Relatives of Hector Lopez, who was fatally shot by Phoenix police in May, say passing officers have laughed and made obscene gestures — a charge the department vehemently denies — during past protests seeking information.
But as the Lopez family returned to headquarters Friday for the sixth weekly protest in a row, they found a department bathed in a harsh national spotlight following the release of a videotaped encounter that showed officers aiming guns and curses at a black couple whose 4-year-old daughter took a doll from a store.
About three dozen people protested on the sidewalk, chanting slogans such as, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” and bearing signs and banners with messages like, “Justice 4 Hector Lopez.”
Activists say the national outcry over police behavior seen in the video has ripped open the thin curtain masking distrust, fear and resentment of law enforcement that has left scores of people in Phoenix’s black and Hispanic communities clamoring to tell their stories.
“I think people are emboldened,” said Anna Hernandez, whose brother Alejandro was killed in an April 27 confrontation with police. “People are no long afraid of sharing.”
The raw emotions were on full display earlier this week when some among the hundreds of people crowding the pews at a downtown church booed Police Chief Jeri Williams and recounted personal, painful stories of brutality. Both Williams and Mayor Kate Gallego have apologized to the community over how officers handled the videotaped encounter, and they have promised more meetings.
Police spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson said Friday that department members charged with community outreach had attended past protests and the supervisor assured him that those demonstrating had not been mocked.
If protesters are treated poorly, “that conduct should be reported to the Professional Standards Bureau,” Thompson said. “We take all allegations of misconduct very seriously.”
As for complaints from family members about not receiving official reports, Thompson said police are “working to expedite the process and reduce the time it takes for public records requests.” He noted that autopsy reports are issued by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, not the police department.
The recent uproar over Phoenix police was sparked a week ago with the release of a bystander’s video of officers pointing their guns and yelling commands and expletives at Dravon Ames, 22, and his pregnant fiancee Iesha Harper, 24, who was holding their 1-year-old daughter. They officers were responding to a reported shoplifting. Ames and Harper, who are black, say their 4-year-old daughter had taken a doll without their knowledge.
The couple filed a $10 million claim against the city alleging civil rights violations by officers. The department has not made public the race or ethnicity of the officers.
Lopez, 29, died May 9 after he was shot by police responding to a trespassing call in east downtown Phoenix who found him inside a car with a female. The department said he dropped a gun on the ground outside the vehicle but then appeared to try to retrieve it, setting off a scuffle in which he was shot.
“This hurts,” his brother Marcos Lopez told the chief, Mayor Kate Gallego and other city leaders at the Tuesday night meeting. “You know how hard it is to bury your brother? You know how hard it is to put clothes on his dead body? That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Their sister, Lesly Lopez, said the family had not received any police or autopsy reports.
Both attended the Friday afternoon protest outside headquarters.
Maria Castro, an advocate from the local rights group Puente, told officials at the Tuesday meeting that during the weekly protests “what we see is your officers walking past them and laughing. They flip off the family.”
Relatives of Alejandro Hernandez have joined the weekly protests.
“You continue to victimize the families by not providing answers,” Anna Hernandez said at the meeting. “How are we supposed to move on with grief and let them go in peace when we don’t know what happened because your officers were not wearing body cameras, supposedly, and we don’t have any reports for clarity on what exactly happened?”
Anna Hernandez said Friday the family learned of her brother’s death on the Facebook page of a local television station and the department sent two officers who spoke no Spanish to the home of her naturalized citizen parents, who speak little English.
The police first responded to the parents’ home in downtown east Phoenix because of a protection order the sister obtained to make it easier to get her brother arrested and off the streets for his own safety when he became erratic.
Anna Hernandez said her brother struggled with meth addiction and was living on the street about three days before the April 27 shooting. Police have said her 26-year-old brother was carrying a replica gun that he pointed at officers when he was shot in a canal.
The video of the encounter with the young black family comes amid an investigation by police departments in Phoenix and other cities into a database that appears to catalog thousands of bigoted or violent social media posts by active-duty and former officers.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, a black woman, has moved some officers to “non-enforcement” assignments while the department looks into Facebook posts she called “embarrassing and disturbing.”