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More Phoenix officers used secret messaging at work

Posted at 7:24 PM, Sep 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-15 22:36:00-04

PHOENIX — The use of encrypted messaging apps by Phoenix police extends further down the chain of command to officers working on the streets.

ABC15's Politically Charged investigation already revealed former Chief Jeri Williams and her top brass used the Signal app to communicate about the fallout from charging police protesters as gang members. The ABC15 Investigators have now learned officers in a high-profile use-of-force case were communicating with WhatsApp prior to fatally shooting a teen.

The father of Jacob Harris, who was killed, recently sat down with ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius, to talk about newly unsealed aerial video from Phoenix Police showing the January 2019 shooting.

"I wanted the world to see the video to see what they did to Jacob and see the brutality," Roland Harris said.

Member of Phoenix Police's Special Assignment Unit stopped a car of suspected armed robbers. Jacob Harris was shot as he tried to run away. Roland disputes the police department's explanation that Jacob had a gun and pointed it at the officers. He filed a civil rights lawsuit. A federal judge ruled in favor of the police last month, but Roland's attorneys filed paperwork to appeal.

Some of the information that came out in the lawsuit included questions about discussions via encrypted messages, which have since been deleted, between the officer who fired the fatal shots and others.

"In a deposition [one of the officers] said that they were communicating through WhatsApp," Roland said.

A police computer-aided dispatch transcript from that night showed when one officer asked for other officers to be included in their WhatsApp group.

Roland said the encrypted messages were "definitive evidence" and should have been retained. He said his lawyer asked one of the officers during a deposition about what happened to the WhatApp conversations.

"[The officer] said that he was told by a person from the city attorney's office and commanding officers for his team to delete that communication for that evening," Roland said.

"These are the people who are supposed to be in charge of protecting and serving," said Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice president Armando Nava. "We should know whether they're doing that, and if they're taking steps to hide what they're doing, that's not what we should demand as citizens of a free nation."

Nava has not been involved in the Harris case.

It's unclear how often Phoenix's elite SAU or other Phoenix police officers have used these secret messaging apps as part of their police work. Roland said he shared his concerns with U.S. Department of Justice investigators looking into whether Phoenix police have been violating people's civil rights.

"The only reason you wouldn't communicate on official radios is because you don't want any official transcripts," Roland said. "You don't get to control if anyone gets a copy of those transcripts or not, but on a WhatsApp communication, obviously, you control it because you delete them."

ABC15 asked the Phoenix Police Department about its policies and officers' use of encrypted messaging apps, but a spokesperson declined to comment citing the ongoing litigation in the Jacob Harris case.

Got a news tip? Email ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.