DOJ conducted over 100 interviews and reviewed over 80,000 documents as part of the DOJ’s so-called civil rights crackdown. The Feds have investigated hundreds of city and county police forces, resulting in consent degrees that allow federal monitors to oversee police operations and enforce DOJ-mandated “reforms.”
Most Phoenix city council members have responded unenthusiastically about federal oversight, with the loss of autonomy being a stronger motivator than the Fed’s threat of litigation. Seven other cities, including two in Arizona, have declined the “offer,” resulting in costly court battles.
Much of the pushback resulted after the policy union, local PACs, and citizen groups expressed outrage due to the risk of financial impact without any benefits. The city is not willing to accept Federal control without supporting evidence.
At the heart of the concern is the DOJ’s demand that the city agree to avoid facing “extensive litigation.” In effect, blackmailing the city into compliance. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) and Councilmembers Ann O’Brien, Jim Waring, Debra Stark, and Kevin Robinson refuse to sign the consent. The final determination rests with the remaining Vice Mayor and five remaining Councilmembers. Since it only takes a simple majority of five to override the consent request, they would need all five to approve the measure. Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari and Councilmembers Laura Pastor, Betty Guardado, and Kesha Hodge Washington have not yet indicated their stand on the intent statements or consent decrees.
At the heart of the refusal is an increased risk of growing bureaucracy at the expense of Police morale, a problem already plaguing the department. Agreeing to the consent decree would be like handing control of the police to the Feds.
In an op-ed posted November 17, 2023, Councilmember Ann O’Brien wrote, “They’re hoping Phoenix will roll over and sign on to a consent decree — effectively relinquishing control of our department to them.”
City police takeovers are not uncommon, although the state usually does the taking. The Missouri House of Representatives took control of the St. Louis Police Department, and a bill in Georgia’s House just passed to take control over removing “rogue” prosecutors. In Texas, the state is preparing to take over the Houston School District, and Governor Abbott has floated the idea of taking control of the Austin Police Department. There’s a legitimate argument for States to have this right, but the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution would likely negate Federal takeover.
It remains unclear if Phoenix will capitulate to the DOJ threat. The threat hangs over the city and the Policy Department until the remaining Councilmembers announce their positions. However, it’s another bit of proof that the Biden Administration’s DOJ seeks to garner greater control over states.
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