Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix Police budget increase tentatively approved as department swirls in scandal

Jeremy Beren

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By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Phoenix) — Buoyed by the city's budget surplus, funding for the Phoenix Police Department will soon hit the $850 million mark.

City leaders on May 23 voted 6-1 to approve an eight percent increase to the Phoenix Police budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Though debate over the new city budget will continue through the month of June, this is welcome news for the Phoenix PD amid some recent unwelcome headlines.

Chief Jeri Williams last month announced her impending retirement, just two weeks after ABC15 reported that she knowingly lied to the public about a scandal in which Phoenix Police and members of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office attempted to charge Black Lives Matter protesters as gang members.

Also, the additional $63 million heading the department's way will arrive nine months after the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation into Phoenix police officers' use of excessive force and discriminatory practices.

It is for these reasons that Phoenix-area defense attorney Jamaar Williams harbors major concerns about the increase in funding.

"It's so mind-blowing to me that (the city of Phoenix has) over a decade of all these studies and reports that they just ignored," Williams told NewsBreak. "They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on these assessments, all for them to just sit and collect dust on someone's desk somewhere, without actually making any substantial changes to the police department."

Williams is also an organizer with BLM Phoenix Metro, and he formed part of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego's Review and Implementation Ad Hoc Committee in 2019 to provide recommendations that would address systemic problems inside the Phoenix PD. In conversation with NewsBreak, he cited the 2011 Berkshire Report — which concluded that the department was actually overstaffed and its patrol officers underworked — as particularly relevant in this context.

After years of data collection and reform discussion, the City of Phoenix has instead disbursed significant funds to the police department, rather than solving efficiency and retention problems that have plagued the PD. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, Phoenix's police budget during fiscal year 2020 was the fifth-largest in the U.S. Over 40 percent of the city's funds were funneled into the police department, the sixth-highest figure nationwide.

As such, Williams views the budget increase as a "slap in the face" in addition to poor policymaking.

"(The city government) never addressed (the Berkshire Report), and now they're proposing an $850 million budget," he said. "You have a police department with the most prolific shooters in the nation, and the city did nothing. You have racism rampant in the department, the city does nothing. I don't understand how any councilmembers can sit there and feel comfortable giving this department, with those issues, more money, then look their constituents in the face and say 'we're working for you.'

"All that reflects is they're working for the police officers that hold them ransom through this con of public safety."

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Calls to bring more sworn officers onto the department were renewed and heightened after nine Phoenix Police officers were wounded during a February shooting in southwest Phoenix. City leaders aim to address the present shortage and add up to 64 civilian positions. The Arizona Republic also reported that the budget proposal has accommodations for 4,500 Phoenix PD employees in all.

The City of Phoenix plans to allocate $2.5 million to bring on new civilian investigators for homicide and violent crime units and over $1 million each to fund new IT hirings and Laboratory Services Bureau positions. This money will not be coming from the budget surplus — the city itself will pay these ongoing annual costs, dipping into savings created at least partially through vacant sworn officer positions.

But Phoenix metro's growth — particularly in the West Valley, where there has been a population spike during the COVID-19 pandemic — is likely to correspond with a billion-dollar policing budget sometime in the near future. Williams is unmoved by the civilian investigators initiative, and he is among those concerned that this strategy creates a false narrative about reliable public safety that will be used to rationalize further budget expansion.

"Instead of actually addressing and creating real solutions for people, they're just trying to maintain the status quo and rebrand it as developing this new, innovative type of policing. It's really just BS," he said. "We're going to see in the next budget, or in a couple years, the clamoring for more sworn police officers, for all these deficits that need to be addressed, and for more money. The innovation will be out the door. Hopefully, as a community, we don't let them do that."

Williams also wonders just how serious public servants like Mayor Gallego are about police reform when Arizona's imprisonment rate is the fifth-highest in the country.

During her State of the City address in April, Gallego acknowledged the Phoenix PD is not "perfect." But she pledged never to defund the police and vouched for gun control reform — if it kept officers safe.

"No police agency in the country is without its flaws. We know our community has high expectations that we have not always met," Gallego said. "Yet, I firmly believe that each and every day the Phoenix Police Department does important work to make our community better."

Comments like these infuriate organizers like Williams. He routinely comes into contact with families who have lost loved ones due to police violence, and in 2019 he was arrested on completely-fabricated charges while exercising his constitutional right to protest.

"All Gallego cares about is her next political move. She's very individualistic, this is her career she's considering. She cares nothing about the blood on the streets of her city," Williams said. "She's following Joe Biden's lead. When Biden says 'you need to fund police,' it gives a person like Mayor Gallego the backing and the ability to come out and say she'll never defund police.

"It's not fair to people who have the stigma and face these collateral consequences after having criminal records because police officers just have bad tempers. (The comments) are crazy-disgusting, and the most disgusting part of it is (Gallego) thinks it's a good idea. She thinks she's going to get away with it. I really hope as a city, as a state, we hold her accountable."

The objective for Williams and other activists in the coming years is to create communities and forms of public safety that render police departments like the Phoenix PD obsolete.

"There's a reason that they have an officer shortage. There's a reason that they have poor retention, and there's a reason that they have low morale right now," Williams said. "It's the perfect opportunity for the mayor and the city council to say 'this is a message about policing. It's the manifestation of criticism about policing. Let's think of new forms of public safety.'"

Williams believes that American militarism and police state propaganda have made people unable to imagine communities without police presence, and therefore fearful of replacing it with something new. But he insists one plan for the future will require only a fraction of the Phoenix PD’s new tabled budget.

"Police are rooted in repression, they're rooted in racism, they're rooted in subjugation. We need to rid ourselves of the conditioning that says we need those things for normalcy and stability in society," he said. "If we took $100 million of that $850 million budget and we put it into mental health services, rental assistance, addressing food deserts, economic opportunities, job opportunities, we are — by virtue of that expenditure and effort itself — reducing instances of harm and instability in our communities.

"Those are the conditions where we don't need police, because we've taken care of the harm and instability they respond to."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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