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Phoenix Police confront demonstrators in 2017. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

The Department of Justice announced in a press conference Thursday it is opening a "pattern or practice" investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department.

Driving the news: The Justice Department's probe comes after the Biden administration reversed a Trump policy of not investigating police departments. It looks into several possible violations exhibited by the city's police department:

  • Whether the city's police department uses excessive force;
  • If the Phoenix police department engages in discriminatory policing practices;
  • Whether the department violates first amendment rights by "retaliating against individuals who are engaged in protected, expressive activities," Attorney General Merrick Garland said at Thursday's press conference;
  • Whether the city and its police department respond to people with disabilities in a way that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • If the department "unlawfully seizes or disposes of the belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness."

The big picture: The investigation's broad focus highlights the ways in which law enforcement is strained by virtue of being the first responder to larger societal problems, Garland said.

  • "Too often we ask law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system," he said.
  • "This makes police officers' jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement, and hinders public safety," the attorney general added.
  • "Far too often police officers are the first ones called when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis in any setting, but it is almost certain that police will be called to someone experiencing a mental health crisis if that person is also without housing."

The investigation will include a review of police department reports, data and body camera footage, as well as meetings with members of the force and broader Phoenix community, noted Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

  • The probe will also look into repercussions that law enforcement officers accused of misconduct face, Clarke added.
  • The DOJ briefed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jerry Williams about the investigation and both pledged their support, Garland noted.

The other side: In a statement issued Thursday, Gallego "welcomed" the investigation and noted that police reform has been an ongoing goal during her time in office.

Our thought bubble via Axios' Russell Contreras: The move fulfills a Biden administration promise to restart pattern or practice investigation into law enforcement agencies to force some into consent decrees to address excessive force cases.

  • The Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office have notorious reputations as agencies that target Mexican Americans and Latino immigrants. Activists have long asked for federal investigations.

Flashback: The Justice Department under President Obama entered a consent decree with Albuquerque in 2014 following an investigation that found its police department used excessive force against people suffering from mental health issues.

Don't forget: Most police agencies in recent federally court-ordered reform agreements saw violent crime rates skyrocket immediately, according to an Axios examination of departments under consent decrees since 2012.

  • The increases in violent crime rates suggest there can be unintended consequences, at least in the short term, to the policing changes many Americans demanded in the year since George Floyd's death.

Go deeper

Nov 9, 2021 - Health

2 former officers who used Tasers on man over 50 times convicted of murder

A Taser holstered on a police officer's belt. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Two former Oklahoma police officers who used Tasers over 50 times on an unarmed man who later died have been convicted of second-degree murder, the New York Times reported Monday.

Why it matters: The death of Jared Lakey, 28, from a heart attack following his July 2019 arrest brought to the fore the issue of police using stun guns, with advocates arguing they're safer than firearms and critics saying they've contributed to "many fatalities," the NYT notes.

Nov 9, 2021 - World

Exclusive: ACLU joins Chinese American scientist's lawsuit against U.S.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed an administrative complaint to the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Justice, asserting claims of false arrest and civil conspiracy on behalf of a Chinese American scientist who was cleared of espionage-related charges in 2015.

Why it matters: Hydrologist Sherry Chen's ordeal has spanned three presidential administrations and is adding to growing concerns about U.S. government profiling of Chinese American scientists.

University of Michigan reaches $490M settlement in sex abuse case

Jon Vaughn, a former University of Michigan and NFL football player, speaks at a press conference in Ann Arbor, Mich., in June 2021. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The University of Michigan on Wednesday reached a $490 million settlement with over a thousand survivors who allege that they were sexually assaulted by a former physician in the school's athletic department.

Driving the news: "It's been a long and challenging journey and these survivors have refused to remain silent," attorney Parker Stinar said Wednesday.