The On-Going Saga of the Phoenix Police Citizens Review Board

By Dianne Post

The City Council had a “work study session” on Sept.  17 to gather information and discuss the citizens review board which they are still calling “civilian” review board.  That is an unfortunate moniker because if the citizens are civilians, then the police are military and who is the enemy?  It’s us.

No action was planned and no comments from the public were taken but the council chamber was about half full.  The goal was to be transparent about the process; another such meeting is planned for Oct. 15. The city manager outlined that they are still talking about a community survey though one is available for free; they have put out a request for information about early intervention systems; and they have established the 19-member ad hoc committee that is to review all the prior recommendations.  That committee met on August 29 and will meet again Sept. 19. 

The assistant manager then laid out the reason for the work session – to get national expert opinion on the different review board models and hear from the attorneys who are charged with reviewing the structure of the charter, ordinances, and laws.  Mary Perez, an attorney formerly with the attorney general’s civil rights division and then police auditor and director of EEO for Tucson and now Director of Operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight spoke for about 45 minutes.  

She outlined each model in similar fashion to that done on July second. She focused on the level of authority of the model, the expected outcomes, and the challenges.  The auditor model only looks at cases that are closed and usually consists of volunteers. Needless to say, it has little authority or independence and is only concerned with transparency.

On-going monitoring would take complaints directly and gather data including from the early intervention systems.  It would have to have funding for adequate staff and data analysis. It should have a location outside city hall for complainants to feel comfortable and the board would report to a high-level person such as city manager or mayor.  

The investigative authority model is the most intensive and only a few have it e.g. San Francisco.  They do the investigation from start to finish with all the tools necessary such as subpoena and depositions.  They are not connected at all with the police department and impose discipline. It’s the most expensive and most hated by the police and the police unions.  Most employees are civil rights lawyers and persons with law enforcement background.  

The hybrid models take pieces from the other three to fit into the unique situation of the individual city.     

One issue for the city council was how the early warning system would interface with the reviews.  Confidentiality would have to be maintained. Unless my hearing is very wrong, after a question and comment from Councilman Garcia, the city manager responded and referred to him as Mr. Ortega – though his name plate was sitting in front of him literally a foot or two from the managers eyes.  

On cue, Sal Decicio, appearing by telephone, spoke from his fantasy world.  He stated that statistics were gathered to show that disciplines of officers by Chief Williams have been overturned and reduced by the civil service board 54% of the time.  I could not hear the source of the data, but some other data found that harsher penalties were upheld 74% of the time. So, he asked, “What cases have we failed at? Where has the Chief not done her job? …. Where are the cases where she failed?”  Though he directed the question to the mayor, the city manager responded that he didn’t really understand what Sal was trying to get at. Nor did the rest of us.

Sal repeated himself that the police have not failed. That in fact the chief has been too harsh in her discipline because she is overturned more than 50%.  He said there is no problem, that the council is fixing a problem that does not exist, that the department is not corrupt, that the council is politicizing this and putting the city in a bad spot, he can’t identify a single problem in the police, that this is part of a national movement to make the police look bad and take over the departments.  He then made the statement that no one police officer’s career is more important than any other person’s career (true enough) but then he went on to say that one officer’s career is worth more than all the rest of the council combined.

After a pregnant pause when the council members, not to mention the audience, tried to digest this lunacy, Councilmember Garcia responded that it was “hard to hear that after all that’s gone on.”  He reminded the council of all the families and victims of police violence who have told their stories at previous meeting. Councilmembers Pastor said she was struggling with how to respond to such statements.  She made the point that just because the council wants to listen to all of the community and act on their concerns does not make them anti-police or anti-chief but in fact trying they are trying to make the city better and to be in support of all its citizens makes the council pro-police and pro-chief.  In the light of now three spikes in shootings by the police and at least three investigations of the behavior of the Phoenix police, to make such an unsupportable statement betrays more than ignorance but a deliberate lie.    

Decicio’s statement that there is a movement to take over police department’s is nonsensical because the public SHOULD control the police – or they are supposed to – in a democracy.  The police are public servants, there to serve and protect. They are not higher beings nor do they have more rights. Even the military in a democracy is controlled by civilians – the people – not the other way around.  Prior to the meeting, a person said to me that PLEA is completely out of control and those of us working on this issue need to focus on that. I assured the person that we are well aware of PLEA with its culture of racism and violence and that is a talking point at every discussion.  

Decicio’s statement that an officer’s career is worth more than everyone else’s combined also betrays either a complete lack of understanding or no belief in democracy.  No one person is more important than another and all are held accountable to the same rules and regulations and laws – from the president to the garbage picker. I am aware that is not a factual statement in the world – not today, not ever – but an ideal and still a basic principle of our democracy and the Rule of Law.  

Decicio’s last mistake was trying to set up a “straw man” that even he, with all his windiness, could not knock down.  Usually a person sets up a “straw man” to establish an argument about something that really is not the issue at hand. It deflects attention from the real issue. The “straw man” is a weak argument that the purveyor can then knock down and say – see I won the argument.

But Decicio couldn’t even knock down his own straw man.  The data he gave to show there was no problem in fact reveals there is.  If in some measure, 74% of harsher discipline to misbehaving officers is upheld, but for Chief Williams only 46% is upheld then the problem is not with Chief Williams but with the civil service board that is protecting police officers.  The corruption allegation Decicio mentioned, should be directed to asking why the board sides with the police (read PLEA) rather than the Chief who is tasked with protecting the entire community while PLEA only protects its own members.   

It’s continues to be clear there are deep, deep troubles in the department.  It will take a lot to root them out. But we must. The community cannot fade away to focus on different problems.  In fact, an investigation should be started into PLEA to see if they could be prosecuted under RICO (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations) laws or other legal structures.  A.R.S. §13-2308 prohibits participation in a group organizing to break the law. A.R.S. §13-2310 defines fraudulent schemes and artifices as to obtain a benefit by means of misrepresentation.  Don’t police do that all the time with suspects? A.R.S. §13-2312 punishes the person who controls that organization. A.R.S. §13-2314 et al allows the attorney general or county attorney to bring an action that could result in triple damages and dissolve the organization.  Our AG certainly could not be relied on to bring such a suit. Depending on who is the interim Maricopa county attorney, it may be more or less possible. But a private right of action also exists in A.R.S. §13-2314.04 so a private attorney could bring the case. It also violates the law under A.R.S. 13-2405 to seek a prosecution for gain – isn’t that done all the time? The Jodi Arias trial is a case in point.  It should have and could have been settled but the serial sexual abuser at the MCSO insisted on going to trial so he could write a book and make money. A.R.S. §13-2409 makes misrepresentation or threats to obstruct some communication about a crime also illegal. There have certainly been reports, even from other police officers, that they are threatened if they disagree with PLEA. At one of the public hearings, one speaker even suggested that a whistle blowing cop who was shot in the back might have been the victim of such retaliation.   These are serious and dangerous questions. But the fact that we need to be afraid of our police and our police union tells us that there is indeed a very serious problem in the Phoenix Police Department.