Police Shootings in Phoenix – When Will it End?


By Dianne Post, Attorney, Central AZ National Lawyers Guild

After the spike in shootings and killing by the Phoenix Police in 2018, the National Police Foundation did a study.

They looked at the history of police shootings, compared Phoenix to other places both within and without the state, talked to officers some of whom had been involved in officer-involved-shootings (OIS), talked to a very small and select number of community members, and looked at the details of facts surrounding the shootings.  From this, they made a series of recommendations and  Chief Williams responded.

Neither the study nor the department follow-up talked about the vital issues such as racism, sexism, a culture of violence on the department, and how cameras can be used for investigation and training.

The study and the response verify what activists have been saying for 40 years – we need a citizens review board and in spite of three studies and three plans for community involvement – nothing has changed.

How does Phoenix compare?

The study focused on 2018 when Phoenix experienced a spike in shootings that resulted in Phoenix leading the nation in killings.  But they also looked at data from 2009-2018 for comparison.  Phoenix has had spikes in 2013 and 2016 and 2018.  The average OIS had been 21 a year (still high) but then jumped to 44 in 2018.  In 2013, the number had jumped to 31.   With this frequency, are they spikes or business as usual?

Of the 44 incidents in 2018, 23 resulted in death of the alleged suspect.  Of 665,000 dispatched calls in 2018, such incidents are rare but when compared with other cities, Phoenix ranked first in Officer Involved Shootings (OIS) with the next highest city being Los Angeles at 14, Las Vegas at 11, and Columbus at 10.  Other local cities also placed in the list of cities with the most OIS incidents in 2018 – Mesa had 7 and Tucson 6.

When comparing for size of population, Austin, Houston and San Antonio, TX were most like Phoenix but ranked 14, 15 and 16 respectively.  The New York Police Department had .05 fatal OIS per 100,000 population compared to Phoenix at 1.44, Mesa at 1.46, Tucson at 1.13, and Los Angeles at .35. Phoenix, Mesa and Tucson were among the 20 agencies with the most fatal OIS rates.

After comparing for population, they also compared to violent crime rates to see if that impacted the fatal OIS rate per 1,000 violent crimes.  There Hawaii took the prize with 9.22 but Mesa was second with 3.46; Phoenix ranked seventh with 2.12 and Tucson eleventh with 1.50.

Comparing Phoenix to the rest of Arizona with population-adjusted statistics, Phoenix ranked seventh at 1.44.   Douglas shot to the top at 6.09; Kingman was second with 3.45.  Then Casa Grande dropped down to 1.92 and the rate declined to .39 in Chandler.  When compared to other Arizona cities by the amount of violent crime in the jurisdiction, Buckeye is the top gun with 3.16, then Douglas with 2.82.  Then the rate drops down to  .97 with Kingman and declines from there.   Phoenix ranks twelfth with Tempe being the lowest.  The demographics have been consistent with no great increase of young people that resulted in more unruly behavior.  The poverty rate has been stable with only a slight increase.  The crime rate for violent crimes has increased.

One big factor is the failure of the mental health system.  AZ is in the middle of the 50 states for access to health care.  Officers have asked for more training on how to deal with mental health incidents and nearly half of citizens say that when the police are called, they make it worse.  Once arrested, no one offers the accused mental health care.

What did the Community say?

One flaw with the study was that it did not do a broad or extensive analysis of the community perspective or environmental factors.  Without that, the recommendations are just a stab in the dark.  They spoke to a limited number  (8) of community leaders and organizational representatives.

The problems raised by the community were the “Joe Arpaio effect,” the culture of the Phoenix Police department as indicated by their social media statements (since then racist Facebook posts have been made public), “cover charges” of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer to discredit the victim and undercut a legitimate complaint, not enough training or too much training as an excuse to change nothing, lack of accountability, and social tensions.  The community agreed we need more mental health services so the police are not called for these cases.  The department needs more de-escalation and deflection training.

The community reported a deep-seated culture of violence in the Phoenix PD and that new hires just repeat old patterns.  The ACLU has sued the Phoenix PD over the police attack against First Amendment protesters at the convention center as an example of their indiscriminate use of violence.  Yet training changes focused on firearms and de-emphasized decision making.

What did officers say?

After the spike in 2018, the first response of the police department was that it was the fault of victims – they were more violent, they had more guns, and most insulting, youngsters of color needed to learn how to behave toward police i.e. show them more obedience.

The officers cited more mental health problems and a declining access to care, and they mentioned the opioid epidemic.  However the officers claimed that people are more defiant and less likely to respect police or follow their orders and that more people hate cops.  They blamed the media for stoking hatred of the police by telling the truth about incidents – which is their job.

