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DOJ: Phoenix homeless population subject to unlawful treatment

The DOJ report accuses the city of relying on police officers as its “primary response” for addressing the homelessness crisis.

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Police Department has been violating the rights of the city’s homeless populations by detaining individuals without reasonable suspicion and issuing “unlawful” citations, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The 126-page report released Thursday by the federal agency criticizes how the city’s police officers have treated the thousands of people living without a permanent residence in Phoenix.

“(Phoenix’s) approach to policing homeless people violates the Constitution,” the report states. “We found that PhxPD often stops unhoused people for investigative purposes without reasonable suspicion.”

Less than 1% of the city’s population is homeless. Yet the DOJ report emphasized how 37% of the city’s misdemeanor arrests and citations involved the homeless population. 

One man experiencing homelessness had contact with Phoenix police at least 97 times between 2016 and 2022, the report states.

The city’s tactics for controlling and managing the presence of homeless encampments have been an ongoing issue for years. Local residents sued the city due to a lack of action taken with a large encampment located in the downtown area.

RELATED: Judge: Phoenix must clear tents located on public property in ‘The Zone’

In recent years, city officials have allocated millions of dollars and added hundreds of shelter beds to help people living on Phoenix’s streets. But the DOJ believes the city has chosen its police officers as the primary response to address the homelessness crisis.

“Banishing homeless people from public spaces by unlawful means, destroying their property, and cycling them through the criminal justice system does not solve the problem or address its root causes,” the report states.

During its lengthy investigation, the DOJ spoke to several people experiencing homelessness and some reported feeling like they’ve been harassed by the police department. 

“I feel like I am a target. We are so afraid,” one woman told the DOJ.

One man said officers threw out his belongings while saying “This is trash.”

Up until 2022, the city routinely destroyed property without proper notice or process during clean-ups at homeless encampments, according to the report.

One incident reviewed by the DOJ involved a man who was detained after he was found wrapped in a blanket near a canal. He was cited for trespassing and told to clear the area.

“Just go in there and get your belongings. Get your trash,” the officer allegedly told the man.

A couple of weeks before the DOJ report was released, the city council passed a new ordinance banning individuals from sleeping near schools and public parks.

In reaction to the DOJ report, city officials noted that they have already demonstrated a commitment to improving policing and accountability.

“Both the city and the Police Department have acknowledged the need for improvement and have made intentional strides toward reform, which were modeled after recommendations made in reports concerning other cities,” said Councilwoman Kesha Hodge Washington.

RELATED: Phoenix council approves camping ban near parks, schools

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