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Justice Department to Investigate Phoenix Police Department; COVID Surging. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 5, 2021 - 14:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Victor Blackwell. Thank you for joining me. Alisyn is on off.

So, we are now more than 500 days into this pandemic, and the spread of the coronavirus is accelerating. The seven-day average of new infections is closing in on 100,000. The CDC just reported 103,000 new cases on Tuesday alone.

Now, just six weeks ago, the average daily case count was under 12,000. And now states with lower vaccination rates are running out of beds in their intensive care units. There are just six ICU beds left in all of Mississippi. That's not a percentage. That's the actual number of beds.

But, as cases surge, vaccinations are also ticking higher. A short time ago, the White House COVID response team said the unvaccinated are getting the message to get their shots and the pace of vaccinations in these six states you see highlighted have gone up to levels we have not seen since the spring.


JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Tennessee has seen a 90 percent increase in first shots over the past two weeks, Oklahoma, an 82 percent increase, and Georgia a 66 percent increase in first shots over the past two weeks.

Clearly, Americans are seeing the impact of being unvaccinated and unprotected.


BLACKWELL: CNN's Nick Valencia has the latest on America's fight against this virus, including Arkansas' governor regretting his ban on school mask mandates.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Parts of the United States are going back to school amid a staggering number of new infections. The U.S. looks poised to cross an average of 100,000 new coronavirus cases per day again, a 48 percent increase from last week.

Hospitalizations are up too, with Florida and Texas leading the way, accounting for about one-third of the surge in case numbers.

ZIENTS: Driven by the more transmissible Delta variant, cases are continuing to rise. These cases are concentrated in communities with low vaccination rates.

VALENCIA: In Arkansas, where vaccination rates are lagging behind, the legislature met for a special session to debate whether to revise its law banning mask requirements in schools and other public places, amid growing concern of the highly infectious Delta variant.

As of Thursday, there were just 25 ICU beds available in the state. Nearby Mississippi has also been ravaged, with transmission rates ticking overall across the Deep South.

About 95 percent of Americans live in a county where the CDC recommends masking indoors, with children under 12 still unable to get the vaccine among the most vulnerable.

DR. PAUL OFFIT, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: I think we have let our children down. As a general rule, children catch this virus from an adult. They depend on those around them to protect them.

VALENCIA: In Georgia, for many, it was the first time back in a classroom since the start of the pandemic, some districts choosing not to mandate masks, despite the sharp increase of new cases. For some parents at this rural high school, the lack of masks caused notable anxiety and apprehension.

TANJA MOMEN, PARENT: It is real. You need to put your mask on.


VALENCIA: The vaccination pass is picking up, with the average now above 400,000 for a fifth week day in a row, good news for health officials who have been giving dire warning for weeks.

ADM. BRETT GIROIR, FORMER U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: We are dealing with Delta now. It is almost 100 percent of the cases in the U.S. The next variant is just around the corner if we do not all get vaccinated.

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH: This virus is highly infectious. If you decide to try to run the game clock out, don't try to do it. This virus will find you. It will infect you eventually.

VALENCIA: With the number suggesting the U.S. is at risk of going backwards in its fight against the virus, some are doing everything they can to ensure things don't go back into shutdown.


VALENCIA: And the White House is touting progress on the vaccination front, praising the momentum, saying just in the last 24 hours, there's been 864,000 vaccines administered. That's the highest daily rate in more than a month, and the effort to

get more and more Americans vaccinated quickly becoming more urgent as the Delta variant continues to spread, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Nick Valencia for us.

Nick, thank you.

This Delta variant is forcing the Biden administration to change its plans, including a strategy that would mandate vaccinations for almost all foreign visitors to the U.S., with a few exceptions. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for all active-duty troops.

CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is with me now.

Kaitlan, I know you just attended this COVID briefing. And you spoke to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky about how the Delta variant is causing them to reassess some of the data points. What did you learn?


And a big question I think a lot of people who are vaccinated have is, what are the numbers when it comes to these breakthrough infections? What does this look like?


And you often see the president and top health officials citing numbers about how most of the people who are in the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, most of the people who die from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. The question is whether or not those numbers are changing with this highly contagious Delta variant.

And so I asked Walensky about this earlier, Victor, and this is what she told me.


