By Francisca Porchas, Organizing Director of Puente Human Rights Movement
On October 28 the Phoenix Police Department will be honoring the service of Chief Joe Yahner as he retires. Unfortunately, we cannot join the celebration. Instead, we mourn our dead. Since the beginning of 2016, at least 17 people have died at the hands of the Phoenix Police Department, making this one of the deadliest years on record. Almost as deadly as 2013, when we lost 19 people under the leadership of former Police Chief Garcia.
Chief Yahner inherited a troubled department after Chief Garcia was fired for insubordination. The scandal with Chief Garcia went on for months as the contradictions between him and police unions became more antagonistic. Chief Garcia’s last few words during the press conference right before he was fired by City Manager Ed Zuercher are still true today, “Our city management needs to decide whether the police department is to be ran by our unions or by the police chief,” said in reference to his inability to discipline abusive police officers. If what the city wanted was a chief that would maintain the status quo, then Chief Yahner has proven to be the perfect choice. Under his leadership, the union’s complaints subsided and the crisis of police abuse and violence continued.
It was during this time last year that the 5-year report on officer involved shootings, done in collaboration with ASU, was released revealing that the Phoenix PD had shot 122 civilians, 63% of whom were people of color. After several meetings and requests over the past year, Chief Yahner and his department have failed to release the demographics of the people that Phoenix PD fatally shot, named in the report.
Sergeant Trent Crump, the spokesperson for the Phoenix PD, insulted the public’s intelligence when he compared the 2014 figures of civilian deaths by police in Phoenix, 11, to the 13 civilian deaths at the hands of Houston’s PD. Anyone with half a brain can see that Houston’s population is 2.9 million, almost double that of the city of Phoenix—meaning the Phoenix PD are killing civilians at nearly twice the rate of the Houston PD. The report indicated that de-escalation training and policy was critical to reduce the number of shootings and deaths. Chief Yahner claims that as one of his priorities and accomplishments this year under his leadership. Seven people were fatally shot by the Phoenix PD in August and September this year. It begs the question of what, exactly, Chief Yahner understands de-escalation training to be?
After the release of the report Chief Yahner was quoted saying that he did not consider the racial breakdown of those shot by police as “highly disproportionate compared with the city’s overall makeup.” But five of those seven killed by police in the past two months were Latino. For Chief Yahner to use phrase “not highly disproportionate” is alarmingly inaccurate and grossly out of touch with reality.
One of the accomplishments that Chief Yahner is the most proud of is his Mental Health Squad which helped to gain the Phoenix PD national recognition by the Department of Justice. Nonetheless, people with mental health issues continue to die at the hands of the Phoenix PD.
Just this past week a woman named Yulma Violette, who according to media reports committed suicide when she “slipped out of her handcuffs”, took her shoelaces off and hung herself from the vent inside the police wagon. This woman, whose race was reported as white but was Latina, was clearly in serious mental distress that officers failed to see. But why didn’t Phoenix PD use their “nationally recognized training” to handle this situation in a way that could have prevented this tragedy? Was the Mental Health Squad deployed? Or were they ever called in? How do police officers, whose basic training includes putting handcuffs on someone, explain a woman “slipping out of her handcuffs”? No one should die on their way to the precinct to be booked while in the custody of the Phoenix PD, especially someone that is suicidal given the new reforms Chief Yahner is so proud of.
The past two years of Chief Yahner’s leadership have left more questions than answers and more concerns than real solutions for the community that the Phoenix Police Department serves. On the same day of Chief Yahner’s farewell, the City of Phoenix will swear in Jeri Williams as the new Chief of Police. As a community, we are wondering what Chief Williams will do to change the legacy of this department? Our lives depend on it.