Phoenix: The mayor of Phoenix apologised Saturday after videos showed that police officers in the city who had been responding to a report of a shoplifting had drawn their weapons, shouted expletives and threatened to shoot a man in the face in front of his young children.
Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement that she was “sick” over what she had seen in the videos.
“It was completely inappropriate and clearly unprofessional,” she said. “There is no situation in which this behaviour is ever close to acceptable. As a mother myself, seeing these children placed in such a terrifying situation is beyond upsetting.”
The episode has drawn widespread attention as police encounters with civilians have faced heightened scrutiny, which is increasingly augmented by videos captured by bystanders on cell phones or by officers’ body cameras.
Dravon Ames and Iesha Harper of Phoenix, the couple seen in the videos, said officers had violated their civil rights and engaged in brutality during the episode, according to a notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — that their lawyer sent to the city.
The lawyer, Thomas Horne, a former Arizona state attorney general, said the officers’ actions had been “traumatic and utterly unjustified.”
A day before the mayor released her statement, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams posted a video to the Police Department’s Facebook page saying she had been “disturbed by the language and the actions of our officer.”
“I do want you to know that I expect our employees to maintain their professionalism and proper training at all times,” said Williams, who asked that the officers be taken off the street and placed on desk duty.
On Sunday, Sen. Kamala Harris, California, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, said in a tweet that the officers’ actions were “indefensible.”
“We want and expect law enforcement to protect and respect, not target and intimidate,” she said. “We need stronger, independent police oversight and bias training, to root out and prevent abuses.”
The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union that represents officers, did not respond to emails on Sunday.
No charges were filed in connection with the episode, which started at a Family Dollar store. What preceded the events is in dispute. Neither side could even agree on when it had happened: The notice of claim said it had been May 29, and police said it had been May 27.
Two videos of the encounter show officers yelling. Shouting expletives, they tell Ames to get his hands up. An officer can be heard saying that he’s going to “put a cap” in Ames’ head. As Ames exits the vehicle, an officer presses him against the pavement and handcuffs him, then pushes him against a police vehicle.
The footage shows another officer pointing his firearm toward the car as the couple’s 4-year-old daughter exits the car from the back seat, followed by Harper, who is carrying her 1-year-old daughter in one arm. An officer yells at her to put the child on the ground and then grabs her arm.
The Police Department said on Facebook that the episode began after a store manager had alerted an officer to a possible shoplifting occurrence and had said that those being sought were getting into a car. The department said officers had found the couple’s car a mile from the store.
The department said Ames had admitted he had stolen a package of underwear that he had thrown out of the car window and had said he was also driving with a suspended licence.
Horne disputed the police account and said officers had been alerted by an “anonymous alleged witness” that the couple had been shoplifting and had followed them to the apartment complex without their patrol car sirens on.
The notice of claim said the couple had not realised until they were back at their car that their 4-year-old daughter had walked out of the store with a doll.
The couple had been driving to their babysitter’s home when a police car pulled in behind them, according to the notice. Once the couple was in the parking lot, an officer had walked up to the driver’s side with a gun drawn, Horne wrote, adding that the officer then opened the door and began to shout at Ames.
A second officer pointed a gun at Harper, who had been sitting in the back seat on the driver’s side and who was “pregnant, which was obvious from her appearance,” Horne wrote.
The door to the car was malfunctioning and the couple could not get out of the car, the notice said. The officer walked around the car with his gun drawn and dragged Harper and her daughters out of the car by the neck, according to the notice.
The store did not press charges, Horne said. An employee at the store declined to comment Sunday, and said a manager was unavailable.
Horne said Ames had denied telling the police officers that he had stolen underwear.
The mayor said she was calling for a community meeting Tuesday in which the police chief was expected to answer questions from the public.