Phoenix hires watchdog as its interim top cop

Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Sullivan has been named Phoenix Police interim chief. (Baltimore Police Department)

Apparently expecting the Phoenix Police Department to come under protracted U.S. Justice Department oversight in the near future, City Manager Jeff Barton last week announced the hiring of an interim top cop with experience in meeting the demands of federal overseers.

Replacing retiring Chief Jeri Williams, Michael Sullivan will become Phoenix Police interim police chief on Sept. 22 after serving the last three years of his 33-year law enforcement career as Deputy Commissioner of the Compliance Bureau for the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore Police came under the microscope since 2017 for excessive force, sloppy investigation of rape cases, community engagement and unconstitutional stops and arrests.

The federal review was prompted by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man whose neck was broken in the back of a transport wagon, and whose death roiled the city.

Baltimore incurred $10.5 million in investigation costs and has budgeted $38.6 million this year alone for its compliance bureau in connection with the consent decree it signed with Justice Department lawyers.

A new progress report noted substantial progress but said considerable work remains, according to the Washington Post.

Phoenix for nearly a year has been under Justice Department scrutiny in five broad areas of police conduct.

They include allegations that department: uses excessive force, including deadly force; engages in discriminatory practices; retaliates against protestors or demonstrators; deals inadequately with behavioral health issues on calls with people in mental crisis; and violates the rights of unsheltered people by confiscating their belongings.

Phoenix so far has spent $1.9 million to meet the demands of federal investigators, Barton told City Council June 30.

It is paying nine full-time employees to gather materials requested by the Justice Department and has so far provided investigators with 80,931 documents totaling close to 1.1 million pages, according to Barton’s June 30 memo to Council. The nature of those documents was not disclosed.

Additionally, the city facilitated visits from Justice Department investigators in April and May that involved precinct tours, interviews with police and civilian personnel, ride-alongs and 14 panel interviews with three to six city employees at a time, according to the memo.

Investigators also observed police academy classes and the city has devoted personnel to maintaining a web page to provide citizens with an update on the Justice Department probe. That web page is phoenix.gov/police/doj.

The city also hired Steptoe LLC as outside counsel to provide legal services and a Louisiana consultant named Danny Murphy, who also has a connection to the Baltimore case.

He “leads police reform initiatives and the implementation of an extensive federal consent decree at the Baltimore Police Department” and “formerly oversaw the implementation of the New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree,” Barton told Council.

Sullivan started in law enforcement at the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky and joined the Baltimore police agency in 2019 as deputy commissioner and has overseen compliance since June 2021.

“As interim chief, Sullivan will lead Phoenix Police through the currently open Department of Justice civil pattern or practice investigation,” Barton said in his announcement last Friday.

He said he made it “my priority to identify a leader with the qualifications to guide the department through the DOJ investigation and propel the department forward.”

“Sullivan brings 27 years of law enforcement experience to the table, and he has led police reform efforts for major cities. His experience working in collaboration with communities, the DOJ, federal court and more gives me confidence he has the experience necessary to step into the interim Phoenix Police Chief role during this important time.”

Barton said that Sullivan’s interim assignment will last one to two years and that at the same time the city “will conduct a robust nationwide search for a permanent police chief.

“I am committed to providing transparent and inclusive public engagement in the search for a permanent Chief,” Barton said. “Input from our community, officers, elected officials, and labor groups will be critical to the selection process.”

Sullivan is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute’s Administrative Officers Course, the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)/ MacArthur Foundation Institute on Juvenile Justice at Yale University, and the Major Cities Chiefs Association Police Executive Leadership Institute.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in police administration and a master’s degree in the administration of justice from the University of Louisville.

“The occasion to work alongside the most devoted men and women in law enforcement in partnership with the community has been an experience I will always relish,” Sullivan told Baltimore media on Friday.

“I am proud of how we have been able to advance police reform, and transform the management and accountability systems of the BPD into the 21st century,” he said. “I look forward to taking the valuable insights Baltimore has taught me to advance this noble profession.”

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