The Justice Department on Thursday announced a sweeping civil rights investigation into the Phoenix Police Department, marking the third such inquiry that the Biden administration has opened into abuse allegations against a major national police force.
The investigation will examine whether the Phoenix police discriminate against minorities, use excessive force or retaliate against peaceful protesters. The inquiry will also scrutinize the department’s treatment of homeless people and disabled people, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in announcing the investigation at a news conference in Washington, emphasizing that police officers are often called upon to handle mental health emergencies and other social issues.
“Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems,” Mr. Garland said. “Too often, we ask law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system. This makes police officers’ jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement and hinders public safety.”
The decision to open the investigation was based on a review of court documents and public reports, said Mr. Garland and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. They did not cite a specific event that prompted the inquiry.
The Phoenix Police Department, which is among the 10 largest in the country, has a history of mistreatment of minorities and disabled people. One of the department’s officers admitted to pushing in 2018 a blind man to the ground in a convenience store bathroom after the officer said the man came too close to him. A scuffle ensued, the police arrested the blind man and charged him with a felony. The department also had a spate of officer-involved shootings in 2018.
The investigation is part of the Biden administration’s emphasis on oversight of the country’s police departments, which have come under immense scrutiny in recent years. Mr. Garland has also announced inquiries into the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments after the high-profile killings last year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Such investigations often lead to court-approved agreements between the Justice Department and local governments that are designed to enhance police training and oversight.
The Trump Justice Department had largely curbed the use of court-approved agreements and shied away from opening civil rights investigations into police departments.
Senate Republicans had sought unsuccessfully to block the nomination of Ms. Clarke, a civil rights lawyer who has vowed to use the civil rights division to take on systemic racism, hate crimes and restrictive voter laws.
“One of the highest priorities of the Civil Rights Division is to ensure that every person in this country benefits from policing that is lawful, effective, transparent, and free from discrimination,” Ms. Clarke said on Thursday. “Police officers across the country must use their authority in a manner that adheres to the Constitution, complies with federal civil rights laws and respects human dignity.”