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“They’ve been evading accountability": Concerns grow about policing practices, patterns for using force to homelessness

Community organizations, local governments and law agencies are growing more concerned about the current state of policing.

The Department of Justice opened an investigation on the Phoenix Police Department in 2021 into police practices and patterns for using force, discriminatory policing, and responses to homelessness.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona filed a contempt order about the City of Phoenix conducting sweeps against unsheltered individuals in “The Zone.” The civil rights organization also reached a settlement agreement with Attorney General Kris Mayes on declaring the law that makes it illegal to record the police unconstitutional.

H.B. 2319 was passed in the 2022 legislative session and signed into law by former governor Doug Ducey, making it a crime to record police officers. The law was a First Amendment violation and never went into effect because it received a preliminary injunction almost immediately, said Amanda Mollindo, communications strategist for ACLU Arizona,.

ACLU in Arizona filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix in November 2022 with one of their plaintiffs, Funds for Empowerment, because throughout Phoenix, specifically in “The Zone” on 9th Ave between Washington and Jefferson St., unsheltered members were criminalized. Unhoused people had their personal belongings taken, the state did not allow members to return to the area after it was clean and threatened citation and arrest without considering the individuals' needs.

“The intention is to ensure that there are measures taken by the city that ensure that individuals aren’t being mistreated,” Mollindo commented. “They aren’t being cited for existing outside when the city has no other place for them to go. And essentially, their human rights are being respected.”

Criminology researchers also investigate strategies surrounding the way police are trained to respond to social problems like homelessness. 

Katharine Brown received her Ph.D. from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, researching the relationship between homelessness and policing.

“It was this really interesting dynamic,” Brown said. They found that specialists took the lead on the responses and officers were there to be a liaison if needed. They had officers invested in solutions for the community but did not have the resources to do so.

Her research began in 2018 in Indio, California, where she and fellow researchers worked with the Indio Police Department to evaluate the effectiveness of the community outreach resource program funded by the state of California. This program focused on responding to issues of homelessness by creating a team of officers and pairing them with a behavioral health specialist. The goal was to take a non-arrest approach and connect the individuals to homeless services.

Brown developed a survey on the dynamic between service workers and police officers and distributed it across the U.S. She spent time with two different service providers in Maricopa County, which she had to keep anonymous, doing an ethnography focusing on the cultural response of how behavioral workers respond to homelessness when the police are involved.

After being in California, Brown wanted to know more about the issue in Arizona.

“It seemed like both were responding to this grave concern. I wasn’t sure what it looked like, and I wanted to know what it looked like to characterize each other’s role if they worked together. I just had a string of questions,” she said.

Poder in Action is a nonprofit organization that provides spaces and programs for community members to be politically active. Their mission is to rid oppressive systems by prioritizing community safety. The organization believes that if underserved communities had the resources needed to live a healthy life, the need for police would be reduced, said Shalae Flores, spokesperson for the organization.

Poder in Action has a campaign called “The Pueblo’s Budget,” which is the people's budget. The budget is a proposal for the city of Phoenix to redistribute funds. 

“They’ve been evading accountability in the name of reducing crime or making communities safer, and it’s done the opposite,” Flores said. “If the City of Phoenix invested half of what they’re giving to (the) police, we would start to see an increase in the quality of life.”

Another active campaign Poder worked on is the “School to Liberation” campaign, which aims to remove policing in schools. They have worked within the Phoenix Union High School District redesigning a safety and wellness plan that ensures that schools have the resources they need to “humanize” youth, reducing the size of police and prioritizing students' and teachers' health and safety. 

“Important stories for you or anybody who wants to understand the state of policing are the stories of families who have lost a loved one,” Flores said.

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