Could Phoenix Voters Decide Future Of Police Oversight Office?

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 7:40am
Updated: Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 5:48pm

Phoenix police headquarters
Christina Estes/KJZZ
The front entrance at Phoenix police headquarters.

During a pandemic and recession, the Phoenix City Council came up with $3 million to fund a new police oversight office, but its future remains unclear. That’s because the City Council failed Wednesday to agree on its responsibilities. 

Earlier this year, the council narrowly approved creating the Office of Accountability and Transparency. Supporters expected the office would be able to investigate police shootings and excessive force claims, but the proposed ordinance said the office would monitor or participate in the police department’s internal investigations.  

“Under this process nothing else changes in the investigative process except that there can be someone else watching it,” said Viri Hernandez with Poder in Action.

Kenneth Smith with the Unity Collective expressed concern but still asked the council to approve the proposed ordinance. 

“We agree that it needs to be set up and have independent investigations and we agree that it can be amended to do so with time but by throwing the baby out with the bathwater we’ll get nothing done,” he said. “Perfect cannot be the enemy of progress.”

“Perfect cannot be the enemy of progress.”
— Kenneth Smith, Unity Collective

Former Phoenix City Councilwoman Mary Rose Wilcox recalled police shootings during her tenure from 1983 to 1993. 

“There was no transparency at that time,” she said. “We tried very hard on the City Council to bring about a review board, we failed. We did bring about a police review board with citizens within the police department but the time has changed, we need this as never before. We need to stop the unrest in our community. We need to assure our citizens that they will be represented and they will have full accountability and transparency.”

If the council had approved the ordinance as presented Tuesday, Assistant City Manager Milton Dohoney explained that staff from the Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT) could be present as the Police Department’s Professional Services Bureau (PSB) questioned people and OAT staff could ask questions themselves. At the conclusion of the administrative investigation, if OAT disagreed, Dohoney said the OAT director could submit reasons why in a separate conclusion.

According to Phoenix’s Human Relations Department, the memorandum of understanding which serves as the labor agreement between the city and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association states, "Investigations alleging serious misconduct and/or issues of veracity will be investigated by the Professional Standards Bureau."

Councilmember Carlos Garcia, who spearheaded the creation of the office, said, “Many of us, including myself, never even understood how that happened and the limitation it has given for accountability. I recognize that and I’m excited to see what that conversation is like starting next month.”

Carlos Garcia
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Carlos Garcia in February 2020.

Negotiations often begin months before MOU’s expire at the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

In a statement to KJZZ, Michael “Britt” London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association said:

“The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association supports greater accountability, transparency and progress but the Office of Accountability and Transparency failed to do any of that and its failure to garner support from the majority of the council is proof of that. In the future, we look forward to working with the Mayor and Councilmembers on evidence-based solutions that include officer input and make our city safer and stronger.”

Garcia voted for the proposed ordinance along with Mayor Kate Gallego, Vice Mayor Betty Guardado and Councilwoman Laura Pastor. 

The five members who voted against the ordinance were: Councilmen Sal Diciccio, Michael Nowakowski and Jim Waring and Councilwoman Debra Stark and Thelda Williams. DiCiccio said he would push for the issue of police oversight to get on the ballot and be decided by Phoenix voters, an idea that Williams supported.

A different ordinance outlining OAT's responsibilities could be introduced at a future council meeting.