Phoenix city council may vote today on police civilian review board

A woman makes a peace sign before a line of police preparing to advance upon demonstrators after a rally by President Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 22, 2017. Phoenix police ended the demonstration by firing tear gas into the crowd. Photo by David McNew | Getty Images

After months of talks, Phoenix city council members on Tuesday will discuss whether to implement a civilian review board – and what powers such a board might have – to oversee a Phoenix Police Department that has been dogged with complaints of excessive force in recent years. 

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has released her oversight proposal, listed as Model A on the agenda, which will include the implementation of a civilian review board and a new government agency tasked with hearing complaints and conducting independent audits into misconduct allegations. 

“For as long as I have been involved in public life in the city of Phoenix, we have had people in this community saying the city of Phoenix needs to have a civilian oversight board,” said Gallego. “I want a policy that has balance and that is fair to everyone,” she said.

Gallego will be the first mayor of Phoenix to have such a measure on a city council agenda. 

The mayor first called for informal council meetings to discuss the implementation of a civilian review board following a viral encounter between Phoenix Police and a black family last May – an interaction that drew nationwide outrage and put a spotlight on the department’s practices. 

The council will also discuss on Tuesday the ‘Model B’ proposal put forth by Councilman Carlos Garcia. 

Garcia, a longtime activist and founder of Puente, a local immigrant rights group, has been in strong support of greater civilian oversight of Phoenix PD since he was elected District 8 councilman last year.

Poder In Action, a grassroots advocacy organization which has long called for greater police oversight in cities around Arizona, was not immediately available for comment, but has come out against Gallego’s proposal, calling it “watered down.”

Poder In Action supports Garcia’s “Model B” proposal, and has urged the mayor to vote for Garcia’s proposal rather than her own. 

“Mayor Gallego’s Model for civilian oversight ignores the pain of mothers who have lost their children to police violence,” Poder in Action wrote on its Facebook page. The group held a conference outside Phoenix City Hall on Monday. 

Groups in favor of greater a civilian review board, like Poder in Action and Black Lives Matter, have called for oversight bodies to have the power to subpoena and fire police officers who have violated protocol. 

Neither plan on Tuesday’s agenda would give the oversight committee these powers. To do so, the city’s charter would need to be changed, which can only be done by voters. 

Local artist Renaissance the Poet, a leader of Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix, spoke to a group of people in front of city hall on Monday decrying that Phoenix is the only city among the 10 largest cities in the U.S. without a formal civilian review board.

“It is the community who knows what the community needs to feel safe, it is the community who should decide when our safety is threatened, and the community should be party to any decision to reestablish our safety,” he said to the crowd. 

Gallego’s ‘Model A’ oversight plan

Under Gallego’s proposed plan, the new department would act as a liaison between the police department and the community. The department would handle complaints made against Phoenix PD and conduct its own investigation into misconduct allegations.

The civilian review board would meet monthly and host quarterly community outreach meetings. It would make suggestions regarding police policies and practices, which would be forwarded to the ombudsman heading the new department. 

Gallego’s plan does not specify who would serve on the review board and in the new department, and what exactly their roles would be. 

“At this point, we don’t have the nitty gritty of what each of these individuals needs to have, not only on their resume, but in their professional and personal backgrounds, to be able to be a part both the board and/or the staff,” said Annie DeGraw, the mayor’s communication’s director.

However, Gallego did say that the community review board would be composed of only civilians, who are “trusted voices in the community.”

Should her model pass, Gallego said she hopes to see the new positions filled in a way that incorporates community input. 

The mayor and her staff could not provide a timeline for when the review board and agency would be implemented, but said the first step would likely be the hiring of an ombudsman. The estimated total cost is between $1.7 and $1.8 million. 

Any vote on Gallego’s proposal on Tuesday would only establish the framework for her civilian review board model. Bylaws dictating the board and department’s powers would be adopted at a later time. 

The mayor’s office stressed that their proposed model “represents two sides coming together,” both police and the community. However, both those in favor of and those against greater oversight have taken issue with the mayor’s proposal. 

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union that represents Phoenix police, has said it is against any effort to create greater oversight of the police department. 

Garcia’s ‘Model B’ plan:

Garcia’s proposal “blends the best elements” of oversight categories, and includes the authority to review, audit, monitor and investigate, according to the District 8 councilmembers proposal on Tuesday’s agenda

Like the mayor’s proposal, Garcia’s “hybrid model” would also create two new city bodies, including a civilian review board and a department named the Office of Accountability and Transparency. 

The mayor and Garcia’s plans differ in how each entity would be comprised and what they would do. 

The councilman’s plan calls for more direct community involvement than Gallego’s. 

Garcia was not immediately available for comment on the specifics of his proposal. 

A third approach: the status quo

Not all members of the council feel that a civilian review board, or any civilian oversight, is necessary. 

“We’ve had council members who have said ‘99% of police interactions are positive, we think the current system is working,’” said Gallego, referring to some of her more conservative colleagues on the council. 

Councilman Sal DiCiccio of District 6, has been against creating additional oversight for Phoenix PD.

“We do not have a problem within our police department,” he told ABC 15 last year. “Across the entire country right now, people are pushing back on police officers and trying to prevent them from doing their jobs.” 

Gallego said that, during the meetings held over the course of the last few months, the council took into account a variety of opinions from the community, some not receptive to a civilian review board. 

“I think it is also important to acknowledge that there are some people in this community who would want a ‘Model C’ status quo,” Gallego said. 

In the past two years, the department seemed to find itself in a quick succession of high profile controversies. 

In 2018, police-involved shootings reached a record high, before tapering down the following year. 

Then, last June, the Plain View Project exposed thousands of hateful comments posted on social media by about 75 Phoenix police officers. The comments were largely racist, Islamophobic or encouraged the use of violence, drawing questions regarding fairness in policing. 

Events like these may have helped create the conditions needed to get an oversight bill passed Phoenix City Council. 

“At no other point in time has there been a council make up that would even allow for the possibility of a vote in favor of something like this,” DeGraw said. 

“But that pendulum can swing back in a different direction, and if the policy that’s put forward now doesn’t represent diverse voices … (it) is very unlikely that it is going to survive beyond this point in time.”