COLLINS: Several of you and the president have repeatedly cited figures saying that 99 percent of those who die from COVID-19 are unvaccinated and 95 percent on that who are hospitalized are unvaccinated.

With the Delta variant, do you still stand by these numbers? And do you have government data to back them up?

ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky?

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Yes, thank you for that question, Kaitlan.

So those data were data that were from analyses in several states from January through June, and didn't reflect the data that we have now from the Delta variant. We are actively working to update those in the context of the Delta variant. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Now, Victor, that's significant, because these officials have kept citing these numbers in recent weeks, even though she said there that the CDC is reevaluating what the numbers are.

And, of course, the question is, how much have they shifted with the Delta variant? That is something we still don't know, though she said the CDC is working on it, though, of course, she did emphasize and we should continue to point out they do believe the overwhelming majority of deaths and hospitalizations are still among those who have not gotten vaccinated.

BLACKWELL: Kaitlan, you also have some new reporting about the possibility of federal assistance being sent to, we know, the hot spots of Florida and Texas. The president has called out those governors. What do you know?

COLLINS: Yes, Florida and Texas, according to the White House right now, are accounting for a third of new cases in the United States.

And hospitalizations in Florida, we know, are going up. They're breaking their pandemic peak from July of 2020 right now. That's how many people are in the hospital in Florida with COVID-19. And so, of course, the big question has been, what is the communication level between the White House and Florida's team?

And so we have seen this feud going on between President Biden and Governor Ron DeSantis, where President Biden said he essentially needed to get out of the way if he was going to continue to do things like banning mask requirements in schools in certain areas, and Governor DeSantis has pushed back, calling President Biden power- hungry and saying that he is not going to tell people in Florida what to do or whether or not their kids should wear a mask in school.

And we're just seeing this feud continue to escalate, with even just now in the briefing Jen Psaki was asked about Governor DeSantis' words about President Biden. And she said they believe the governor has taken steps that are counter to public health and what is important for public health safety here. And she said that they believe it is too serious to do name-calling, referring to those comments made by Governor DeSantis.

But this is notable, given what we are seeing happening on the ground in Florida, and it is coming at a time when the White House says they are still talking to Governor DeSantis' team, but clearly the communication that is happening between the two at the top there is happening in front of our eyes in public.

BLACKWELL: Yes, a significant breakdown at such an important time.

Kaitlan Collins for us there at the White House, thank you so much.

Let's bring in now Dr. William Schaffner. He's a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Dr. Schaffner, good to have you.

I want to start here with the response to Kaitlan's question at that briefing. The White House, as she said, has cited this number, 99 percent of the COVID deaths unvaccinated, 95 percent of the hospitalizations unvaccinated. We know that does not cover or include the last five weeks or so, as we have seen the Delta variant blow up.

What we know about this variant, does it suggest that there would be a larger percentage of hospitalizations and deaths of people who are vaccinated, these breakthrough cases?

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, DEPARTMENT OF PREVENTIVE MEDICINE CHAIRMAN, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: Well, Victor, I can tell you that here, in my own medical center, those numbers still hold up.

This is largely a problem, when it comes to severe disease, the disease that requires hospitalization, it is among the unvaccinated. It really is pretty unusual to have a vaccinated person be hospitalized.

Most of those people tend to be older and very, very frail. They never were able to respond to the vaccine. And we have the occasional immunocompromised person whose immune system also couldn't respond optimally to the vaccine.

So, the unvaccinated continue to be the big highway of transmission. The vaccinated, they're little side streets. Let's not get preoccupied with that. We need to get more people vaccinated.

You say Tennessee's vaccine acceptance has gone up by 90 percent? You know, we started pretty low. We need to get up 900 percent in order to get where we're going.

BLACKWELL: You know, Brett Giroir, who was the testing czar under the Trump administration, told Chris Cuomo last night that it is a crying shame that we don't have more data on the breakthrough cases.


A broader question about that revelation, this is a pandemic. I just said at the top of the show, six weeks ago, there were 12,000 new cases a day. Yesterday, there were 103,000.

Are you surprised that we don't have those updated numbers about breakthrough cases?

SCHAFFNER: I work with my colleagues in local public health. I want to tell you, their bandwidth has been stretched beyond what you might expect.