The officers said “… historical problems the police have experienced with the public such as the civil rights movement and Rodney King beatings…” The problem in both instances was the police, not the public.  Officers said that now the ubiquitous cameras, live streaming, and internet, has put the information on steroids so everyone not only knows what the police do, but they know it instantly, sometimes in real time.  The officers seemed more concerned that people would find out about their inappropriate behavior than that they should not do it.

The police claim they can’t establish rapport because the people don’t trust them.  But people don’t trust them because of their behavior.  The police have to change their behavior.  Instead, police blame citizens for becoming more violent and being willing to use guns.  They claim people fight police to kill them rather than to escape.  But the community said no, people fight to escape being killed by police.  Moreover, officers actually in an OIS incident didn’t say anything about more guns or victims fighting to kill.

The interviewed officers felt they needed more police because if 6-7 officers showed up, the offender would be intimidated and won’t try anything.  The officers said they wanted the pro-active units restored that went out and searched down the worst offenders thus relieving them of the duty.  They complained that having more community officers was a problem, just the opposite of what the community desires.

The officers even said the record management system caused the shootings.  They claim it was too slow (time to do a report increased from 3-5 minutes) and if an officer is filling out reports, s/he can’t be out there doing back up.

The officers thought the training was good or better than before and not any problem.  Some wanted more training on decision-making but others said reality based training wasn’t but the virtual scenarios were good.  Those who had actually been in an OIS situation felt no training would have helped.

Officers also claimed that newer officers are hesitant to act because they could be criticized and that causes the situation to escalate.  Most ominously the officers claimed that new officers are too soft and not in the right mind set.  They need to be more confident and need proper fighting skills and a mindset development.  One even complained that officers were not willing to go toe-to-toe before backup came. Later evidence completely rebuts most of these excuses.

Basically what they said was – we need to be more macho, more authoritarian, and scare people into obedience.  Yet all the research for a hundred years shows that is exactly the wrong approach.  The police need to be less confrontational, especially to historically vulnerable populations, and use more de-escalation skills.

The NFP said Phoenix needs civilian oversight enhancements – something the community has been requesting for 40 years.  The distance between the perceptions of the police and the community are vast as are the solutions. They want macho; we want dialogue. They want obedience; we want respect.  In a democracy, the police work for the people, the people do not owe obedience to the police.

What did the data find?

The report then detailed the specifics they looked at from the 2018 shootings.  Most incidents were in hot weather. The most common method of contact was a call for service. The most common of those was “crime in progress” or “had just occurred.” Aggravated assaults and homicides were the leading crimes people called about.  In 2013-2017, 29% of the shootings were during pursuits but only 11% were in 2018.

Over 40% of OIS happened within five minutes of being on scene, and half of all OIS occurred within one minute of contact with the victim.  This completely destroys the police narrative that new officers are “hesitating” thus resulting in “escalation.”

The mean number of officers involved was 2.8 and the median two but 41% of the OIS in 2018 was a single officer. A full two-thirds of the shootings involved just one officer firing his gun.

In both spikes (2018 and 2013), three of four officers involved were white and 19% were Hispanic.  This corresponds to the demographics of the department as a whole.  Only 2% of the shooters were women in 2013 and 7% in 2018 but women make up 13% of the force.

63% of the 2018 shooters had ten or more years with the force and 28% had less than five years.  This debunks completely the officer narrative of blaming it on the new officers.

Most officers were in their 30’s and three-fourths were on patrol.  The Special Assignments or tactical squad accounted for 26% of the incidents in 2018 versus only 12% in 2013-2017.  No explanation was attempted for this.  The tactical squad should be better trained, have better gear, and not be alone. This belies the officer narrative that what is needed is more specialty units or better training, better gear, or more officers

Injuries to officers average four a year.  In 2010 and 2014, there was one fatality each.  In 2018, two officers had non-fatal injuries.   There was a 33% increase in officer injuries in 2017 and a 6.5% increase in 2018.  An officer having to face a gun doubled from 42 to 87 from 2017 to 2018.  There were 7 ambushes in 2018 versus 1 in 2016 and 2 in 2017.  What accounts for that?  Anger at the police, revenge, fear, protection?  In some neighborhoods, the police are viewed as an invading army.  None of that was considered or investigated.

In 2018, the mean age of the victim shot by the officer was 36 which was slightly older than previously.  36% were white, 36% were Hispanics (down from 48% in 2009-2017), and 21% were Black (up from 11% in 2009-2017).  Yet Blacks make up 6% of the population and were shot 3.5 times more often.  No discussion followed.  No explanation was given.  Racism was never mentioned.

95% of the victims were male.  In 2009-2017, 51% were armed but in 2018, 75% were armed.  In 2018, 7% had a simulated gun versus 2% in 2009-2017.  This does support the police narrative that more people are armed.  But which came first – the chicken or the egg?  Were they armed due to fear of the police?  Or should the police fear because they are armed?

