Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams talks about the recent shooting of a Phoenix police officer, as well as the rise in police-involved shootings.
Tom Tingle, azcentral.com
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams on Friday said she and outside investigators will weigh what training needs to change and whether the department should do away with single-officer units patrolling the city.
Speaking to The Arizona Republic the morning after an officer was wounded in a shootout during a north Phoenix traffic stop, Williams praised the “heroic” work of police in an especially unusual year marred by weekly police shootings and surging numbers of documented assaults on officers. Williams said she is trying to be proactive in figuring out what exactly is happening and — perhaps more importantly — why it is happening now.
“This is happening all over the city,” she said. “This is happening with different ethnicities and genders. This is happening with different types of weapons and firearms and you name it. So there’s not one thing. It’s an alarming trend.”
Thursday night ‘ambush’
An officer in a marked patrol vehicle attempted to pull over a vehicle that was “driving erratically” on East Cactus Road near North 25th Street about 8 p.m. The vehicle failed to stop and continued traveling west, police said.
The vehicle entered a left-turn lane at the intersection of Cave Creek and Cactus roads and stopped at a traffic light. The officer got out of his car, approached the vehicle, attempted to get the driver’s attention, and demanded to see his hands.
The suspect, a 41-year-old man, shot and wounded the 27-year-old officer, who returned fire.
“The suspect exited his car, walked towards the officer, and continued to shoot,” police said.
Phoenix police Sgt. Mercedes Fortune talks about an officer and a suspect shot on Aug. 16, 2018.
Dani Coble, Arizona Republic/azcentral
The officer, who has been with the department for about two year, returned fire, hitting the man. Both were critically wounded and transported to area hospitals.
Both are expected to survive, police said.
Investigators remained in the area overnight, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses. Other officers, including Williams, gathered outside HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center at Dunlap Avenue and Third Street.
“In my opinion, I believe he was ambushed,” Williams said late Thursday.
Friday morning, Williams conducted previously arranged interviews with several Valley news outlets, including The Republic. The focus of the meetings — set up last week —had been to talk about recently released figures showing an surge in assaults on Phoenix police officers.
Thursday’s shooting, which came just hours after a man reportedly picked a fight with a uniformed, off-duty cop, became the focus of the talk.
“We’re all breathing a sigh of relief that our officer is going to be OK,” Williams said. “… Our officer was doing his job. He was trying to make a traffic stop. He gets shot at and shot by an individual who made the conscious choice to be violent against our officers.”
Latest in a string
Thursday’s shooting was the 34th of the year involving the Phoenix Police Department, continuing to surge past the agency’s previous all-time high for a calendar year of 31, set in 2013. For perspective, there were 21 Phoenix Police Department shootings in 2017; 25 in 2016; and 17 in 2015, department data show.
Fourteen of this year’s shootings were fatal and 32 involved armed suspects — 25 with handguns, two with replica guns, one with an officer’s firearm and four with a knife or sword.
It’s a grim reality that’s not being seen in other major U.S. cities.
Philadelphia and San Antonio have seen just a fraction of the number of police shootings as Phoenix — four and eight, respectively, as of July, The Republic reported previously. All three cities have a similar-sized population, about 1.5 million.
As of Aug. 5, the New York City Police Department, which covers a city more than than five times the population size of Phoenix tallied eight police shootings, a spokesman said. That’s on similar pace to 2017’s total of 15.
Guns in Phoenix have played an “alarming” role in shootings and assaults involving police officers, Williams said.
There was a 45 percent increase in the number of assaults on Phoenix police officers in the first five months of this year, compared with the same period in 2017, data the department provided to The Arizona Republic show.
Of the 419 documented assault cases, suspects punched, charged toward, shot at or spit on officers. There were 288 assaults on police January through May last year, data show. One out of every 24 assaults on Phoenix police in the first five months of 2017 involved a suspect armed with a gun — that proportion surged to one in 10 during the same time period in 2018.
Suspects in those cases made a “conscious choice” to engage officers, Williams said.
“The spectrum of why are they doing what they’re doing varies just as well as our geography varies,” Williams said Friday. “Is it mental health issues? Is it alcohol? Is it substance abuse? We don’t have those answers to the questions. So we’re really looking forward to getting that information.”
Study starts in earnest next week
Williams and others with Phoenix police are hoping a $149,000 taxpayer-funded study being led by the National Police Foundation provides some answers. The study will provide a starting point and hopefully provide guidance about next steps, she said.
Researchers from the Washington D.C.-based group will travel to Phoenix next week to meet with police officials and members of the community, Williams said. It will be their first on-site trip for the study since the Phoenix City Council gave it the green light last month.
Officials later this year will begin making recommendations, some of which could mirror what existing internal reviews might conclude after a shooting.
Since the bulk of police shootings this year have involved patrol officers, Williams said the department is looking at what changes need to be made in officer training.
She said it’s too soon to say whether two-person patrols could be among the answers. The department, like most across the country, relies on single-officer patrol units. After significant cases, some departments have revamped talks of doubled-up officer patrols.
“We will be looking at those types of issues,” she said. “All of those things are up in the air for us to consider and look at.”
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