One week after police in Phoenix, Arizona, were caught on camera surrounding a parked car and killing a man inside, a young woman is coming forward with footage of a brutal assault by another officer in the department.
Mariah Valenzuela, 23, was pulled over one night in January for a minor traffic violation. Body-camera footage obtained by the Guardian shows that the officer involved, Michael McGillis, would not tell the unarmed woman why he stopped her, and that seconds after she said she didn’t have ID on her, he tackled and slammed her on to the ground, injuring her head, face, hands and legs.
Police footage also documents another officer instructing the policemen on the scene to “cover your ass” in the paperwork.
Following the incident, Valenzuela was taken to jail, accused of resisting arrest and “creating a substantial risk of physical injury” to an officer. She was also cited for DUI even though her blood alcohol content was well below the legal limit.
“He grabbed me and threw me on my car and kept slamming my head,” Valenzuela, a mother of two, said in a recent interview about the officer’s sudden use of force. “I was really afraid. It was dark and there was no one around.”
Valenzuela’s stop was not an isolated incident, attorneys said. Phoenix has had one of the highest rates of police shootings and police killings of civilians, and civil rights leaders say officers rarely face consequences for escalating encounters, brutalizing residents, defaulting to lethal force, and making false claims.
In recent years, Phoenix police have tackled a blind man; threatened to shoot a man in the head in front of his children while investigating a shoplifting; killed a man struggling with mental illness after mistaking police handcuffs for a weapon; and fatally shot an unarmed man in the back. The officer who arrested Valenzuela has a history of misconduct complaints.
Phoenix police sergeant Ann Justus told the Guardian that the department “takes allegations of misconduct seriously”. She also noted that Officer McGillis “has no prior documented discipline”.
‘I was bruised from head to toe’
Valenzuela was pulled over shortly after leaving a restaurant for a takeout order on her way home before midnight on 17 January.
Body-cam footage documents officer McGillis announcing on his radio he was about to pull someone over who had been driving in a wrong lane.
Valenzuela pulled into the nearest parking lot, got out of her car and asked why he stopped her. The body-camera footage shows McGillis asking Valenzuela for her ID and her calmly explaining that she didn’t have it on her. Seconds later, the footage shows McGillis grabbing and slamming her while yelling to put her hands behind her back.
Valenzuela then started screaming and crying, saying McGillis was “manhandling” her and hurting her. “Someone, please, help! I did nothing wrong, sir,” she’s heard shouting. McGillis told her to “act like a young lady” as she begged him to stop and asked him to explain why he was arresting her. “You said you didn’t have any ID!” he shouted as he held her down.
The footage showed that other officers later arrived at the scene. Out of her earshot, one of the officers said Valenzuela was “looney tunes” and “all over the place”. And after another officer learned of the injuries, he directed the police on scene “just to CYA [cover your ass]” when writing follow-up reports.
An officer told a supervisor, over the phone Valenzuela had blood all over her hand “because she was wiping it over and over again”. That same officer acknowledged she might need stitches, and that McGillis had banged her head. Photos taken by police showed Valenzuela suffered bruises and cuts in multiple places on her face, bloodshot eyes, a gash on the top of her head, injuries on her hand and leg.
McGillis did not suggest she might be intoxicated until 30 minutes into the arrest when other officers arrived and asked him what happened. When one officer later noted that she was bleeding, he responded, “She’s just going to complain to complain.”
Valenzuela was taken to jail and ticketed for a range of misdemeanors, including failure to have ID on her, “failure to comply with an officer”, driving “left of center” and a DUI “impaired to slightest degree”. The most serious charge was resisting arrest, classified as a violent felony for risking “physical injury” to the officer.
Valenzuela said she had been drinking earlier in the day, but was not intoxicated at the time, which was substantiated by a blood and breath test. She also said she didn’t believe she was in the wrong lane and that, although officers didn’t find her ID, she believes it was somewhere in the car. Valenzuela recalled being in immense pain as she tried to lie down on the floor of the jail cell: “I was really bruised from head to toe, everything hurt.”
McGillis’s attack made her think “something was wrong with him”, she said, adding that she was saddened to later learn that officers said they needed to “CYA” after they saw her bleeding and in pain: “I was not threatening to anybody. They didn’t care that I’m injured. All they cared about was making sure the officer was safe.”