They have been focusing on vaccinating people and getting people who are vaccinated -- I mean, getting them in, so that they can be very confident that their schools can open this fall. They haven't had the bandwidth really to do as much about these breakthrough cases as they would like. BLACKWELL: Let's talk about vaccinations, because we have now learned

from Moderna, they say that efficacy for their vaccine is 93 percent for six months, but, as we go into the cooler months, among other variables, people heading indoors, that people will need boosters before the start of winter.

We have now heard from Pfizer and Moderna and J&J. Why isn't a clearance coming from the CDC, do you think, about boosters as we're hearing from the pharmaceutical companies?

SCHAFFNER: Well, it goes right back, Victor, to what you were just saying.

If we saw an increase in hospitalizations among people who were previously vaccinated, that would give us information from the field, the way -- out there where it is really working, that our protection is waning.

BLACKWELL: Dr. Schaffner, I have to interrupt you for breaking news. I apologize.

And thank you for your time.

But we have got to go to the Department of Justice. This is Attorney General Merrick Garland, a major announcement, we're told.


MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.

This is the third pattern or practice investigation I have announced as attorney general. Each time, I have noted that these investigations aim to promote transparency and accountability. This increases public trust, which in turn increases public safety.

We know that law enforcement shares these goals. The Justice Department has briefed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams about the investigation. We are pleased by their pledge of support. They too recognize that we share common aims.

Our investigation in Phoenix will be led by the Justice Department Civil Rights Division. It is based on the division's extensive review of publicly available information, and it will consider several issues, first, whether the Phoenix Police Department uses excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Second, whether the Phoenix Police Department engages in discriminatory policing practices that violate the Constitution and federal law. Third, whether the department violates the First Amendment by retaliating against individuals who are engaged in protected expressive activities.

Fourth, whether the city and its police department respond to people with disabilities in a manner that violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. This includes whether decisions to criminally detain individuals with behavioral health disabilities are proper.

And, fifth, whether the Phoenix Police Department violates the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness by seizing and disposing of their belongings in a manner that violates the Constitution.

Those last two areas of investigative focus speak to an important issue that is broader than the Phoenix investigation. Our society is straining the policing profession by turning to law enforcement to address a wide array of social problems.

Too often, we ask law enforcement officers to be the first and last option for addressing issues that should not be handled by our criminal justice system. This makes police officers' jobs more difficult, increases unnecessary confrontations with law enforcement, and hinders public safety.

This past week, there has been much attention to the impending risk of mass evictions, which would put millions of tenants at risk of losing shelter. Needless to say, the impact on individuals and families would be devastating. And, as the CDC has made clear, the impact on public health would likewise be devastating, fueling the spread of COVID-19 infections in the affected communities.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta is leading a Justice Department effort with state court leaders on this problem. On June 24, she sent a letter to state courts, urging them to implement eviction diversion strategies that will increase the chances that families can stay in their homes.


Mass evictions would also have serious implications for law enforcement, adding to a crisis of homelessness that strains, but cannot be solved by the criminal justice system.

The ramifications do not end there. Far too, often police officers are the first ones called when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis in any setting. But it is almost certain that police will be called to someone experiencing a mental health crisis if that person is also without housing.

And as we have repeatedly seen, the risks to everyone involved in such interactions are enormous. These issues must be addressed if we are to ease the burden that our society places on law enforcement and ensure the safety of our communities.

The Justice Department, through grant-making, technical assistance and training, supports law enforcement and community-based programs to tackle these challenges.

I will now turn the podium over to Assistant Attorney General Clarke, who will talk more about our pattern or practice investigation.

KRISTEN CLARKE, ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you, Mr. Attorney General. Protecting the rule of law demands that those who enforce our laws

also abide by them. Ensuring that law enforcement acts in a lawful and accountable manner is a priority for the Civil Rights Division.

As the attorney general has just announced, following an extensive review of publicly available information regarding the Phoenix Police Department, today, we are opening a civil pattern or practice investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department.

We have reviewed court files, media reports, citizen complaints, and we also considered factors that we ordinarily weigh in determining whether to open an investigation, including the nature and seriousness of the allegations, the number of allegations, the steps that a department may be taking to address the allegations, and the history of the department.

We found that the evidence here warrants a full investigation, but we approach this process with no predispositions or pre-drawn conclusions. Our pattern or practice investigations have been successful at identifying not only whether systemic misconduct is occurring, but also its root causes, so that those root causes can ultimately be fixed.

