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Phoenix Police Victims Want City to Stop Interfering With Federal Probe

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Phoenix Police Department for potential civil rights violations. During last week’s city council meeting, residents said city officials must stop fighting the inquiry.

Roland Harris speaks at a March 6, 2024 Phoenix City Council meeting.City of Phoenix

During a March 6 Phoenix city council meeting, family members of people killed by the city’s police department demanded that local officials stop interfering with a federal probe.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department in 2021, citing concerns over the department’s use of deadly force and other potential civil rights violations.

“I watched my mother and my father bury their youngest son,” resident Jose Hernandez said during last week’s meeting. “I lost my only brother, my youngest sibling. My life changed in an instant. Twenty-six years of memories wiped out by the decision of one officer.”

“We need you guys to do the right thing,” Hernandez said. “People’s lives are at risk.”

The DOJ is likely to finish its investigation soon. Once an investigation is complete, the agency typically publishes findings on its website, as it has for other jurisdictions such as Minneapolis. In most cases, the DOJ then asks the city to sign a legal settlement known as a consent decree. This agreement typically requires departments to submit to independent federal monitoring to ensure reforms take hold.

But Phoenix officials are preemptively pushing back against the justice department’s findings. Phoenix officials have repeatedly requested to review the DOJ investigation before it is released publicly. The DOJ has denied those requests. Phoenix officials have also cast doubt on the unreleased DOJ report, claiming they need to see the report in advance to “provide factual corrections.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, and several city council members have rejected a potential consent decree. The Phoenix Police Department maintains it is a “self-correcting agency” that has made plenty of reforms in recent years, and the city says the DOJ can trust Phoenix to change the police department on its own. 

In January, an attorney for the city of Phoenix sent DOJ officials a letter asking officials to resolve the Phoenix probe with a non-binding “technical assistance letter” rather than a consent decree. Technical assistance letters give departments guidelines for reforms but are not enforced by outside monitors. 

At last week’s council meeting, Phoenix residents balked at the suggestion that the Phoenix Police Department can change on its own.

Roland Harris, the father of Jacob Harris, whom a Phoenix police officer shot and killed in 2019, submitted a citizen’s petition requesting the city pass a resolution asking the DOJ to release its full investigation publicly. Last March, The Appeal published an investigation into Jacob Harris’s death, which uncovered false and misleading statements made by law enforcement officials about the shooting and revealed that officers had deleted text messages related to that night. 

Harris previously met with DOJ officials regarding the police’s killing of his son and the lack of discipline for the officers involved. (The Phoenix Police Department concluded the officers who shot Jacob Harris followed department policy.) Roland Harris’s petition conveys that the community is watching the city and wants the unaltered report as soon as it is ready.

“I filed this citizen’s petition, mayor, because you’re in derelict of your duties to protect the community and hold your murderous Police Department accountable,” Harris said during the council meeting. “Hopefully, one day in the city of Phoenix, a person may be able to use a public restroom without being killed by police. Play a video game in their home without being killed by police.[…]But under your leadership, mayor, I don’t see this happening.”

Since then, a new community organization—called the Justice for Jacob, Free the Phoenix Three coalition— has rallied to demand justice for Jacob Harris and three of his friends, Johnny Reed, Sariah Busani, and Jeremiah Triplett. All three are serving decades in prison for Jacob Harris’s murder under Arizona’s felony murder law, which allows people to be charged with murder even if they did not kill anyone. It is undisputed that Phoenix police officer Kristopher Bertz shot and killed Jacob Harris.

Last week, Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro—a member of the group fighting for Harris and his friends—held a letter-writing event to support Reed, Busani, and Triplett. In January, Arizona State Sen. Anna Hernandez introduced a bill to repeal the state’s felony murder law.

Ultimately, the council partially approved Harris’s petition and agreed to ask the DOJ to release its full, complete investigation to the public. However, the council did not approve a portion of the petition that listed the city’s many failed attempts to reform the Phoenix Police Department.

During the meeting, Jared Keenan, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said he didn’t believe the city could be trusted to do the right thing independently.

“The Phoenix Police Department will not reform itself,” Keenan said. “It will not self-correct.”