A memo from Mayor Kate Gallego shared on the Phoenix City Council’s website announced today that she has put together an ad hoc committee to implement long-stalled police reforms. But the divergent and, in some cases, very police friendly make-up of the committee may stand in the way of that goal.
The committee will be co-chaired by Council Member Thelda Williams, who previously worked for Maricopa County’s notorious ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio and spoke out in support of him as recently as 2016, and Council Member Carlos Garcia, an activist-turned-lawmaker who previously worked as the director of Puente, a grassroots human-rights movement.
Gallego appointed nine members to the committee and directed each of Phoenix’s eight city council members to select their own appointees. There are 19 people on the committee, including the two co-chairs, and their first meeting is slated for 1 p.m. on August 29 at City Hall.
Calls for an ad hoc committee began after cellphone video of a Phoenix police officer threatening to shoot an unarmed black man in the head in front of his family went viral in June. The footage brought a national spotlight to Phoenix’s troubled police department and ignited public outcry.
About a week after the video came out, Garcia asked the council to create a civilian review board with subpoena power and an ad hoc committee to implement the police reforms that have previously been recommended by prior committees, yet later ignored. Gallego agreed with Garcia and committed to forming the new ad hoc committee. She also said she would call a special meeting to explore forming a civilian review board.
Gallego’s spokesperson, Annie DeGraw, shared an earlier memo with Phoenix New Times outlining previously suggested police reforms the committee will review. The memo states that the committee will not review recommendations around civilian oversight.
“That policy will be discussed by the Phoenix City Council this fall through a series of work study sessions that I am calling,” Gallego wrote.
A description of the committee on the city of Phoenix’s website notes that the committee’s purpose is to review past and current recommendations made to the Phoenix City Council and the Phoenix Police Department that could strengthen police-community relations. The committee will provide monthly reports to the city council and will “sunset in June of 2020 with a final report.”
Yet Gallego’s decision to allow each council member to select their own committee member for her to appoint, instead of appointing all the members herself, has predictably led to a committee that includes members who have little interest in reforming the police department.
Vice Mayor Jim Waring chose to add former Phoenix police union president Ken Crane to the police reform committee, while Council Member Sal DiCiccio added former Apache Junction police commander Jay Swart. In 2006, the East Valley Tribune found that Swart had left his previous role as captain at the Capitol Police Department, a small unit of the state Department of Public Safety, amid allegations that he routinely humiliated fellow officers and employees, retaliated against people who “crossed” him, repeatedly made illegal arrests, and put homeless people in jail for no reason.
Four separate investigations carried out by Capitol police sustained allegations of misconduct against Swart. The same day Swart was notified he’d have to take a polygraph exam to determine whether he was telling the truth in an internal investigation, he went on medical leave, the Tribune reported.
In 2007, Swart was again accused of harassing employees he considered disloyal in an effort to get them to quit, according to a lawsuit filed by ex-Apache Junction cop Cynthia Adams. Adams also alleged that Swart once instructed her to arrest a mentally ill woman who had been making irrational statements about the police department. When she refused, Swart allegedly insisted the woman be arrested, stating that he had experience dealing with “these people” and that if they are arrested “they will go away for a long time and leave us alone.”
Council Member Debra Stark added Cleo Lewis, a former Phoenix police officer who was fired in the early 1990s after an internal investigation found Lewis lied when he claimed he had been beaten by drug dealers at a crack house while working under cover. Police found that Lewis was actually beaten because he owed money to the dealers. Lewis ended up in jail for his drug-abuse problems. After he got out of prison, Lewis was homeless, but he later found help through Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) and managed to find a home, reconnect with his family, and find work as the director of outreach at the church that initially connected him with CASS.
One of Gallego’s appointees, Kevin Robinson, recently retired from his role as assistant chief at the Phoenix Police Department and now works as a lecturer at the Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Robinson, who was head of the Phoenix Police Department’s disciplinary review board for 12 years, has claimed “law enforcement in this valley does a terrific job of policing itself,” and suggested that the answer to Phoenix’s exceptionally high number of officer-involved shootings is more police. Last month, Robinson said he doesn’t think full civilian oversight of the police department is necessary.
Meanwhile, Ken Crane, who until this year was the head of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), has opposed releasing bodycam footage for high-profile incidents, spoken out against civilian review boards, and blamed citizens for Phoenix police’s unusually high number of officer-involved shootings.
When Alessandra Soler, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, criticized the rise in Phoenix police shootings, Crane responded with this post on PLEA’s website: “When the big bad wolf is kicking Ms. Soler’s door in at 2:00 a.m., she’s not going to call the City Parks and Rec Department, BLM or her ACLU buddies for help. She’ll be on the phone to 911 screaming for help.” And he has referred to Puente, Black Lives Matter, and the ACLU as “radical community groups that have worked hard to damn law enforcement by creating a false narrative about policing.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Council Member Laura Pastor appointed Viri Hernandez, director of Poder in Action and an outspoken police reform activist, while Garcia chose to add Jamaar Williams, an activist, attorney, and member of the National Lawyers Guild. Williams was one of the 16 people who were arrested by Phoenix police during a protest outside Phoenix’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office last month.
The other three council appointees are ASU student and field organizer with NextGen America Victoria Stahl, and neighborhood block watch members Stan Bates and Jennifer Rouse. Block watches are closely associated with local police departments, which provide funding and training. Bates’ block watch is funded by grant money from the Phoenix Police Department.
Gallego’s nine appointees include:
• Aubrey Barnwell, a pastor at First New Life Church.
• Julie Erfle, a writer who runs the blog PoliticsUncuffed.com and is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona.
• Tad Gary, chief operating officer of Mercy Care, a non-profit health care provider.
• David Martinez III, director of capacity building and community engagement for the Vitalyst Health Foundation, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that seeks to increase access to health care and help build healthier communities.
• Armando Nava, a criminal defense attorney.
• Janey Pearl Starks, director of marketing and engagement for Mountain Park Health Center, another non-profit community health center.
• Shawn Pearson, founder of the Zion Early Learning Academy.
• Kevin Robinson, former assistant police chief with the Phoenix Police Department.
• Janelle Wood, founder of the Black Mothers Forum, a nonprofit that works to ensure black children receive equal access to education.
Erfle was married to Phoenix police officer Nick Erfle, who was shot and killed in 2007 while trying to arrest a jaywalker on a misdemeanor shoplifting warrant. Though her husband was killed by an undocumented immigrant, Erfle has supported immigration reform, something conservative groups have criticized her for.
Earlier this year, Phoenix police attributed the department’s extraordinarily high number of officer-involved shootings to a rising number of 911 calls involving people with mental-health issues. Gallego has since called for greater access to mental health services as a means to decrease police shootings, which is likely why the mayor chose to add so many health-care professionals to the committee.