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How One Race Could Change Police Accountability in Arizona

Incumbent Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel is backed by police unions and has declined to charge officers in high-profile killings. Challenger Julie Gunnigle says she wants to create an independent unit to review police use-of-force cases.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel (left) and candidate Julie Gunnigle (right).(Source: Arizona PBS and the Arizona Republic via YouTube)

Police officers shoot someone every few days in Arizona. Yet the officers involved rarely face consequences: 627 people were shot by police across the state from 2011 to 2018. More than half of those people died. But almost all of the police officers responsible (94.5 percent) were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, an investigation by the Arizona Republic found. Now, voters in Maricopa County—home to Phoenix and 4.5 million people—are looking to change that.

“It’s important for the MCAO [Maricopa County Attorney’s Office] to hold police accountable because they are one of the few entities who have the authority to do so,” said Lola N’sangou, executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona. “Voters have made it clear that police accountability is a huge issue in the 2020 election on both sides of the aisle. People are outraged that Allister Adel has refused to charge … fatal shootings that have taken place since she’s been in office.” (No charges have been filed in 52 of the 53 officer-involved shootings that have occurred in Maricopa County since Adel was appointed. Adel did file aggravated assault charges against Mesa police officer Nathan Chisler, who shot an unarmed man in the hip last December.)

The two county attorney candidates, Adel, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle, differ greatly when it comes to police accountability. Gunnigle has expressed support for the push to reallocate money from the Phoenix police budget to social services. She says she would establish an independent, community involved unit to prosecute crimes committed by police. Adel, who has been endorsed by the Phoenix police union, has not committed to creating an independent unit to prosecute such cases and has declined to bring charges against officers for killing civilians on multiple occasions.

Currently, when someone is killed by police in Maricopa County, other officers—often from the same department—investigate the killing. When the investigation is complete, the law enforcement agency responsible for the investigation submits the case to the county attorney’s office. A “critical incident review committee” composed of prosecutors and civilians then reviews the investigation. The group determines whether a crime was committed and whether “a reasonable likelihood of conviction exists” before making a recommendation to the county attorney on whether charges should be filed, according to protocols published on the Maricopa County Attorney Office website. The county attorney makes the final decision.  

“There is an undeniable conflict of interest between prosecutors and police by virtue of their close working relationship,” Gunnigle said in a questionnaire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. “I will create an independent and community involved unit to take on these cases and hold police accountable.” 

That’s why, Gunnigle said, she would instead “create an independent and community involved unit” separate from line prosecutors to investigate and prosecute police shootings, use-of-force cases, and other misconduct. 

Adel, on the other hand, has not said she would assign special prosecutors to prosecute crimes and misconduct committed by police. She said her office has “updated and implemented a new critical incident response protocol,” and has added community members to the critical incident review committee. Her campaign told the Phoenix New Times that this increases the process’s transparency and accountability. Who those civilian members are, though, is a secret

A few months after taking office, Adel declined to file charges against the police officer who killed Antonio Arce, a 14-year-old who was shot in the back last year while holding a toy gun. More recently, she declined to file charges against the Arizona state trooper who shot and killed Dion Johnson over Memorial Day weekend. And this month, her office dropped charges against a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy who allegedly had sex with a domestic violence victim after responding to a call to assist her. 

Adel also said she will not reopen the case of Muhammad Muhaymin, who was killed by police in 2017, unless Phoenix police resubmit it. Four Phoenix officers held Muhaymin down and some knelt on him after he tried to enter a restroom at a community center with his service dog. No officers were disciplined or criminally charged. Muhaymin’s death drew national attention after George Floyd’s killing this year by Minneapolis police. 

Although Adel has put the onus on the Phoenix Police Department to resubmit the case, if she had an independent unit to investigate officer-involved killings, she wouldn’t need to depend on the  department to resubmit it. Gunnigle has said she would re-examine Muhaymin’s death if elected. Adel has called herself a reformer for supporting the mandated use of body-worn cameras for police officers in Arizona, yet Muhaymin was killed on camera while being mocked by officers. 

“People here have been abused or killed on camera,” Jamaar Williams, a public defender and Black Lives Matter organizer, told The Appeal earlier this month. “You can’t create accountability by saying you support body cams. … It’s about not having the moral or ethical will to hold officers accountable.”

Adel has yet to make a charging decision in a number of other high-profile cases, including that of Ryan Whitaker, who was killed by Phoenix police in May. Whitaker was playing video games with his girlfriend when police knocked on the door in response to a noise complaint. He opened the door holding a gun, but put his hands up and went to his knees when he saw it was the police. Police shot him in the back.

“As Allister has stated countless times, if a police officer commits a crime, they will be held accountable,” said Lorna Romero, a spokesperson for Adel’s campaign and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. “When a critical incident arises, it is the responsibility of MCAO to review and analyze the facts and evidence. MCAO reviews the facts as an independent charging agency to ensure that … the due process rights of any potential criminal defendants, as well as the rights of any potential victims, are protected.”

Voters have made it clear that they want a county attorney who will change the way police officers are prosecuted for use-of-force incidents. A recent poll from Data For Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that 66 percent of likely voters in Maricopa County are more inclined to vote for a county attorney who will create an independent unit to investigate and charge instances of police violence against civilians. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.)

It’s not the only reform voters want either. The same poll found that a majority of Maricopa County voters want the next county attorney to create a public list of police officers with a history of misconduct, ban chokeholds, ban no-knock warrants, and require body-worn cameras to be worn by all police officers.

“Our current county attorney, Allister Adel, has received campaign contributions and endorsements from police unions and even has the same spokesperson as PLEA [the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association],” N’sangou said in a written statement shared with The Appeal. “If the MCAO is really meant to represent The People, then police shouldn’t be given a pass to get away with homicide because they fund politicians.”