As part of our investigation in Phoenix, we will meet with officers and command staff as well as members of the broader Phoenix community. We will review incident reports, body-worn camera footage and other data and documentation collected by the department. We will also review the department's policies, training materials and supervision records, as well as documents related to systems of accountability, including how complaints are investigated and how discipline is imposed.

As you know, about three months ago, we launched similar investigations into the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department, as well as the city of Louisville and the Louisville Police Department.

In both cities, as in Phoenix, we have been fortunate to have the support of city officials and police chiefs. In that short time, Justice Department lawyers have had in person and virtual meetings with close to 1,000 community stakeholders in Minneapolis and Louisville. Hundreds more have submitted messages to the Justice Department.

Department lawyers have participated in over 50 ride-alongs with officers. We have had four meetings with full command staff and spoken to officers across both individual interviews and roll call briefings.

We will take the same approach in Phoenix. Our career attorneys have decades of experience working on investigations like the one we open here today. One thing we have learned over the decades is that we must and will work collaboratively with the Phoenix community and with the Phoenix Police Department.

If we conclude that there are no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the city or Phoenix Police Department, we will make that known. If, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a report describing our findings and then aim to work cooperatively with the city to reach agreement on the best remedies.


If an appropriate remedy cannot be achieved through agreement, the attorney general is authorized to bring litigation to secure an appropriate injunctive remedy.

This morning, our team had opportunity to speak with city officials about our investigation. We are pleased that Mayor Gallego and Chief Williams have pledged their full support.

I will repeat the same message our team conveyed to city officials and city leaders this morning. We are committed to following the facts where they lead and doing so in a timely manner, so that we can expeditiously address any pattern or practice of unlawful conduct that may be identified.

We look forward to working together with the city and the Phoenix Police Department toward the shared goals of ensuring constitutional policing and fostering greater cooperation between law enforcement officers and the community members that they serve.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. We will take some questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Garland, was there a final straw in Phoenix?

GARLAND: I'm going to leave that question, because it is specifically about the Phoenix investigation, to the assistant attorney general.

CLARKE: Our investigation looked into a number of issues.

What we're planning to roll up our sleeves and look at closely is whether or not the Phoenix Police Department uses force unconstitutionally, including deadly force, whether the department engages in discriminatory policing, whether the department engages in retaliatory conduct by making arrests or using force against individuals engaged in peaceful expressive activities.

We're going to look at whether the city and the police department discriminate against people with disabilities, in violation of the ADA. We're going to look at the department and whether they violate the rights of people experiencing homelessness by unlawfully seizing or disposing of personal property during cleanings or sweeps of encampments.

And we are also going to look at the department's policies and training, as well at how they investigate and hold officers accountable for misconduct, as failures of these systems may contribute to violations of federal law.

QUESTION: This is also for Ms. Clarke.


The investigation -- the nature of the investigation with respect to (OFF-MIKE). I wonder if you could speak as to some of the legal issues you're looking at there, Fourth Amendment and the like, and also whether it is intended to send a message to other law enforcement entities, which routinely sweep across the country, in cities across the country, the belongings of the homeless.

CLARKE: The basis for our investigation includes the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement act of 1994, whether those sweeps unlawfully seizing and disposing the belongings of persons experiencing homelessness may, indeed, trigger a violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendments.

And so that is another basis for the investigation that we are launching today.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, you mentioned the eviction crisis and the dangers posed by mass evictions.

Can you tell us, in light of what has gone on in the last day or two, were you or the Justice Department consulted about the administration's reversal in policy on the eviction ban? And are you confident that you will be able to get it through the Supreme Court?

GARLAND: As I said, the effects of mass evictions would be devastating, both on individuals and, as the CDC has said, on communities because of the risk of spread of COVID.

The department has vigorously defended the statutory authority of the CDC to issue eviction moratorium. And we will continue to do so.

As I'm sure you know, there was a filing last night by plaintiffs in that case. We will be making our own filings, and, as is appropriate, we will respond in our filings to those kinds of questions.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, everyone. Have a good day.

BLACKWELL: There, Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing a pattern and practice investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department.


Let's bring in now senior legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid and senior legal analyst Elie Honig.

Paula, recently, in recent history, these investigations have come after a high-profile killing. The Louisville investigation came after the death of Breonna Taylor. In Minneapolis, it was after the murder of George Floyd.

