For more than a decade, the Phoenix police department has attempted dialogue with the city’s diverse population through Community Advisory Boards (CAB) reporting to the police chief. The 12 boards represent the city’s diverse racial, ethnic, and spiritual groups. The department has told city officials and the public that the boards are an important part of its strategy to build transparency and trust with residents, particularly among marginalized residents. Yet the department releases virtually no information about what the 12 boards do, what they discuss, or how, if at all, leadership incorporates any feedback from the boards into police tactics, reports the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University. The department also does not disclose who serves on advisory boards. The work of the boards hasn’t made the radar of the Phoenix Office of Accountability & Transparency, established in May 2021 to provide civilian oversight of police operations and give the department feedback about the complaints that the office receives. “We have not had any contact with them,” said agency director Roger Smith. “I actually don’t know who’s on those boards or even what their purpose is.”
The scarcity of information about the work of the boards raises questions about the department’s commitment to community trust and transparency at a time when it is facing a serious moment in its history.
Since 2021, the department has been the subject of a Department of Justice pattern or practice investigation, a rare process that DOJ initiates against police agencies suspected of the most serious civil rights violations. The focus of the investigation – allegations of excessive force, discriminatory policing practices, and violations of constitutional rights – are among the same issues that led Phoenix community leaders to demand a trust-building dialogue with the department in 2010. Unlike programs that sought to educate residents about policing, the community advisory boards were designed to be listening forums for residents to give feedback on issues of concern. And they were specifically developed to engage marginalized communities, such as Phoenix’s Black and Latino communities, its LGBTQ community, Muslim residents, and even refugees – all communities that have reported among the worst interactions with Phoenix police. Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said the police department’s engagement with his community has waxed and waned over the years. The commitment, he said, has varied with each new police chief and each new mayor. “When those boards started forming, there was value in those meetings,” he said. “But then with time, it just became a meet and greet with no actual benefit,” Shami said.