Maricopa County attorney, others warn about effects of DOJ police oversight

As the Department of Justice finishes up its investigation into Phoenix Police , many wonder if the "plan" will create more problems than it solves.
Published: Oct. 18, 2023 at 7:28 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell on Wednesday warned that prosecuting criminals from Phoenix could become more difficult in the future if the U.S. Justice Department takes steps to oversee the Phoenix Police Department. Phoenix police are the target of a civil rights investigation by the DOJ, which is investigating whether officers use excessive force, retaliate against protesters and respect the rights of the homeless and mentally ill.

City officials said the investigation by the DOJ is still ongoing and there is no firm date of its conclusion. Any announcement following the investigation would indicate whether investigators believe civil rights violations occurred, and what the DOJ intends to do to fix the problems. Phoenix city and police leaders would need to sign off on any remedy. It’s called a consent decree. It’s an agreement that usually includes the DOJ assigning a monitor to the department to ensure changes are being made. “What I learned working behind the scenes with DOJ gave me a lot of concern,” said Bob Scales, who worked in the city attorney’s office in Seattle when that city went through a similar process.

Scales says the result was expensive, is ongoing and he believes resulted in less effective policing. “It cost over $200 million and it’s taken 11 years, and they’re still not out of the consent decree,” said Scales.

In 2013, the DOJ assigned a monitor to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office after a federal judge found that deputies were racially profiling under then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Ten years and $240 million later, the monitor is still in place. “There has not been an incident in this office since 2017 when I took the office that reflected what occurred that led us to court oversight,” said Sheriff Paul Penzone in August. He recently announced he would leave office early and indicated that the financial constraints his office has endured because of the monitor contributed to his decision.

Arizona’s Family Investigates obtained a memo signed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, which identifies problems with the way the federal monitors have carried out their work in the past, and recommends changes. Those changes include capping the costs and the amount of time monitors are in place.

Phoenix Police officers who spoke to Arizona’s Family Investigates say they are concerned that city leaders are not standing up to the DOJ investigators and demonstrating that the department may not need heavy-handed oversight to fix its problems. “There’s no city that is 100% perfect, 100% of the time. There are always going to be problematic cases,” said Scales. “But the problem with consent decrees is they require, the monitors require perfection,” he said.

MCSO is currently in compliance with more than 90% of the issues the DOJ identified, and yet the monitor remains in place. County Attorney Rachel Mitchell says she is concerned that the money to pay for a monitor and the monitor’s staff will come from the police budget and take away from police work, ultimately affecting her prosecutors. “If they don’t have the adequate personnel to investigate cases, that’s going to slow down investigations getting to us. It may slow down evidence being gathered, etc. So it does have a direct impact on the prosecution,” said Mitchell.

Editor’s Note: This article has been changed to correct the timing of a possible conclusion in the DOJ investigation.

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