In June, Erica Reynolds announced that she intends to sue the Phoenix Police Department after an officer conducted a warrantless cavity search of her that turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.
Now, Reynolds has filed a special court action against the agency for allegedly failing to provide records related to the December 2018 incident. Her complaint touches on a common frustration with the Phoenix Police Department, which is notorious for its slow place in releasing public documents.
Reynolds claims that Phoenix police have failed to fulfill a records request that her attorneys with the People’s Law Firm filed in February seeking police reports, officer files, and video footage related to the warrantless search of her vagina and rectum.
The officer who conducted the probe — Timaree Murphy — was later suspended for violating the department’s policy on strip searches, which requires a warrant and for a medical professional to perform a cavity search.
The department, Reynolds claims, has also failed to provide records related to a second, related incident this year in which she said officers coerced her into confessing to drug possession during the cavity probe.
It was not until Reynolds filed a notice of claim with the city of Phoenix in June — drawing questions from reporters amid a turbulent month for the police department — that the agency selectively released a police report related to her case.
“During the process of assessing why records had not been produced, a far greater concern was revealed – a deficient records-request processing system that likely affects every citizen making a public records request to the Phoenix Police Department and appears to violate Arizona’s public records laws on its face,” states the special action, which was filed on Wednesday in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Arizona law requires government agencies to “promptly” provide eligible records when they are requested by a member of the public. By deadline, the Phoenix Police Department had not responded to request for comment.
The agency has recently faced criticism for slow response times to requests for public information. During a June community meeting called by Mayor Kate Gallego over the Ames-Harper video, several members of the public complained that the department had not released reports related to their interactions with police.
And in April 2018, the department’s records request backlog caught the attention of the Phoenix City Council. Council researchers found that low staffing has led Phoenix to develop a longer police records backlog than larger cities.
To help alleviate the problem, the council approved a new system that requires members of the public to pay before filing public records. Officials passed a budget last year that adds 13 full-time employees dedicated to processing police records.
Police leaders have also made commitments to improving transparency. During a City Council meeting this month, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams committed to a new policy ordering the department to provide complimentary reports to citizens who have encounters with police within 30 days of an incident.
Phoenix police pulled Reynolds over on December 26, 2018, after surveilling a meeting she had with a suspected drug dealer. After a pat-down and K9 search turned up no evidence of drugs, police took her to the South Mountain substation and ordered her to strip naked in an interrogation room.
Without obtaining a warrant, Officer Murphy put on a pair of rubber gloves and probed Reynolds’ vagina and rectum. She did not find any drugs.
After the search, Reynolds filed a complaint with the Professional Standards Bureau, the internal affairs unit of the Phoenix Police Department.
Attorneys representing her filed their first records request for documents related to the case on February 1. That same day, they received notice claiming that there was no police report of the December 2018 cavity search.
Reynolds was detained by police again on February 6, the same day she planned to testify to the City Council regarding her earlier encounter with the cops. During an interrogation, police obtained a confession from Reynolds to drug possession, which she claims was coerced. She was booked in jail on counts related to an alleged drug ring, though prosecutors have yet to file charges.
Attorneys filed a second public records request the day of Reynolds’ February 6 arrest.
Nothing came out of that request until nearly five months later.
On June 24, 2019, Reynolds filed her notice of claim with the city of Phoenix, seeking $12.5 million for alleged constitutional violations related to the warrantless cavity search performed by Murphy. Her attorneys held a press conference that day announcing the filing.
The next day, the department released a police report from Reynolds’ February 6 arrest to her attorneys and the media. The agency also announced for the first time that Murphy had been suspended over the search, which was the first public statement from officials regarding the incident. But despite that disclosure, the department did not release any records related to the internal investigation of Murphy.
In addition to the lack of disclosure of records, Reynolds’ attorneys claim that Phoenix police failed to document their first request for records. Attorney Heather Hamel said that, shortly after the notice of claim was filed, city attorneys informed Reynolds’ legal team that the department had no record of their public records request.
That’s despite attorneys saying they hand-delivered the request in February and received a copy from city officials, which was shared with Phoenix New Times.
“In light of the foregoing, it appears that the City employee failed to document, scan, or otherwise log” the February public records request, the filing states.