Phoenix police oversight office’s first director begins work

by Olivia McCann, Cronkite News
December 8, 2021
Roger Smith, the first director of the Phoenix Office of Accountability and Transparency, held a similar position in Cleveland. (Photo courtesy Phoenix)
Roger Smith is the city of Phoenix’s first Director of the Office of Accountability and Transparency, which oversees complaints filed against the Phoenix Police Department. (Photo courtesy city of Phoenix)

PHOENIX – The first director of a new city office overseeing complaints filed against the Phoenix Police Department is on the job.

Roger Smith runs the Office of Accountability and Transparency, which was established in May on a 5-4 vote of the City Council after months of testimony about Phoenix police conduct and complaints about a lack of accountability.

Smith was hired in November and began the job Monday. He ran a similar oversight office in Cleveland before coming to Phoenix.

An independent office had long been sought by many Phoenix residents and activists. The Department of Justice is investigating the Police Department’s use-of-force policies, and a recent news analysis shows Phoenix officers are more likely to fire at people than anywhere in the country.

Before the office was created, Phoenix had been the only major city without an independent police oversight board. Police complaints would be investigated internally, and one or two members of the public sat on review boards for use of force and discipline, according to Kevin Robinson, a former Phoenix assistant police chief and a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia, who represents District 8 in southeast Phoenix and pushed for the new board, said most of the civilians serving in the past were “appointed by the police themselves.”

“What we have currently is not sufficient,” Garcia told Cronkite News. “The investigative process that we have is essentially the police investigating themselves.”

The new office will change that. It comprises two divisions: an investigative unit run by staff and an independent civilian review board. Although council members aren’t sure what the civilian board will look like, it’s not open to anyone who has previously worked in law enforcement.

Garcia said the office will be a great first step to improve transparency and accountability to the public.

But some fellow council members, including Ann O’Brien, who voted against the office, are not so optimistic.

In a statement in May, O’Brien, who represents District 1 in northwest Phoenix, said she was concerned that appointees won’t have “ANY background or experience in how these types of investigations work.”

Robinson said he wasn’t surprised to see the federal investigation, which was announced in early August.

“This isn’t the first time the Department of Justice has looked at the Phoenix Police Department,” he said. “I don’t view it as a bad thing. I view it as an opportunity.”

Every police department is being looked at with a closer eye now, Robinson noted. Since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, states have passed more than 140 police oversight bills, according to The New York Times.

“This is an ongoing process we’re seeing in almost every corner of the United States right now,” Robinson said.

Phoenix, however, has a long history of police brutality. In 2018, Phoenix police shot at more people than any other department in the country, according to a 2019 analysis by The Arizona Republic.

Robinson said the Phoenix police always have made changes in response to incidents or community concerns.

“They were initially effective, but over time, other things start to occur and you have to make other adjustments. I think the department has always been willing to make those adjustments,” he said.

Smith, the first director of the office, previously led Cleveland’s Office of Professional Standards, and before that he was counsel for New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Garcia said he is confident in Smith’s abilities to take on this role, and hopes he can get involved with the community as a Phoenix newcomer.

“Out of the candidates he was the best one,” Garcia said. “It’s going to be important for him to come in … and build trust with the community. That to me is the marker of success.”

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