James Palestini, Valenzuela’s attorney, said the arrest and subsequent charges were egregious, especially considering that the entire interaction and aftermath were caught on video. Valenzuela is also only 5ft 2in (1.6 meters) and 98 pounds (44kg), he noted: “This is serious physical violence on the people he is supposed to protect. And then to try to hide it later by saying she is the one who assaulted him is very egregious.”
Prosecutors have moved to dismiss all the misdemeanor charges, but the most serious felony case is still pending, and Valenzuela is also fighting to get her license back after the encounter resulted in a suspension. Her attorneys launched a civil complaint on Monday against McGillis, a phlebotomist in the DUI unit, alleging false arrest and imprisonment.
“Given that he erupted violently after simply being told Ms Valenzuela didn’t have her ID, I have serious questions about Officer McGillis’s ability to function as a police officer,” said Brian Foster, one of her attorneys.
Justus initially declined to comment on the specifics of Valenzuela’s arrest, saying the department’s professional standards bureau had reviewed the incident and found no policy violations and that the “expectations of all of our officers is to conduct themselves in a professional manner and to treat every person that they contact with dignity and respect”.
Hours after this article was published, however, Justus sent an additional detailed statement defending McGillis’ actions in the video, saying he and Valenzuela “had a cordial exchange” and that the officer “remained calm and professional, and continually tried to get Valenzuela to calm down and stop resisting the arrest”.
On the officer directing police on scene to “CYA” when writing follow ups, Justus said: “The supervisor was directing the officers to complete a Use of Force Report, even though one was not necessarily required.”
Officer McGillis did not respond to requests for comment.
Palestini said he hoped the video would push the police department to investigate this officer’s actions that evening “and how he’s handled all of his other cases”.
Past allegations against officer McGillis
Multiple defense attorneys who have dealt with McGillis on DUI cases criticized his conduct in the street and in court.
“He’s the epitome of all things wrong with part of the police department,” said Lawrence Koplow, a former prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney. “It’s ‘us v them’. If you’re not on his side, you’re the enemy.”
Caroline Aeed, another longtime attorney who handles DUI cases and has cross-examined McGillis over the years, said she was not surprised to learn of this latest case. In 2014, she represented a 26-year-old woman who got in a minor car accident and was accused of DUI. McGillis arrived at the scene to draw her blood, and according to the woman’s complaint with the police department, he repeatedly called her a “fucking dumb bitch” and told her to “shut the fuck up”. The woman’s boyfriend was on the phone and heard this profanity, the complaint said.
The woman became scared of having McGillis draw her blood given his aggressive stance, her attorney wrote. When she refused the blood draw, the complaint said, the officer “became violent and assaulted her … picking her up by the back of her neck … He then slammed her against the van wall and threw her out the door onto the ground face down. She sustained injuries to her face, arms and legs.”
That 2014 case was not recorded on camera and the officer denied the physical assault claims and was not disciplined, Aeed said. In a hearing, McGillis said the woman was a “little monster”, and when Aeed objected to the insult, he said, “That’s being nice.” He admitted to using profanities against the woman, saying, “You have to speak their language, so they understand better.”
Those kinds of dehumanizing trial comments were alarming, Aeed said: “The way he acts in court, in front of a judge, it makes you think, what does he do on the street when no one is watching?”
In 2018, McGillis was also accused of falsifying information in a DUI case, records show. His vehicle records contradicted his claims about the sequence of his arrest, the defense attorneys argued. Police investigators concluded there was no misconduct.
Police have not “sustained” any allegations of misconduct by McGillis in the last five years, according to Justus.
Attorneys said they hoped the new body-camera footage would force the police department to take allegations seriously. The city has repeatedly attributed its high levels of police violence to a rise in threats and attacks from civilians, but civil rights lawyers noted that the department’s data includes cases where they brutalize people and then accuse them of assaulting officers.
For her part, Valenzuela said the arrest and subsequent criminal cases have had a long-term impact.
“There was PTSD, me feeling him still on my body, feeling afraid at night when I go out by myself,” she said. There are still friends and family members she hasn’t told about the experience, but she said she wanted the public to understand that this kind of brutality can happen to anyone: “I don’t want this to go unseen.”