PHOENIX — The US Department of Justice is investigating if the City of Phoenix and its police department violate the civil or constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness by unlawfully seizing their property when cleaning up camps, US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Thursday.
The investigation is part of a larger federal probe into the practices and patterns of the Phoenix Police Department. Homelessness advocate Elizabeth Venable, with Fund for Empowerment, said the news was a welcomed surprise.
“I’m happy that they are considering this a serious enough violation of federal law and civil rights to pursue it at this level,” she said.
The non-profit helps people experiencing homelessness to understand ordinances and laws so they can advocate for themselves.
Venable and a group of current and formerly unsheltered people had already planned to gather on Thursday at a downtown Phoenix homelessness encampment to distribute a guide for people who feel their rights are being violated by police in public spaces.
Friends Faith Kerns and Frank Urban joined Venable. They were able to gain housing within the last year through Community Bridges but said they had their things confiscated and thrown away by police repeatedly when they lived on the streets.
“When the cops are here that’s it. If they tell you to go, you go without your stuff,” Kerns said.
Urban said during police sweeps he’s lost everything. “Birth Certificate, clothing, blankets, sleeping bags. You name it it was taken,” he said.
During Thursday’s announcement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said investigators would be looking into potential violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution. They concern property rights and due process respectively.
In a press conference following the DOJ announcement Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher echoed a sentiment from Attorney General Garland and acknowledged that police are not equipped to deal with social issues.
“Police by default end up as the primary responders for those experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis for homelessness. It is always our responsibility to treat people well, with dignity and respect. And this cannot solely be a police responsibility.”
Zuercher also pointed out that in its most recent budget the City of Phoenix set aside $15 million dollars to hire crisis experts to relieve police of those duties. He said he expects the program to be running within 12 months.
Kerns said it’s past time for changes in how people experiencing homelessness are treated.
“They’ve (police) been going about this the wrong way for ages now and thinking they can get away,” she said.