Phoenix Law Enforcement Association

Chief Williams and PLEA Respond to NYT Hit Piece

On December 9, 2018, The New York Times published an article titled “Police Violence Is Up in Phoenix.  City Officials Blame Civilians” and on the following day, an article appeared on their website titled “How Phoenix Explains a Rise in Police Violence: It’s the Civilians’ Fault” which was picked up by other media outlets and websites including MSN.  The article was written by New York Times reporter Richard A. Oppel Junior, who came to Phoenix to interview and collect information from a variety of people.  Representatives of the city to include City Manager Ed Zuercher and City Coucilman Sal DiCiccio  along with PIO’s from the Phoenix PD and PLEA were interviewed. 

PLEA President Ken Crane and Vice President Britt London sat for an hour and forty-seven minute interview with Mr. Oppel.  During the interview with PLEA, we discussed the number of shootings we have had in Phoenix as well as factors we believe are contributing to the increased numbers.  We also discussed general principles regarding police use of force to include answering follow up questions via telephone. In an effort to be helpful and transparent we also provided Mr. Oppel with a copy of the departments use of force policy so he could see and understand force related definitions for himself.  

When all was said and done, Mr. Oppel cherry picked five incidents to cover which included:

  • The arrest of a subject who was later determined to be blind, after he assaulted an officer in the restroom of a QT in Maryvale (not related to any officer involved shooting).
  • The shooting of a suspect, who despite multiple Taser deployments, managed to fight with and seriously injure one officer and was preparing to use the open single strand of a handcuff as a weapon against the second officer
  • An in-custody death of a suspect found to have a warrant after officers were initially called out to the Maryvale community center after he argued with a Parks and Recreation employee and fought with officers trying to take him into custody.  Postmortem results, obtained via public records request by Mr. Oppel indicated the suspect had methamphetamine in his system (not related to any officer involved shooting).  
  • The shooting of a suspect who ran from an officer and tried to disarm the officer by grabbing his service weapon after the officer got into a foot pursuit and located him.
  • The article also mentioned an old case involving a use of force incident where former Police Chief Joe Yahner terminated an officer, however, the Civil Service Board, composed entirely of CIVILIANS, who reviewed all of the evidence overturned the termination and reinstated the officer.  By pure happenstance, that officer, who was part of a specialty detail when the original incident occurred, nearly six years later has minimal involvement with the arrest of the subject at the community center, yet Mr. Oppel engages in a broad overreach to draw a nexus between the two incidents.

Mr. Oppel went on to try to make hay with the rift that had developed between former Police Chief Danny Garcia and the police labor groups.  Oppel chose to highlight Garcia blaming his termination on PLEA and PPSLA’s joint vote of no confidence and mentioned his epic press conference where he attacked PLEA, PPSLA, and the Civil Service Board.  While results of the vote of no confidence were overwhelmingly against him and were based on input from rank and file officers, sergeants, and lieutenants (over 98% of the dept.), his actual termination was as a direct result of his failure to obey a direct order, insubordination (for holding the press conference after expressly being ordered not to) and unprofessional conduct for attacking City Leadership, the unions, and the Civil Service Board.  Mr. Oppel chooses to conveniently omit these relevant pieces of information despite PLEA explaining it to him and providing Mr. Oppel with a copy of Garcia’s termination memo signed by City Manager Ed Zuercher.

It seems it is just too much to expect Mr. Oppel to provide a well rounded and fair perspective of the topics.  The hatchet job that Mr. Oppel tries to pass off as legitimate journalism is nothing more than a biased one sided hit-piece that shows he came to Phoenix with a preconceived notion of how his story should end followed by appropriately cherry picking selected pieces of information to support his predetermined conclusion.   His inflammatory title was nothing more than click-bait to generate readership while using a broad brush to paint the hard-working men and women of the Phoenix Police Department who put their lives on the line to protect the residents of the City, as violent and out of control.

Here is what we do know:

  • Phoenix is the 5th largest and fastest growing city in the nation.
  • We have a geographical footprint of almost 530 square miles.
  • We have an estimated population of 1.6 million people.
  • We had a six-year hiring freeze, which led to a critical police department staffing shortage.
  • While all sworn personnel are doing more with less, our Patrol officers are covering larger squad and beat areas with fewer personnel.
  • Fewer uniformed officers on the street leads to emergency calls being handled by one or two officers, when in the past, multiple officers would be on scene.
  • We are in a border state which allows criminals to enter and exit our country without being properly vetted
  • We have seen an increase in the number of homeless people in all areas of the city.
  • We are handling more calls involving mentally ill individuals, many who are not taking medications or are self-medicating with alcohol and/or illegal drugs.
  • We are seeing more potent street drugs including methamphetamine, heroin, as well as bath salts and spice and more people are using them.
  • Many members of our homeless population are not receiving proper mental health care and their use of street drugs compounds the issue.
  • We are seeing more individuals willing to challenge our authority.
  • We are seeing more people who have been part of the correctional system more willing to fight with officers to avoid being re-incarcerated.
  • Assaults on Phoenix Police Officers in the first six months of 2018 were up 45.5% from where they were the previous year.

Although PLEA was opposed to spending $150,000 on a shooting study, the City Council approved it.  Despite our initial opposition, PLEA has met with and cooperated with researchers doing the study, and on their request, facilitated two focus groups so they could obtain feedback from street level officers. 

There are multiple mechanisms in place which govern police use of force, including State laws, which are listed under Arizona Revised Statutes Title 13, and officers can be prosecuted if they violate the statutes.

