Would A Citizen Review Board Make Phoenix Police Better?

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, June 27, 2019 - 12:34pm
Updated: Thursday, June 27, 2019 - 5:23pm

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Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia wearing a "Not One More Deportation" shirt in June 2019.

LAUREN GILGER: In a stark change from last week's city council meeting it was... pro-police supporters who filled the council chambers last night at city hall.

NOHL ROSEN: This is a war on police.

RECORDED AUDIO: We just really need to support our police officers.

GILGER: This comes a week after a video was released showing a Phoenix officer cursing and pointing guns at a family suspected of shoplifting. The video prompted a flurry of condemnation from the community and an apology from the Phoenix Police Chief and the mayor. Last night supporters did not condone the actions of the officers in that viral video. However, they expressed clear concerns that there is a growing war on Phoenix's police. We'll hear more about their concerns in a moment but we first turn to Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia. Garcia has been an activist for police reform for more than a decade and is calling for the creation of a civilian review board to act as a check on police. Similar efforts have failed in the past. But when we sat down in his office yesterday Garcia told me it's different this time.

CARLOS GARCIA: What we saw in the video, what we saw on the Facebook post was not surprising to me because I've been dealing and working with the families that have been impacted by this police department for a long time. And I've had to hear their stories and how they were treated and the abuse that they went through. And unfortunately some families that lost loved ones at the hands of police and so this wasn't a surprise. I think what is a little bit of surprise, but it's a welcome surprise, is the attention that this video got. Not only here in Phoenix but across the country and internationally and I think when these windows happen it's important for us to step up and hopefully have impactful change that can curve what we've seen in Phoenix.

GILGER: So let's talk a little bit about this. I want to start with the last city council meeting. So many activists were dismayed when the budget passed and gave a lot more money to the Phoenix Police Department. So given how critical you've been a Phoenix PD over the years why did you vote for it?

GARCIA: I think the budget vote; it's important for people to understand that it has a lot more to do than just police. And it's actually some good police accountability work that was within the budget that was important to be implemented as soon as possible. One of those things was a trauma fund. And so as it stands when families or communities are impacted by police violence the city of Phoenix is not responsible in their support. One of the things that's included in this budget is actually funds to support those families and support them in getting counseling and getting those sorts of services. And so there's hundreds of programs that were depending on this budget to start on July 1. I guess the exchange, in order to vote for this budget, was to get the commitment from the mayor to get a civilian review board and an ad hoc committee that's going to deal with this issue.

GILGER: So I want to talk about that committee. This is not the first time something like this has been suggested. Getting an actual civilian review board of the Phoenix police though hasn't has not been successful before. What do you think is different this time?

GARCIA: I mean we've been fighting for it for 10 years and then I've talked to someone yesterday who said they've been trying to get it done for 30 years. So it's not something that the city has been welcoming to. I think what's going to be important and what makes it different now, is the attention we've gotten. And hopefully people who've been elected, including myself and others, who understand the community's plight and what they've gone through at the hands of police. For this review board to be effective it does need subpoena power. It does need certain powers that go beyond just review. But actually being able to bring testimony, be able to also encourage the police department to change practices and also make the public aware of what's happening inside the police department. What we can't have happen is what's happening now, is the police policing themselves and not being able to to hold them accountable.

GILGER: So that's then your response to criticisms by groups like PLEA (Phoenix Law Enforcement Agency), some of that the unions representing police officers who say like, I don't know what a civilian review board would accomplish that isn't already being accomplished by current mechanisms. Would this be like, a civilian review board... would theoretically have the power to to tell the department to fire a certain officer?

GARCIA: Yes, I think... the review board needs to have that power. There needs to be consequences for the police officers. What we've seen is impunity by police officers who've been involved in police-involved shootings or abuse cases like the ones we saw. I think we need to, for PLEA and supporters of PLEA, kind of flip the argument right back to them. What is it that you're afraid of? Why would you be afraid of civilians actually wanting to make the department better? And make sure that they're not abusing their power, make sure that they're not murdering people that they shouldn't be. And so I think it's important to have accountability and transparency. And I think it's concerning, to think that an entire police department and an entire community does not want transparency and does not want us to know what's actually happened in these situations. And so I think it's common sense. Even the t-shirt I wore last week brought some controversy and it said nothing but end police brutality. And I don't understand how people can be against ending brutality. We're not saying end police,  we're not saying anything else but to end the brutality and then the abuse at the hands of police.

GILGER: I'm guessing the response from that would be that they feel attacked, in the sense, they feel like this wouldn't be a fair review process. These are people who don't like police whatever they do. How would you choose who's on the committee? How would how would you ensure the fairness there?

GARCIA: I... think who's on the committee needs to have the trust of community. I think it would be really impactful for there to be someone who went through a police abuse or violence situation. I think there's experts out there. I think there's; you know I was hearing your show a couple days ago and I saw a restaurant owner who had an amazing analysis of what's happening, right? And I'm not saying he's the one. But I think there's people out there who want to make the police department better, who aren't necessarily polarizing people but are people that are concerned about the community and concerned about the violence at the hands of police.

