Phoenix officials faced an emotional crowd Tuesday evening during a community meeting set up by the mayor after police officers pulled guns on and threatened a family of four during a shoplifting investigation.
Bystanders captured the moments during which Dravon Ames and his fiancée Iesha Harper were taken into police custody after their 4-year-old daughter walked out of a dollar store with a doll last month. The videos, released in early June, show officers handcuffing and kicking Ames and cursing at the couple. One officer tried to yank Harper’s child out of her arms. Harper says an officer threatened to shoot her in front of her children.
Police chief Jeri Williams called the officers’ actions “less than professional service” and said she wanted to extend her apologies to both the family and “others who’ve gotten less than professional service.”
“We are here because of trust, we are here because of transparency, we are here because of accountability … ready, willing, able to listen to what you have to say,” Williams said Tuesday. “As we sit and listen tonight, I want to hear, I want to feel, I want to process what is being felt in this community.”
At least 500 people asked to stand and speak before the chief, Mayor Kate Gallego and other city and police leaders.
The meeting, during which the couple and other community members who say they’ve experienced police brutality spoke, was an effort to hear community recommendations on what needs to be done in order to make the “Phoenix police department an even better place,” Williams said.
“I’ve been assured that there is follow-up already planned,” the meeting’s moderator, Eric Bailey, said. “We have a unique opportunity here in Phoenix … This is our opportunity to tell the city council, to tell the chief of police, to tell the mayor what we can do, what they can do, because if we let this potentially systemic problem try to solve itself like we have for decades a fire is not going to put itself out.”
Bailey said there were multiple people who would be recording the community’s suggestions and the comments would “all be made publicly available as soon as possible.”
A community demanding transparency
Residents stood behind the microphones for nearly three hours, some recalling instances during which they said family members were injured or killed by police officers and the police department would not provide answers.
Residents said they weren’t able to get their hands on police reports, while others said they found out about the death of family members through media first.
“We’re here for a lack of trust, a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability, that is the reason why the community has showed up,” one resident said.
Others offered solutions.
“Disincentivize officers when they do this kind of thing,” another resident suggested, adding that she disagreed with putting officers on desk duty, instead of terminating them, after they show problematic behavior. “Everyone else in here follows the same consequences, yet … the people that we trust with to uphold and protect our communities are not held to the same standards.”
The police department has taken heat for not firing the officers involved in the incident. They have been placed on desk duty while an investigation takes place, the police department said.
Ames and Harper have said repeatedly they want them fired.
In the Tuesday meeting, Harper said all she wants is for the officers to be terminated.
“A little justice will do,” she said.
‘There is video this time’
The couple, who spoke at the meeting before walking out, was joined by a handful of other families who say they’ve experienced police brutality by Phoenix police officers.
“We are so lucky to be alive,” Ames said. “I have nightmares of barrels pointed at my face … that’s wrong.”
“Nobody should ever try to justify what happened that day on that video. That’s insulting and that hurts,” he said.
Sandra Slaton, one of the family’s attorneys, said she’s also representing other members of the community who have been mistreated by police, but that this case has something most others don’t.
“When we got wind of this … and we heard this dramatic story, the first thing I said was nobody’s ever going to believe this, and they said you don’t have to because there’s a video this time.”
“So through these wonderful people, we’ve brought the attention to everybody,” Slaton said in the meeting. “This video is not just about this family, it’s about everybody that this happens to.”
Police chief promises change and another meeting
Despite the repeated accusations, Williams braved the crowd and said “we are here to make change.”
A National Police Foundation analysis released in April found a “significant and alarming increase” in officer-involved shootings by the Phoenix Police Department in 2018. There were 44 that year, more than double the number in the preceding year, the report found.
Real change, Williams said, “doesn’t start with the police department, real change starts with our community,” which she said, includes the department.
“In spite of the angst, in spite of the shouts, in spite of the emotion, I hear what you say,” Williams said. “You don’t have to believe me, at the end of the day though … the proof is in what happens after this meeting.”