DOJ Finds Phoenix Police Violated Rights of Homeless Individuals

Phoenix police violate homeless people rights

The DOJ’s investigation into Phoenix police revealed systematic violations against homeless individuals, including arbitrary disposal of belongings and destruction of shelters, citing a pattern of unlawful detention and discrimination concerns.

Investigation Uncovers Violations by Phoenix Police

After a nearly three-year investigation, the Department of Justice found the Phoenix police force routinely deprived people experiencing homelessness of their constitutional rights by arbitrarily throwing away their belongings and destroying their temporary shelters.

In a first-of-its-kind finding, the DOJ said police officers engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that “unlawfully detain, cite, and arrest” people experiencing homelessness. The investigators also noted “serious concerns” about the department’s treatment of children and patterns of discrimination against people of color and those with behavioral health issues.

The findings were released at a time when the rising cost of living is threatening the housing stability of many low-income individuals and households. In Phoenix alone, inflation has pushed the cost of living up 2.6% year-over-year, according to federal data, with food and shelter prices leading the way.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Point in Time Count shows that the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the city increased 13% year-over-year to more than 2,700 people.

Supreme Court Case Could Impact Phoenix

The Supreme Court is also considering a case that could have massive implications for how Phoenix addresses homelessness going forward. The court is expected to issue an opinion in Johnson v. Grants Pass this month, a case that could overturn a 9th Circuit precedent that prevents cities from using punitive punishments like fines and arrests to police homeless people when no shelter is available.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a press release that the investigation’s findings are “an important step toward accountability and transparency.”

“We are committed to working with the City of Phoenix and Phoenix Police Department on meaningful reform that protects the civil rights and safety of Phoenix residents and strengthens police-community trust,” Garland continued.

The DOJ officially opened its investigation in August 2021. Staff in the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section interviewed Phoenix PD officers, supervisors, and command staff. They also spoke with city officials and accompanied homeless outreach workers and “specialty squads” that “frequently interact” with homeless people. 

Phoenix officials were briefed on the investigation’s findings prior to its release. The investigation was one of 11 conducted by the DOJ into the conduct of local police forces.

“Our findings provide a blueprint and a roadmap that can help transform the police department, restore community trust, and strengthen public safety efforts in one of America’s largest cities,” said Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

Controversial Clearing of Encampments

Advocates have been sounding alarms about the way the Phoenix PD treats people experiencing homelessness for some time.

Early last year, the city settled a federal lawsuit filed by the local ACLU chapter concerning its use of homeless sweeps. The nonprofit legal organization also challenged the city’s quality of life ordinances—such as prohibitions against sitting, eating, or lying down—because they prohibited unhoused people from performing basic acts of survival.

The settlement was supposed to prevent Phoenix from clearing an encampment known as The Zone, which at one time was home to roughly 800 people, according to local reports. However, it seems like the city had other ideas in mind. Two months later, Phoenix decided to clear the encampment, a move that local advocates say broke the law.

In sworn testimony, Fund for Empowerment co-founder and lead organizer Elizabeth Venable said Phoenix police “collected and destroyed” items like tents, bedding, blankets, clothes, and tarps that people experiencing homelessness used to survive outside.

Advocates have also chided lawmakers for supporting policies that seemingly discriminate against people experiencing homelessness.

For instance, several lawmakers supported a bill that sought to prohibit municipalities from using so-called “mixed hoteling,” where unhoused folks can receive shelter and services and live near members of the public. One of the bill’s supporters said it was responding to “community outrage” concerning a local program in Scottsdale where people experiencing homelessness were housed at a hotel where families with children were also staying.

The bill stalled in the Arizona House in March 2024 but could return for the next legislative session.

“No one should face criminal prosecution for trying to provide assistance to another,” Marilyn Rodriguez of the Arizona ACLU said in February.

How You Can Help Fight Criminalization

In the face of a rising tide of anti-homeless legislation, we are engaged in a critical battle against misinformation and the criminalization of homelessness.

Across the nation, anti-homeless laws are advancing through legislative committees, propelled by secret votes, corporate funding, out-of-state lobbyists, and conservative think tanks like the Cicero Institute.

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the United States. It also showed that many programs designed to address homelessness are rooted in law enforcement rather than social services.

At this pivotal moment, we must make the truth louder than ever. Tell your representatives you support revamping how your city addresses homelessness. Handcuffs do not get anyone closer to stable housing. Instead, we must focus on compassionate solutions, the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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