The county attorney misunderstands why our community doesn’t trust law enforcement

Celena Tevoh ties protest signs on the fence surrounding the public buildings and parking lots of the Arizona Department of Public Safety on June 7, 2020. The demonstration drew thousands to bring attention to the case of Dion Johnson, who was shot and killed by a DPS trooper who found him asleep in his car on May 25, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel recently declined to bring charges against George Cervantes, the Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper who shot and killed Dion Johnson, an African American man sleeping in his car on Memorial Day. 

We are not here to criticize Adel’s decision. We are pastors, and are not privy to the full evidence in this case. 

However, we are deeply concerned about the process the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office relies upon in cases of police brutality. We are concerned that Adel expressed a grave misunderstanding of why many people in communities of color distrust law enforcement.

When a police officer in Maricopa County injures or kills a civilian, the investigation is handled by Adel’s prosecutors. These prosecutors work closely with officers who might later become the subjects of their investigations. 

That is not to say that no prosecutor can be impartial in cases of police misconduct. But look at the statistics: Police officers have shot 600 people in Arizona in the past eight years, and only one of those shootings resulted in an officer facing charges. It is difficult to believe all 599 of the other shootings were justified. Some of those shootings include the murder of 14-year-old Antonio Arce, who was shot in the back. This shooting was caught on camera, yet Adel still declined to charge the officer.

Adel might not believe there is bias within her process of reviewing police shootings, but many in the community believe so. Johnson’s death coincided with the murder of George Floyd and nationwide outrage over police brutality. The least Adel could do to begin repairing community trust of law enforcement is to ensure investigations of police brutality are handled by independent investigators from outside her office. She has not said she would be willing to make this change.

Adel is continuing to erode public trust in law enforcement by telling falsehoods about how law enforcement is treated when misconduct occurs. During the press conference about the Cervantes investigation, Adel said “officers do not get a greater benefit of doubt than any other person facing criminal prosecution.” Now, let’s imagine how this investigation would be different if it was you or I who shot and killed someone.  

Adel said the burden was on her prosecutors to prove Cervantes did not act in self-defense. If you or I had killed someone, we’re certain that Adel’s office would let a jury decide whether it was self-defense. Here, she took that decision away from a jury. 

Adel also claimed she used Google to research past misconduct by Cervantes instead of examining his official disciplinary file. She said she did not take Cervantes’s past misconduct — threatening to kill his ex-wife’s fiancé, violating a protective order and using a Taser on a puppy — into consideration when deciding not to charge him. But if you or I had killed someone, it’s a certainty that Adel would take our past into consideration and use it to increase any sentence her office sought.

When looking at the full process of the Cervantes investigation, one could conclude that Adel provides protection to police officers she does not provide to others. Adel took months to review all the facts in this case, making it clear that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office will investigate cases of police violence with an eye for justifying their decision not to bring charges. For anyone else, Adel’s office has a history of charging first and asking questions later.

Without admitting and recognizing that she stacks the cards in favor of law enforcement, Adel cannot begin to properly address police brutality. She most definitely cannot begin to understand the pain many African Americans endure at the hands of the state. Without understanding how and why many in our community distrust law enforcement, she cannot reasonably begin to fix it. 

Following the murder of George Floyd, Adel asked members of the African American community to meet to discuss how her office could do a better job at holding police officers to the same standard as everyone else.  

She said she wanted to listen. Apparently, she didn’t. 

As the prophet Zechariah said in his day, we ask Allister Adel to administer true justice for all residents of Maricopa County.

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Dr. Juan Brown
Dr. Juan Brown

Dr. Juan Brown is the Senior Pastor at Progressive Baptist Church and the founder of Clergy United Against Police Brutality.

Pastor Reginald Walton
Pastor Reginald Walton

Pastor Reginald Walton is the Chair of Civic Engagement at the African American Christian Clergy Coalition and the Senior Pastor at Philips Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Phoenix.