GILGER: We had Phoenix Police Chief, Jeri Williams, on our show a couple of weeks ago after the story came out, that broke national news, about police officers in many departments, including Phoenix PD, posting some controversial things on their, inflammatory things on their social media accounts. And I asked her, at the time, if she thought that this pointed to a broader culture problem within her department. And she said no. She thought this was a few bad apples, the Governor, Doug Ducey said the same thing recently. What's your response to that?

GARCIA: She may be right. I would argue different. I would say it's an entire culture. And what I would point to that culture is those police officers that made those posts, including the police officers that were around the family, that they didn't report it. They all play a role in it whether it's a silent role whether it's a role of allowing these comments to be made around them. Those things point to a culture. And that's a culture of; there might be in what the chief is saying a couple of people that are doing these things but everyone else is allowing it. And that is what a culture is. And I think it's a culture of racism as we saw in the post. And it's a culture of abuse and impunity that allows people to get away with things that they shouldn't be getting away with. And I hope the chief recognizes it as such and addresses it as such.

GILGER: Phoenix City Council member Carlos Garcia thank you.

GARCIA: Thank you so much.

GILGER: One of those who is closely following the Phoenix police controversy and its impact on law enforcement and community is Kevin Robinson, a retired assistant... Phoenix police chief who chaired the department's disciplinary review board for 13 years. Robinson is also a lecturer at the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Good morning Kevin.

KEVIN ROBINSON: Hey,  good morning.

GILGER : So I want to start with this idea of a civilian review board. So you chaired the internal review board then for some time. What do you make of that idea?

ROBINSON: Well I understand. I understand the concern that folks have. But what people have to understand or what they should understand is that we have had within the Phoenix Police Department civilian input and oversight for going back almost, at least, I would say about 30 years. Where civilians, folks from the the general community in Phoenix, sit on are not just the disciplinary review board but the use-of-force board. Use-of-force board determines whether or not people are in or out of policy, in any kind of force that they use. And the disciplinary review board is just that, when an officer or any employee within the police department has found to violate department policy they go before that board and they run up against being fired, demoted, suspended. There's a host of discipline that they run into.

GILGER: So would this be different though? Having a separate independent review board made up of citizens who could have things like Councilman Garcia suggested, subpoena power, the ability to fire officers etc.

ROBINSON: Well... those types of boards have been tried in other cities with other police departments with varying levels of success. The question begs to be asked does it need to go that far? Is the department; is there a belief that department is so bad that you need to have civilian oversight? And of course some are going to say most definitely, look at what's going on. And others are going to say, no this is an anomaly it doesn't happen all the time. And that's what folks have to sit back and consider. There are literally thousands of police contacts going on, just today alone. Thousands of Phoenix police officers will make thousands of contacts.

GILGER: So this goes back to your question that...

ROBINSON: You never hear about those.

GILGER: Yeah, so this goes to that question then... of a broader culture problem that I spoke with Councilmember Garcia about and that we also asked the chief about a few weeks ago. He says that this is definitely pointing to a culture in the Phoenix police of racism of impunity. Do you disagree do you think this is just a few... bad apples?

ROBINSON: I disagree. It is a few bad apples because in my time within the organization, and I've been gone for two years now and I don't think a whole lot has changed since then. But during my time, when racism, any kind of hate or any kind of, you know, that type of attitude, whenever it emerged, and it did, as long as we hire from the human race you're going to have problems. When it did emerge, it was dealt with immediately and that's what I think people really have to sit back and look at and take a hard look. And the police department will do the same thing because maybe there is room for improvement. But my experience has told me, over 36 1/2 years, when something happened, when something was said, somebody was involved in something, the department dealt with it.

GILGER: So, then what do you say to the fact that this seems to continue to happen? There seem to be more videos like this, more encounters like this, more lawsuits. There's also right now, a woman claiming that she was sexually assaulted because of a cavity search by Phoenix PD... What about the pattern that seems to be emerging there?

ROBINSON: It's unfortunate and it, you have to sit back and think yourself, you know,... is there a problem? And that's where I get where people are coming from. I understand completely and totally. Because when it rains it pours and it appears to be pouring right now. My experience tells me that these are one-offs and I know some people will not be happy with me saying something like that. It's not indicative of the Phoenix Police Department, that I know. And I've talked to current officers, past officers and the kids that I teach. I say kids for lack of a better word. But the kids I teach at ASU who are going to be future officers. I don't see those types of attitudes and I don't see anybody wanting to accept those types of behaviors or attitudes who want to be police officers.

GILGER: Alright, that's Kevin Robinson former assistant Phoenix police chief and a lecturer at the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Kevin thank you for joining us.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

GILGER: And next week Mayor Kate Gallego announced city leaders will come together to address growing concerns over actions by the Phoenix Police Department. We'll bring you coverage of that when it happens.

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