Independent Review

Phoenix Magazine – November 2017

Mike O’Neil

There was an incident after President Trump’s recent rally in Phoenix that involved the police use of pepper spray pellets against small number of demonstrators who lingered after most had gone home. The stories, however, diverge on what triggered this police response.

Police said they were being pelted by bottles and tear gas and they acted in response. They also say they warned demonstrators to disperse before applying force.

Several interviewed demonstrators said they saw no attacks on the police, that they were standing peaceably on a public sidewalk downtown, were unaware of any bottles or rocks being thrown at the police, and that the police attacked without provocation and without a warning.

My Perspective(s).  I have been both a police officer and a demonstrator, both decades ago. I was not downtown that evening but have studied multiple video feeds of what happened. My conclusion: there is some real ambiguity about the sequence of events.

Police Chief Williams initially defended her officers but promised an internal investigation. With the departure of Joe Arpaio, she is most prominent face of law enforcement in the state. Her effectiveness, however, requires the support of her officers. To maintain credibility with them, she has to be seen as supporting them. But that support, though understandable, would color any internal review.

The City Manager proposed hiring an outside firm to investigate what really happened. This was scuttled by two factions on the City Council: one felt it is unnecessary because police behavior was above reproach. The other doubted the independence of the group that would investigate. Opportunity lost.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchmen?) Police departments have always hated independent investigations, arguing that, as professionals, they should be able to investigate themselves like other professions. Most professions, however, have spotty records of self-regulation. To take but one example, I have personally held closed-door meetings with groups of physicians who, in private, have admitted “We haven’t done a very good job of policing ourselves”.  “Protecting one’s own” is a natural human instinct. That is why no profession, no matter how esteemed, should ever be free of external oversight.

Let’s stipulate. The police have to walk a fine line balancing “too much” or “too little” force.  The Phoenix rally occurred on the heels of Charlottesville where the police were criticized for not providing adequate crowd protection, probably accounting for the heavy police presence.  And the lingering of the crowd did seem pointless.

Further, the undisputed facts speak well of the overall police response to this event.  The rally attracted two large crowds, one in support, the other in opposition. The Phoenix Police did an exemplary job in keeping the two groups apart before, during, and immediately after the event in a contentious environment.  As this publication noted last month: “This wasn’t Kent State.”

Still, there are unanswered questions.

What is not clear. If there was an assault on the police, how many were involved?  Is there evidence on whether most demonstrators heard warnings to disperse? The police said that tear gas was thrown at them before they fired pepper spray pellets.  If they retrieved single non-Phoenix police issue CS canister, it would be a significant piece of supporting evidence.

Hard Questions. What is the proper police response if a single person in the back of a crowd of 100 or so, throws something at the police? Is OK to retaliate against an entire crowd because of the actions of a single person?  If not, how much should the police be expected to endure without responding? And was their very presence on the street at this moment even necessary, after almost all the crowd had gone home?

That is precisely why the City Manager’s recommendation for an independent investigation was sound.  No one has ever doubted Chief Williams integrity. But any internal review will always be questioned by some.

No one should fear a fair review of events. The police may have overreacted.  At a minimum, the clarification of some departmental use of force policies would seem to be in order. That might save the city from an expensive lawsuit someday. The tab for the recently departed sheriff shows how expensive that can be.


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.