 ARS 13-409 covers justification and use of physical force in law enforcement:

A person is justified in threatening or using physical force against another if in making or assisting in making an arrest or detention or in preventing or assisting in preventing the escape after arrest or detention of that other person, such person uses or threatens to use physical force and all of the following exist:

1. A reasonable person would believe that such force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest or detention or prevent the escape.

2. Such person makes known the purpose of the arrest or detention or believes that it is otherwise known or cannot reasonably be made known to the person to be arrested or detained.

3. A reasonable person would believe the arrest or detention to be lawful.

ARS 13-410 covers justification and use of deadly force in law enforcement and states:

A. The threatened use of deadly physical force by a person against another is justified pursuant to section 13-409 only if a reasonable person effecting the arrest or preventing the escape would believe the suspect or escapee is:

1. Actually resisting the discharge of a legal duty with deadly physical force or with the apparent capacity to use deadly physical force; or

2. A felon who has escaped from lawful confinement; or

3. A felon who is fleeing from justice or resisting arrest with physical force.

B. The use of deadly physical force by a person other than a peace officer against another is justified pursuant to section 13-409 only if a reasonable person effecting the arrest or preventing the escape would believe the suspect or escapee is actually resisting the discharge of a legal duty with physical force or with the apparent capacity to use deadly physical force.

C. The use of deadly force by a peace officer against another is justified pursuant to section 13-409 only when the peace officer reasonably believes that it is necessary:

1. To defend himself or a third person from what the peace officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.

2. To effect an arrest or prevent the escape from custody of a person whom the peace officer reasonably believes:

(a) Has committed, attempted to commit, is committing or is attempting to commit a felony involving the use or a threatened use of a deadly weapon.

(b) Is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon.

(c) Through past or present conduct of the person which is known by the peace officer that the person is likely to endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury to another unless apprehended without delay.

(d) Is necessary to lawfully suppress a riot if the person or another person participating in the riot is armed with a deadly weapon.

D. Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, a peace officer is justified in threatening to use deadly physical force when and to the extent a reasonable officer believes it necessary to protect himself against another’s potential use of physical force or deadly physical force.

Phoenix Police Department Operations Order 1.5,  which covers use of force is a 22 page policy which clearly outlines force options for Phoenix Police Department Personnel and most of it, by design, comports with Arizona Revised Statutes 13-409 and 13-410. 

There is also a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court Case Law known as Graham v. Connor, the cornerstone by which all police use of force is judged and Chief Justice William Rehnquist summed it up by stating:

“The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation. The test of reasonableness is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application.” 

When police deal with violent individuals officers have to utilize a variety of force options to gain control and take people into custody.  Some arrest tactics utilize pain compliance techniques to establish submission yet, in many instances individuals feel no pain because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or a combination of the two.  Higher levels of force must often be employed to gain control of extremely aggressive suspects.  When our officers confront violent, out of control suspects who are putting others at risk of serious injury or death, we have to match force levels to gain control of violent situations which means resorting to what some would view as violence to end violent actions.  In rare instances lethal force is necessary to protect officers and or citizens.  The cold, hard truth is that fighting with another human being, especially when it is due to police officers having to take someone into custody, is visceral and never looks pretty.  The same can be said when it comes to use of deadly force.  Under the Graham standard laid out by the US Supreme Court officers are not to be judged based on optics or the 20/20 vision of hindsight.  They are judged based on the what was known at the moment the force was applied combined with the totality of the circumstances and what a reasonable officer would have done if placed in those circumstances.  

Mr. Oppel, through comments  provided by a civil rights attorney, also implies that police officers use state law as an excuse to justify their actions, however state statute clearly lays out the elements of aggravated assault on a police officer and individuals are arrested and charged based on those elements.  He also tries to minimize the threat that Phoenix Police Officers face by stating that “One Phoenix police officer has been shot this year.”    Believe us when we say that we and our officers and their families say we are thankful and very fortunate that more officers haven’t been shot or seriously injured during these violent encounters. 

At the conclusion of his article, Ken Crane is mentioned as saying that officers are not the problem in Phoenix and people should submit to police commands, which are both true statements as is the statement that Phoenix has a lot more people that want to pull guns and knives on cops. 

Reality is that police are only 50% of the equation, yet when people refuse to submit to police commands and comply and officers have to use force to control the situation, police are somehow expected to own 100% of the outcome.

Chief Williams responded to the claims made in this article by telling KTAR News that the headline misrepresents her previous statements. by stating, “First, the headline implies that we have already made up our minds as to an explanation for the rise in violent encounters.”  She added that “We cannot explain the rise, which is exactly why we have turned to experts and scholars to help us get an understanding of the sociological component to these incidents.”  35 of the 41 shootings involved people armed with guns, 4 armed with knives, and 1 with a dangerous instrument, which ARS 13-105 defines as anything that under the circumstances in which it is used, attempted to be used or threatened to be used is readily capable of causing death or serious physical injury.   To summarize, she said, “But…the employees and my officers, when they go on scene, they are reacting to the threats posed to them. So while I can train my officers all day, I can’t necessarily gauge the reactions of the individuals who are becoming violent toward officers, violent toward our community members,” she added.

Ken Crane was interviewed by KTAR News as well and offered a response to the article.

CLICK HERE to read the KTAR article which also contains an audio interview with Chief Williams.

PLEA stands behind the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department who are out there manning the lines and standing in the gap between the violent criminal  minority few who victimize the law abiding citizens within our community.