PHOENIX — An ABC15 investigation discovered a pattern of driver complaints against a Phoenix DUI officer who was involved in a violent arrest last year.
Phoenix Officer Michael McGillis pulled over 23-year-old Mariah Valenzuela on January 16, 2020, for crossing over the center line before a left turn.
“What I remember was him saying hi to me, asking for my ID,” Valenzuela said. That night she responded that she didn’t have her driver’s license and demanded McGillis explain the reason for the traffic stop.
Officer McGillis would later tell investigators that Valenzuela was verbally non-compliant.
“Put your hands behind your back,” McGillis is heard saying on his bodycam as he grabbed his handcuffs.
“Excuse me,” Valenzuela replied.
The two struggled, and McGillis topples Valenzuela, who screamed on the ground.
“Just as soon as he grabbed me, I just got really scared,” Valenzuela told ABC15. “It was dark, and I knew it was just me and him.”
“You're hurting me;” Valenzuela yelled from the ground. “Someone please help.”
McGillis applied the handcuffs and stood up the 23-year-old woman. As she continued to argue, he shoved her 98-pound body against the side of a car.
“Why don't you act like a young lady?” the officer said
The officer’s bodycam video became a national story this summer as anti-police brutality protests swept across major cities.
Mariah was initially charged with several crimes including DUI and resisting arrest, but prosecutors late dropped the criminal charges. She was left with a single traffic ticket for failing to drive on the right side of the roadway.
Valenzuela filed a federal lawsuit last month against the City of Phoenix and Officer McGillis. The woman’s lawyer claimed Officer McGillis violated her civil rights by unlawfully arresting her and using excessive force.
The lawsuit also claimed that Phoenix police created a “culture of impunity that encourages officers to use excessive force.” Phoenix police investigated McGillis’ use-of-force last year and concluded there was no misconduct.
McGillis is the most senior DUI motor officer in the Phoenix Police Department.
“Traffic stops are all unique, and the officers use their training, experience, and judgment to determine the appropriate course of action when a person refuses to give the officer the information they are required to provide,” said Phoenix Sgt. Ann Justus.
"You can't throw a 98-pound woman to the ground and then press your weight on top of her,” Valenzuela’s lawyer Jesse Showalter said. “It's pretty clear that Officer McGillis should have known that what he was doing was wrong. “
The ABC15 Investigators delved into Officer McGillis's history and found multiple prior complaints from people who said he used foul language or unnecessary force on traffic stops.
According to public records obtained by ABC15, the police department has internally investigated McGillis 12 times since 2014. The allegations include everything from missing a court date to racial profiling and excessive force. Eight investigations stemmed from drivers’ complaints.
One woman, who asked ABC15 to conceal her identity because she is still afraid of Officer McGillis, said the officer used excessive force after her DUI arrest in 2014.
“He slammed my body against the wall and lifted me up from the floor by my neck,” said the woman, who was in her early 20s when she was arrested. “That was really scary, and I think the worst part was when he threw me out of the trailer.”
Back then, Phoenix police found no evidence of misconduct, in part because there was an “absence of time of date stamps” on the photographs of the woman’s injuries.
Another driver, who videotaped Officer McGillis on an early morning traffic stop in 2019, also spoke to ABC15.
The man, 46, who works in education, asked ABC15 to withhold his identity because he committed no crime. He drove away without even a traffic ticket, although McGillis accused him of speeding.
When the man ignored some of the officer’s questions and was slow to answer some, McGillis made him get out of the car to conduct field sobriety tests.
As McGillis and another officer walk away, you can hear McGillis call the driver an “A-hole” on the video. After the man complained, McGillis did receive additional training/coaching on professional conduct, according to internal police documents. However, the officer was not formally disciplined.
"That night was incredibly traumatizing to me,” the man said, “from being pulled over for driving while being black, being intimidated due to an officer’s own insecurities, and witnessing first-hand how easily an officer's wrongs can be swept under the rug.”
McGillis had so many complaints around that time that Phoenix police conducted five administrative inquiries on him in a one-year period. As a result, Phoenix police's early intervention system, which is designed to track officers at risk for misbehavior, issued an alert on McGillis.
According to police records, a supervisor discussed the intervention alert with McGillis just one week before his violent arrest of Valenzuela.
While McGillis has some performance issues, he never had a more serious “sustained accusation of misconduct” in the past five years, according to Sgt. Justus.
“It seems like the City of Phoenix had plenty of notice that Officer McGillis was a problem officer, but nothing was done,” Showalter said.
McGillis, who made more than $130,000 last year, has received glowing annual reviews from his supervisors. He has been praised for a large number of DUI arrests, his "dedication," and "the genuine caring attitude you display with the subjects you deal with on a nightly basis."
Valenzuela said she does not necessarily want McGillis fired, but she would like him to have more training and an “outlet,” so he does not cross the line on future traffic stops.