What's the recent history in Phoenix that would suggest that this now comes? PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: There have been a

series of incidents in the city of Phoenix, raising questions about excessive use of force.

And what is interesting about this investigation in particular is that the assistant attorney general said they're also -- in addition to looking at police use of force, they are going to look specifically at how protesters are treated, how the homeless are treated, and how people with disabilities are treated by law enforcement.

And it is not just law enforcement. It is also the city of Phoenix. So they are going to be looking at any patterns, how are these incidents handled, how are complaints handled, how do they handle discipline, and is there a systemic problem in the city of Phoenix?

And here we are seeing a revitalized Civil Rights Division under the Biden Justice Department. I mean, the division was mostly dormant in the previous administration, but these kinds of investigations were regularly opened under the Obama administration.

BLACKWELL: Yes, the third in fewer than seven months for the Biden administration.

You participated, Elie, in one of these. So, what do the next several months, maybe year look like for the city of Phoenix?


So, they call these pattern and practice investigations because what DOJ is looking for and likely has evidence of at this point is a pattern and practice of discriminatory or unconstitutional policing.


HONIG: They're going to look at, how does the department use force? Are they violating people's First Amendment rights?

As Paula said, the sort of unusual wrinkle is focusing on, how were protesters treated? That relates to the First Amendment. How are homeless people treated?

Now, what DOJ will eventually say, if they find violations -- and they almost always do -- is, to the city and the police department, Phoenix, there's an easy way and hard way. The easy way is, we can enter into what is called a consent decree, where you are going to agree that we, DOJ, will oversee you for the next -- and it takes years. And we're going to make sure that you upgrade your training and your practices and you fix these problems.

The hard way, if the police department doesn't want to play ball, is they go to court and they have lawsuits. And that gets ugly and messy.


Elie, you know, we have had this conversation after actually the announcements of the Louisville investigation and Minneapolis that, why does the DOJ have to wait until there is this high-profile death to do this? We now know that, in this case, they're not waiting.

HONIG: Yes, I think it's a really important point, right?

There's not one of these sort of universally known incidents, a Breonna Taylor, a George Floyd, that happened in Phoenix. As Paula said, though, there is evidence of a broader pattern, right?

And DOJ does not have to wait for some particularly high-profile event to go in and do this kind of review. And I think it's important that they send that signal. We're not just going to go essentially chasing headlines. We're going to look for police departments that have shown real evidence of real systemic problems.


And they each listed off the five areas they're going to look for. The first three, we're, Paula, used to hearing here, excessive force, discriminatory policing practices, also retaliation against people. That is a new one.

But as it relates to violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the rights of homeless, the homeless there, seizing and disposing of their belongings, that's new for what we have heard.

REID: It is unusual in this kind of investigation.

But we know, in many cities across America right now, homelessness is a big problem. I mean, they want to make sure that the constitutional rights that these people have are not being violated. But we know our police, our first responders, they're asked to respond to a lot of different incidents, deal with a lot of different people in a lot of different situations, also when it comes to people with disabilities.

We know, in police departments across the country, this has been a type of training, a type of issue that they have tried to address. How do you respond when someone is in distress, particularly if they are armed?

Not all police officers have the appropriate training to deal with people who are in that kind of distress. So they're going to look at what's happening in Phoenix with these various populations, and figure out if they are responding appropriately, if there are any constitutional violations.

And then, as we were just discussing, they will likely, most likely, enter into an agreement to try to reform the way that they are responding in their policing practices and make sure they're in line with the Constitution.

BLACKWELL: Yes, we heard after the Louisville investigation was announced that they welcomed the investigation, although what do you expect them to say? It's going to happen anyway.

HONIG: Yes. BLACKWELL: On this point of not just the city police department, but

the city of Phoenix, I remember, after the investigation into Ferguson, that was of the city and of the police department.

And they found how the citations that were issued were swayed or disproportionately to black drivers there, and that funded a lot of the city government. What's the city portion of this investigation look like?

HONIG: Yes, so this tells me that DOJ is looking more broadly than just the police department itself.

Of course, the police department is sort of intertwined with the city on a lot of its practices.

BLACKWELL: City agency, yes.

HONIG: But I think it could be some of the things that Paula talked about.

This idea of retaliation, that could mean two things. That could mean retaliating against civilians who come forward with complaints. It also could mean retaliating within the police department.