How Phoenix Explains a Rise in Police Violence: It’s the Civilians’ Fault

 
 
Poder in Action, a nonprofit group in Phoenix, marks shootings by the city’s police officers on a wall map in its office. Since the photo was taken, the tally for 2018 has risen to 41.CreditCreditConor E. Ralph for The New York Times

By Richard A. Oppel Jr.,

 

PHOENIX — All Marco Zepeda, a 44-year-old blind man, wanted to do when he went inside a convenience store last June was use the bathroom.

But as he tried to find his way, the police report said, Mr. Zepeda had the misfortune of walking near a police officer using a urinal. Thinking Mr. Zepeda had come too close, the officer pushed him, according to his account. They scuffled. Mr. Zepeda was tackled after he threw a punch, the officer said.

“You just turned around and started pushing me like crazy,” Mr. Zepeda, a father of four who sells brooms from a pushcart, says on a video that captured the aftermath. “I didn’t know you were a cop.”

But rather than chalk up the scuffle to an unfortunate misunderstanding, the police upped the ante, taking Mr. Zepeda to jail.

There, he was treated like a serious criminal, charged with aggravated assault on an officer, a felony. He denies punching the officer.

Mr. Zepeda’s story illustrates what community activists say is a serious issue: The Phoenix police are unusually quick to use force, slow to back down, and make a habit of releasing selective or misleading information about what happened. That is why, the activists say, the police here have shot more civilians this year than officers in any other city of its size, by far.

Despite the Police Department’s vows to improve transparency, the city has not provided reports on officer-involved shootings and disciplinary cases that were requested by The New York Times almost four months ago.

Critics say the department has avoided confronting the issue, despite having 41 shootings so far this year, almost twice as many as last year and 11 more than the combined total for the three cities closest in size — Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Diego.

While many departments have reacted to police violence with soul-searching and an emphasis on de-escalating tense situations, some Phoenix officials blame people who they say are just too aggressive toward the police.

“I don’t think there’s a sense that there’s something wrong in the department,” said Ed Zuercher, the city manager. “The issue is, ‘What’s going on in our community in total that assaults on police officers are up, the use of weapons against police officers is up, and that police officer-involved shootings are up?’”

Critics say the Police Department cannot — or will not — substantiate such assertions. The department “makes these really biased claims against the community, and when we push back asking for the stats, they refuse to release the cases they say they’re citing,” said Viridiana Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a Phoenix-based community group.

Since the early 1990s, Phoenix’s violent crime rate has declined along with the rest of the nation’s, despite ticking up in the past few years, and is on a par with that of other large cities.

Chief Jeri Williams has commissioned a study of the rise in shootings and increased officer training — though a spokeswoman did not respond to questions about what kind of training. Chief Williams said the shootings this year have had little in common with one another. “If you look at other cities across the country, they might be able to point to one geographical area, one group of people, one criminal element,” but not so in Phoenix, she said.

In Mr. Zepeda’s case, he says he was the victim. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute him, citing “no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

Alex Andrich, in a photo provided by his family, was shot and killed by a police officer in Phoenix.
 
Alex Andrich, in a photo provided by his family, was shot and killed by a police officer in Phoenix.

After the police shot and killed Alex Andrich, on June 12, a police spokesman offered this explanation: Mr. Andrich had advanced on an officer while holding an “object” that the officer “believed was a threat.” It turned out to be the handcuffs that officers had just affixed to one of his wrists.

After an officer shot Edward Brown, leaving him a paraplegic, the police said it was self-defense: Mr. Brown had charged at an officer and tried to get his gun, even touching the barrel. But none of Mr. Brown’s D.N.A. was found on the weapon, and he had been shot in the back.

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After Mohammed Muyhamin, a schizophrenic 43-year-old, died during an arrest, the police told local news outlets that he had “assaulted” an employee at a community center where he had sought to use the bathroom. But the 128-page police report obtained by The Times described an argument over whether Mr. Muyhamin could bring his small service dog inside without a leash.

The assault described in the report was an allegation that he had “pushed past” the employee because he needed to get to the restroom.

David Chami, a lawyer for Mr. Muhaymin’s estate and eldest son, said at least one officer on the scene had previously interacted with his client and knew he had mental health problems. Officers decided to take him in on an existing warrant for drug paraphernalia, he said, forcing him to the ground as he resisted and struggled.

Mohammed Muhaymin died during an arrest.
Mohammed Muhaymin died during an arrest.

“I can’t breathe!” Mr. Muhaymin, whose post-mortem showed he was on methamphetamines, screamed. A witness cited in the medical examiner report said that one of the officers replied: “Then stop resisting.”

The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.

In each of these cases, the police offered selective or misleading accounts of what happened.

