On August 5, 2021, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a pattern-or-practice investigation into the Phoenix Police Department. As the news spread around the Valley, questions started coming into the PLEA Office about the consequences of such an investigation and what, if anything, could be done to intervene.
Many of the questions we received from the membership surrounded the topic of how the DOJ came to focus on the Phoenix Police Department. In seeking an answer to this question, the PLEA Executive Board directly asked this of three DOJ attorneys during a meeting at PLEA. In short, we were told that the DOJ has been observing Phoenix P.D. for a while. Well, our feeling is that this is a political move by a portion of elected City leadership that has a distaste for our department and a mission to abolish police services by any means possible.
So, how does this all work? We have luckily had no shortage of advice from our brothers and sisters on the West Coast and in the Southwest who are already dealing with the DOJ in their respective departments. Simply put, an investigation either warrants action or not. If a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing is found, the DOJ will attempt to negotiate an agreement with the City to take corrective action, which becomes a federal court order overseen by an independent monitor. If the DOJ cannot negotiate a reform agreement, it will then initiate a lawsuit to secure the recommended reforms.
Every person I have had the opportunity to learn from tells me that nothing good can come from DOJ involvement in a police department. I have also been told that you can’t stop the feds. Issues that are immediately mentioned by these experienced police association leaders in dealing with DOJ-controlled departments are (big surprise) a lack of officer morale, a decrease in work output and an increase in reported crime in their communities. It really isn’t hard to understand, I guess. We are already dealing with recruitment and retention problems, low morale and the ever-popular looming mandates of COVID testing, vaccination, mask-wearing and a majority of elected City leadership that does not publicly support us. Couple those existing issues with the possibility of a DOJ-controlled department, and the self-starters begin to question why they even start at all in the law enforcement profession anymore.
I have also been told by more than one police association president that the DOJ has most likely already established an arguable pattern of police conduct and that the announcement of an investigation is just the precursor to an already planned consent decree with the City of Phoenix.
If you happen to take an internet trip to some of the cities currently enduring federal intervention, you will notice there is no shortage of opinions from the media, law enforcement, government officials and citizens on the effectiveness of the DOJ. Search social media for cities such as Portland, Seattle or Minneapolis. These same cities have a dangerously low level of law enforcement personnel and a climbing crime rate. One of the cities mentioned has had to have a judge order it to hire more officers. Can the DOJ solve these issues or not? What is the metric for success?
Couple those existing issues with the possibility of a DOJ-controlled department, and the self-starters begin to question why they even start at all.
Researching surface issues related to DOJ investigations of police departments is not difficult. There are a number of articles that can be found containing subjects involving the results of investigations and arguments for and against federal involvement in municipal police departments, but there is not much in the way of confidence-instilling positivity for police employees and the communities they serve. In any regard, it seems we will soon have firsthand knowledge.
As professional pessimists, we cops normally seek out worst-case scenarios when presented with something new, looking at everything that could be wrong in an attempt to protect what we consider right. With this in mind, I would like to offer some not-too-scary observations of nearby departments that are actually under a federal consent decree and have a court monitor (remember, that is not what is happening to us at the moment). Firstly, these departments are still around — a super-important observation. These departments still have employees and most continue to hire new employees. All are still able to negotiate contracts, and some have even won compensation and benefit increases for their employees. I’m sure not all employees at these departments are happy, but that differs with each individual anyhow. I just thought I would throw that in for good measure.
The Phoenix Police Department is approaching a situation that can bring about apprehension, because of what is unknown and the feeling of a lack of any guarantee of future working conditions. If you do feel apprehensive, remember that it is normal when faced with changing situations and the unknown. Know that PLEA will continue to provide intelligent representation to our membership while seeking the latest and most accurate information to keep you up to date with our evolving department.
PLEA is proud to represent the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department. Stay focused and don’t be divided by those who manipulate our honorable profession.