Independent oversight of Phoenix police has been slow. But this ex-Somali refugee is still hopeful

By Matthew Casey
Published: Thursday, May 25, 2023 - 4:47am
Updated: Thursday, May 25, 2023 - 8:50am

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Phoenix Police Department headquarters in downtown Phoenix
Chad Snow/KJZZ
Phoenix Police Department headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

Arizona has taken in thousands of people who had to flee Somalia. A corner cafe in a strip mall near 50th Street and McDowell Road is a door to the Somali community. Muktar Sheikh is a respected leader. 

“This is where everybody comes when they need help. And this is where we knew Ali. He used to have his own company,” said Sheikh.

Ali Osman provided medical transportation. With his mom still in a refugee camp in Kenya, his mental health failed. Osman was shot and killed by Phoenix police last September after throwing rocks at officers.

“He was not a bad guy. He was not a criminal. He was not someone that hurts the community. He was just somebody who needed help,” said Sheikh.

Muktar Sheikh
Muktar Sheikh
Somali community leader Muktar Sheikh

Sheikh spoke before the Maricopa County attorney’s announcement a week ago that officers who shot Osman will not face charges. Osman’s family has filed a federal lawsuit against Phoenix.

“But he loved his mom and one thing, me and him, we always talked about him going back home and visiting his mom,” said Sheikh.

The Phoenix police chief has advisory boards to build trust with specific communities. Sheikh served on a board for refugees but was kicked off in 2018 reportedly for unspecified complaints about his behavior at meetings.

Sheikh said he’s not anti-police. He just wanted talks to go both ways.

“But it seems like the police just wanted one-way communication. Just always support the police. Always agree with the police. And that’s not honest work,” said Sheikh.

Two years ago, but shortly before a federal review of Phoenix police was announced, Sheikh was on a long list of speakers urging the Phoenix City Council to pass an ordinance establishing independent police oversight.

On May 19, 2021, Phoenix created a new arm of government to provide independent oversight of its police department.

The city’s vice mayor at the time, Carlos Garcia, fronted the effort. Garcia called on those who backed him to see things through.

“A lot of these folks that have been in the community and have been thinking about this are going to be crucial to making sure that we get this right,” he said in May 2021.

Garcia lost his council seat in a March runoff. He did not reply to interview requests.

“It will have independent investigation. And hopefully, again, would be the key to create trust with the community,” said Garcia shortly before voting to create the Office of Accountability and Transparency. 

Carlos Garcia
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Carlos Garcia speaks at the state Capitol in 2021

But state lawmakers weakened the office’s ability to investigate wrongdoing.

The interference, and Phoenix choosing not to sue over it, has meant that today the police oversight office can only monitor internal investigations. Twenty eight and counting, including the police department’s own open reviews coming out of the Osman shooting. 

“The city of Phoenix Police Department has a long history of not participating in honest reviews of itself,” said Larry Wulkan, an attorney with experience representing Phoenix and people who sue the city. 

“What is disappointing is how slow it has taken the city to get the office up and running,” said Wulkan.

Having been on both sides, Wulkan knows how newly required monthly sit-downs between the Police Department and the oversight office will feel.

“That will be an uncomfortable meeting,” said Wulkan.

They were written into a recently signed memorandum of understanding on evidence sharing, which was obtained by KJZZ News through a public records request.

The MOU says the police department also has to deliver biweekly lists of open internal investigations. Both the office and the department have to pick a go-between. Disputes get arbitrated by the city manager.

“The city of Phoenix police department has had a history of fighting against reform. Whether the Office of Accountability and Transparency can change its direction is something that only time will tell. But I have my doubts,” said Wulkan.

Back in the cafe, Sheikh said implementing a new government office is much harder than winning a City Council vote. Progress has been slow. But he’s still hopeful and has faith in top officials.

“One thing I learned working with the community (is) nothing happens fast,” he said.

Sheikh repeatedly mentioned that police are a necessary part of society. And if Phoenix wanted his help building trust between refugees and officers again, Sheikh said he’d be there.

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