WASHINGTON — The Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation of the Phoenix police department Thursday, looking at whether police use excessive force, treat minorities differently, and deal properly with the disabled and homeless.

Phoenix police face lawsuits and widespread complaints over their response to Black Lives Matter protests last year. One suit claims the police filed false felony charges after rounding up 124 people, chasing then and firing tear gas.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the investigation will examine whether officers use excessive force, engage in discriminatory policing, violate free expression, respond improperly to people with disabilities, and violate the rights of the homeless by seizing and disposing of their property.

Garland and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said the Phoenix mayor and police chief were briefed on the investigation Thursday morning and pledged their full support.

“When we conduct pattern or practice investigations to determine whether the Constitution or federal law has been violated, our aim is to promote transparency and accountability. This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety,” Garland said.

The Justice Department earlier this year opened similar investigations of the police department in Minneapolis, following the death of George Floyd, and Louisville, Kentucky, after the death of Breonna Taylor.

In August, Arizona released body camera video showing the arrest of a man who died in custody after he was held on asphalt for several minutes in 100-degree heat.

Garland said the issue of how police respond to calls involving people with physical or mental disabilities is an important one for the nation.

“Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems. Too often we asked law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system.”

The attorney general also said states must do more to head off evictions during the Covid crisis. More evictions, he said, would add to the crisis of homelessness. He said the Justice Department intends to defend the latest moratorium on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

Many legal experts have said the Supreme Court sent a strong signal in late June that the CDC lacks authority to impose such a sweeping moratorium.

Teaganne Finn

Teaganne Finn is a political reporter for NBC News.

Pete Williams

Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.


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