Holding American Cops Accountable

The Biden administration seeks to restore trust in law enforcement.

The Phoenix Police Department is currently under investigation, marking the third such inquiry that Joe Biden’s administration has opened.

The investigation will determine whether officers from Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of residents and engaged in the use of excessive force. The inquiry will also assess their treatment of homeless people, minorities, people with mental health problems and peaceful protesters. Over the next few months, federal investigators will review camera footage, rules on police training, discipline and surveillance, and the department’s system of complaint intake.

A few days ago, Phoenix police released a video of officers responding to a domestic violence call and fatally wounding a 31-year-old man as he approached the officers with a knife in his hand. Last year, the Phoenix City Council approved a settlement for a couple who in 2019 accused officers of threatening to shoot the father in front of his fiancée and children, after one of the kids was suspected of stealing a doll from a store.

A few months ago, more than 100 attendees in the protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, filed a federal lawsuit accusing police of having made baseless arrests at the protests in acts of revenge.

“This is not a case of a few bad apples. Phoenix PD has deep-rooted, systemic problems with the way it treats community members,” Victoria Lopez, Advocacy and Legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, said in a statement.

Department of Justice officials state that the federal investigation is supported by local governments. “The recommendations that will result from this review will assist us in our ongoing efforts to become an even safer, stronger, more equitable city,” said Kate Gallego, Mayor of Phoenix.

Unlike under Trump

The Phoenix Police Department is the third department, after Minneapolis and Louisville, to be subject to a federal investigation launched by the Biden administration to determine whether police procedures violate citizens’ constitutional rights. His Democratic predecessor’s administration opened 25 such inquiries, including those involving police forces involved in high-profile police disputes with residents in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and Chicago.

Under Donald Trump, the attorney general suspended oversight of problematic police departments and forcing them to change. “We’ve undermined the respect for our police and made, often times, their job more difficult. We need to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness. I don’t think it’s wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights,” said Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s attorney general. The then president even urged the officers not to be “too nice” to suspects.

When Biden took office in the White House, after months of protests against racism and power abuse, he signaled that the times of indifference were over.

Less than 24 hours after the jury had found white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of Floyd’s murder, the Department of Justice opened inquiries into Minneapolis Police Department practices, including those regarding police training and treatment of people with mental illness, and whether it tolerates discriminatory conduct.

Then a similar investigation was launched into the Louisville Metro Police, over the March 2020 death of Black 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who died at the hands of a white officer in her home shortly after midnight.

By resuming federal investigations of police departments accused of power abuse, the Biden administration seeks to restore trust between police and communities, and believes that doing so will improve public safety.

“Building trust between the community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. He also emphasized, somewhat in defense of the officers, that police must respond to all calls, including mental health calls, but have not received training to address them correctly. “This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement, and hinders public safety,” said Garland.

The Problem of Authority

Such federal investigations of police procedures are very time-consuming, and it is not possible to cover all 18,000 police departments across the country. However, the Biden administration is trying to put pressure on local departments. For instance, it offers grants to those who adhere to federal guidelines. Biden has also set up a Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, responsible for ensuring that the police respect and uphold civil rights.

Phoenix is one of the cities where police will be paired with social workers who will respond to mental health calls. The city has also established a bureau for independent investigations into alleged abuse of authority by the police.

Following the wave of protests that swept across the country last year, some discussions have emerged regarding police funding cuts, greater surveillance and police reform. Moreover, there has been a growing distrust among the public and increased pressure on the officers, as suddenly the whole nation began to watch their every move.

Another factor diluting the police’s reputation are the statistics showing that in six years, officers have fatally shot more than 6,400 people, an average of almost three a day.

As a result, thousands of cops across the country have quit their jobs. Some have retired early; others have resigned. Interest in becoming a police officer has also decreased. “The conversation nationally has really been very, very much questioning police authority, what they do, how they do it,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of an organization that released a report on the shrinking police forces in the U.S. last spring.

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