WASHINGTON — The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation of the Phoenix Police Department on Thursday, looking at whether police use excessive force, treat minorities differently and deal properly with the disabled and the homeless.
Phoenix police face lawsuits and widespread complaints over their response to Black Lives Matter protests last year. One suit claims police filed false felony charges after rounding up 124 people, chasing them and firing tear gas.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the investigation will examine whether officers use excessive force, engage in discriminatory policing, violate free expression, respond improperly to people with disabilities and violate the rights of the homeless by seizing and disposing of their property.
Garland and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said the Phoenix mayor and police chief pledged their full support when they were briefed about the investigation Thursday morning.
"When we conduct pattern or practice investigations to determine whether the Constitution or federal law has been violated, our aim is to promote transparency and accountability. This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety," Garland said.
The Justice Department opened similar investigations this year of the police department in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd and in Louisville, Kentucky, after the death of Breonna Taylor.
Arizona released body camera video in August 2020 showing the arrest of a man who died in custody after he was held on asphalt for several minutes in 100-degree heat.
Garland said that how police respond to calls involving people with physical or mental disabilities is an important issue for the nation.
"Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems," he said. "Too often we asked law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system."
Garland also said states must do more to head off evictions during the Covid crisis. More evictions, he said, would add to the crisis of homelessness. He said the Justice Department intends to defend the latest moratorium on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many legal experts have said the Supreme Court sent a strong signal in late June that the CDC lacks the authority to impose such a sweeping moratorium.