In 2009-2017, 53% of those shot were killed; 27% were wounded; and 15% were not injured.  In 2018, the statistics were nearly the same.  OIS normally rises with violence in community, but there wasn’t any rise in violence in 2018.

The use of intermediate control was up meaning more non-lethal types of control were used.  This also refutes the officer narrative that the new officers are scared to do “hands on” of suspects.  In fact, active aggression against officers was actually higher in earlier periods but more people were shot in 2018.  So those who had guns may have thought they needed them because even when the suspect makes no aggressive moves toward an officer, he was more likely to be shot in 2018.

They also looked at the use of force incident complaints from the community or investigated by professional standards.  In 2014, there were 108; in 2015 there were 78; in 2016 there were 72; in 2017 there were 86 and in the first half of 2018 there were 29.  So the department was on track to have fewer use of force complaints than any year since 2014.  This rebuts the officer narrative that people hate the police and are unjustly complaining about them so officers have to fear doing their jobs.

The study reports that from 2014 to 2017, crime went up in Phoenix. However from 2017 to 2018, crime decreased.  Both OIS peaks in 2013 and 2018 were when crime had gone down.  Even when looking at OIS per 100,000 violent crimes, 2018 still stood out as above average.  Alleged assaults on officers spiked in 2017 at 52% but were stable in 2018.

Nowhere was the issue of excessive charging or “cover charges” discussed nor do we know if the reported assaults on officers really happened or were fabricated later to diminish the victim’s credibility.

The NPF made nine recommendations.  These were:

  1. Document when officers point or grip guns not just shoot them.
  2. Improve consistency of data collected for OIS.
  3. Continue to improve training – track on line training, have more frequent training for benefit of repetition, more robust debriefings, and align scenarios with facts.
  4. Increase transparency with sharing of data and information with community – transparency is significantly lacking, ten years use of force data should be updated at least quarterly, include assaults on officers, make public its availability, let community comment on policies and changes, give clear explanation of professional standards bureau.
  5. Need community engagement beyond advisory groups – a no-cost community survey is available, look at community contact data on their own platforms, take a survey of officers views, use national programs for community engagement.
  6. Increase presence of proactive police units – focus on prolific offenders and hot spots with evidence-based data.
  7. Do a staffing survey and ensure adequate back up.
  8. Revise data collection system.
  9. Increase alternatives and enhancement of responses to the mentally ill.

The NPF specifically said the department should not blame shootings on the community as that only makes things worse.

How did the department respond?

Following the release of the study, Chief Williams released her own recommendations.  The first thing she did, contrary to the advice from NPF, was blame the community.  She claimed that police shootings increased because of an increase of assaults on officers and of guns.  She agreed that there was a lack of transparency, though she never went as far as the NPF did to say it was “significantly lacking.” While she admitted that trust is absent, she insisted that policy and training are not flawed. In short, according to the Phoenix PD, the problem is not the police department, it’s the public. We are to blame for being victims of police violence.

Regarding most of the rest of the recommendations, she claimed they are “looking at it”  or can’t do it because of funding. Some things she claimed they are already working on like better debriefings and using common scenarios. But other recommendations very important to the community to increase transparency and information were sidestepped such as ten years worth of data, being more transparent, and having public comment on policy.

The recommendation specifically said that the current advisory boards were insufficient but the chief repeated that she would continue with them.  The current board members are chosen by the police not by the community and often don’t represent community issues at all.  Having been on one for a few years, the recommendations made are politely listened to and then disregarded. In one case, we warned them of the gay liaison’s inappropriate behavior with boys over and over.  They ignored us until he was arrested and now resides in the state prison.


In spite of the fact that shootings of Blacks rose from 11% to 21% in 2018, no mention is made of that fact, the reasons for it nor the racism underlying it.  Instead, the community is blamed for doing what Arizonans are encouraged to do – carry guns.

Chief Williams is right that training is not the problem.  No amount of training will fix racism.  She admits that lack of transparency and trust is a problem.  But her recommendations make no move to address either problem but fall back on the tired excuse of law and safety. Her recommendations don’t mention racism, de-escalation, demilitarization, or the “cover charges” police make to deflect their own wrongful behavior.  She didn’t even mention the use of cameras for accountability or training.

Until the culture of the department changes, until we have a true civilian review board, until racism and sexism are admitted and resolved, we have achieved nothing.  The police will continue as they have and innocent citizens will die as they have.

This has already manifested in a horrific incident on June 12 where the police terrorized a family with a pregnant mother holding a baby and a small child, they were filmed kicking the legs out from under a man in handcuffs slammed up against the squad car.  Why?  A dollar store thought the child walked off with a baby doll without paying.

Unless we face the racist and violent culture of the Phoenix Police Department, we will continue to lament and cry at funerals of children or innocent young men, the police will walk away with no accountability and the victims will have no justice.

If you can, come to the City Council hearing on June 19, 2:30 p.m. at 200 W Washington when this issue will be up for discussion.


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