In the Andrich case, they say they were called for trespassing and then had a “knock-down, drag-out fight,” getting one handcuff on Mr. Andrich before he broke free, injuring an officer’s knee. They tried and failed to subdue him with a Taser, they said. Minutes later, they shot him as he advanced on an officer, according to the police account.

But in a bystander’s video, Mr. Andrich can be seen walking away, briefly turning to face the officer, then seeming to turn back away when he was shot. And while the police said the officer had stepped back before he fired, the video shows him following Mr. Andrich down the sidewalk.

Louise Andrich, Mr. Andrich’s sister, said that the police were aware he had schizophrenia and that her brother had not been violent in previous interactions with officers.

“I know exactly what my brother was saying — he was saying ‘leave me alone,’” Ms. Andrich said. The police version, she added, “did not fit the narrative of who he was as a human being, but it fit the narrative they needed to tell to make it seem legitimate.”

Officers breaking up a protest in 2016 against fatal shootings of black men.CreditRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press
Officers breaking up a protest in 2016 against fatal shootings of black men.CreditRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

As controversy over the shootings heated up this summer with protests at City Hall, the police said they were the ones under attack. Assaults against officers had jumped 45 percent during the first five months of the year, they said, and they were the largest contributing factor in officer-involved shootings.

Community groups say, though, that the police use aggravated assault charges to deflect attention from their own conduct. Under the law, any assault on an officer is automatically considered aggravated. An assault charge does not require physical contact — intentionally giving someone “reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury” is enough.

“All the officer has to say is, ‘I thought you were going to hurt me,’” said Heather Hamel, a civil rights lawyer representing Mr. Zepeda, the blind man. “That is how you twist the narrative. Every time there is a case of police brutality and the person lives, they’re going to get hit with an aggravated assault charge.”

Mr. Brown, the man the police shot in the back, was also charged with aggravated assault on an officer.

Some politicians have taken up the Police Department’s argument. “When people get stopped, they think it is O.K. to approach the officer in a threatening way,” City Councilman Sal DiCiccio said at a hearing in June. “Of course they’re going to get shot at that point.”

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In an interview, Mr. DiCiccio faulted the city for not hiring enough police. “We have a more violent population,” he said.

By the numbers, Phoenix is about as dangerous as a typical large American city. At 7.6 violent crimes per thousand residents, Phoenix’s violent crime rate was the same as the aggregate for cities with populations over 250,000, and slightly higher than that for cities with over a million, according to F.B.I. data for 2017.

A police spokeswoman said the department did not intentionally withhold public information, but that processing requests could take time. The city does not post data on civilian complaints.

One Phoenix police officer has been shot this year. He was wounded during a traffic stop in August.

At the behest of Chief Williams, city officials have hired the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit research firm, to study the problem. The move displeased police union officials, who said it amounted to placating activists by second-guessing officers who have done nothing wrong.

The number of officer-involved shootings in Phoenix this year far surpasses the number in other cities of similar size.CreditConor E. Ralph for The New York Times
The number of officer-involved shootings in Phoenix this year far surpasses the number in other cities of similar size.CreditConor E. Ralph for The New York Times

When the Phoenix police chief Daniel Garcia was fired in 2014, he blamed two police unions that had each called for a vote of “no confidence” in him.

“Our city management needs to decide whether the Police Department is to be run by the unions, or by the police chief,” Mr. Garcia said at a news conference that led to his firing.

Mr. Garcia complained that the city’s review board, whose members are appointed by the City Council, sometimes sided with officers who committed crimes or used excessive force.

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Out of 41 cases appealed since 2014, discipline imposed by the Police Department was reduced or overturned in 27 cases, either by the review board or through settlements with the city’s own lawyers.

In 2015, the board reinstated Officer Kevin McGowan, who had been fired for stomping on the neck of an 18-year-old as he was lowering himself to the ground to surrender. The attack, which was caught on a surveillance video, knocked out three of the man’s teeth.

Last year, Officer McGowan was one of 10 officers at the fatal arrest of Mr. Muhaymin. Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, the police spokeswoman, said that Officer McGowan “was not involved in the initial contact or takedown” of Mr. Muhaymin, but that he “assisted by applying the leg restraint after the suspect was on the ground and in handcuffs.”

She did not respond to other questions about Mr. Muhaymin’s arrest and death.

Ken Crane, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the main police union, said that officers were not the problem in Phoenix. People should submit to police commands, he said: “We all go home safe if everybody remembers this one little word: compliance.”

Asked why there were so many more police shootings than in other large cities, Mr. Crane said Phoenix has “a lot more people that want to pull guns and knives on the cops.”

The evidence? The number of times, he said, that officers have had to shoot at someone.

Richard A. Oppel Jr., , The New York Times, “How Phoenix Explains a Rise in Police Violence: It’s the Civilians’ Fault

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