Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams has been suspended for one day and others in her executive staff have been demoted after outside investigations into bogus gang charges for protesters, and a department “challenge coin.”
The decision to falsely charge a group of protesters as a criminal street gang was approved and known at the highest levels of the Phoenix Police Department, according to the investigation conducted by an outside law firm.
The probe found that protest response officers built the case on dubious and non-existent evidence and intentionally tried to “keep things quiet” to circumvent the normal process of classifying a brand new street gang.
The investigation was completed by Ballard Spahr, a law firm.
On Thursday, city officials released the firm’s 50-page investigation into the gang charges.
The firm’s investigators also criticized the city for a lack of cooperation.
“It bears noting, however, that we reach these findings without the benefit of all possible information,” the firm wrote. “PPD did not provide certain information we requested and, on multiple occasions, certain relevant information was provided to the Investigation Team several weeks after information was known to PPD.”
The firm said PPD did not provide certain information in a timely manner allowing certain emails and other documents to be purged due to retention schedules.
The firm also said that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined several requests for information and interviews.
There is a separate report on the challenge coin in which, despite specific and clear knowledge, Chief Williams and other top department leaders failed for years to investigate a controversial challenge coin circulating among the ranks, according to an outside investigation.
On Oct.17, 2020, a group of protesters were arrested in downtown Phoenix. Ten days later they were indicted by a grand jury on multiple counts, including the street gang charges.
Police and prosecutors testified the group was a gang called “ACAB,” which is short for the phrase “All Cops are Bastards.”
The report determined there was a “pre-charging” meeting on Oct. 23, 2020, to specifically discuss whether to seek the gang charges.
The meeting was attended by officials from the FBI, Phoenix Police Department, and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. In attendance were two Phoenix assistant chiefs: John Collins and Lawrence Hein.
“In various interviews, high-ranking PPD officials told us that the ‘whole point’ of the meeting was to decide whether to charge the protesters under the gang statute. One PPD official discussed it as a ‘pre-charging meeting,’” according to the report.
The law firm’s investigators determined that there was a lack of credible evidence that ACAB is a gang or that protesters would resort to violence.
However, despite the lack of evidence, it was decided at the meeting that Sgt. Doug McBride would testify before the grand jury and author a new incident report to “bolster the charges.”
“According to an analysis of PPD’s electronic records system, Sgt. McBride completed a second incident report on October 28 at 7:17 p.m., the day after his Grand Jury testimony — and eleven days after the protest. In this report, Sgt. McBride revised his description of the Protesters’ activity to conform to his testimony, as compared to his first incident report,” the investigators wrote. “More specifically, he described the ‘ACAB group’ as ‘one that’s been mimicking the behavior of a criminal street gang and should be classified as such.’”
The law firm also wrote that Assistant Chief Collins said he spoke to Executive Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach following the October 23 meeting. But Kurtenbach told the law firm he didn’t recall that conversation or what was discussed.
The law firm stated that it did not uncover any evidence that Chief Williams had any knowledge of the October 23 meeting or that she was told of the decision to charge the protesters as a gang.
Once the charges were made official, they were not a secret.
The law firm also documented that Phoenix police opened their own probe into the gang charges in April. But the department’s Special Investigations Detail didn’t find any misconduct.
“Investigative steps taken by SID were limited and in light of the information it had at the time of its inquiry, warrant independent scrutiny,” the report said.
For example, SID did not attempt to interview the key officer behind the false testimony, Sgt. Doug McBride, the investigation said.
The report also found SID officials were involved in the initial discussions to charge the protesters as a gang.
In their report, the law firm said it received a letter from an attorney representing a number of PPD officials in connection with our investigation.
The letter “levied blame for any inappropriate charging decisions squarely on MCAO.”
The report did find that former PPD gang detective Karl Martin, who now works as an investigator with MCAO, came up with the idea to charge protesters as gang members.
County Attorney Allister Adel has ordered their own outside probe, which has not been released.
Ballard Spahr was also hired to conduct a separate investigation into a challenge coin that was shared and sold among members of Phoenix’s protest response team.
On Thursday, the Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher issued multiple actions in response to the results of the outside investigations, including a one-day suspension and written reprimand of Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams. Other members of Williams’ executive staff are also being demoted to commander positions.
Additionally, Zeurcher mentions in the summary that they have asked the Arizona Attorney General’s office to further investigate “potentially criminal matters arising from this report.”
Mayor Kate Gallego released a statement in regards to this investigation, stating, “I’m disheartened and deeply disappointed by the findings of this investigation. The behavior described falls far below my expectations. More importantly, it fails to meet the expectations of our community.”
The Phoenix City Manager’s officer on Thursday released a summary of the law firm’s investigative findings, along with the full report.