PHOENIX — Three recently demoted Phoenix assistant police chiefs are alleging that Chief Jeri Williams and Executive Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach lied about their knowledge of bogus gang charges against protesters and scapegoated their subordinates.
The allegations were made in a newly filed notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the City of Phoenix.
The claim was filed on February 4 by former assistant chiefs John Collins, Lawrence Hein, and Gabriel Lopez.
“Finger-pointing and scapegoating soon prevailed at the very apex of the Phoenix Police Department, with Chief Williams and Executive Assistant Chief Kurtenbach falsely claiming they were never informed by their leadership team (which included the Claimants) that the MCAO intended to charge the October 17, 2020 suspects with the offense of assisting a criminal street gang,” according to the claim.
The three assistant chiefs were demoted following ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation, which exposed gross exaggerations and lies by officers and county prosecutors to target and falsely charge protesters as gang members in October 2020.
The charges were permanently dismissed by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge after ABC15’s reports.
In the wake of the scandal, Williams told the Phoenix City Council that her chain of command failed to inform her.
“It flat-out was a bad idea,” Williams said during an August 2021 meeting. “Systems were bypassed, personnel matters were bypassed, communication was broken down.”
But three former assistant chiefs allege that’s not true.
ABC15 exposed there was a high-level meeting between police officials and prosecutors several days before the decision to seek the gang charges.
Following the meeting, the former chiefs claim they told Kurtenbach.
“The Claimants are unaware if Executive Assistant Chief Kurtenbach in fact proceeded to brief Chief Williams of the impending gang related charges against the suspects. However—like Kurtenbach—Williams was repeatedly informed of the gang charges after the MCAO indicted the suspects,” according to their claim.
It continues, “Williams and Kurtenbach were repeatedly briefed of the gang related charges after the indictment during Chief Williams’ weekly Monday briefings.”
ABC15 first broke the initial news about the gang charges in late October 2020. In February 2021, ABC15 launched its ongoing “Politically Charged” investigation, which now consists of more than 60 reports.
“Each time the issue of the indictment of the suspects for assisting a criminal street gang was raised at the briefings, neither Williams nor Kurtenbach in any way questioned the propriety of the indictment or claimed they had not been briefed on the MCAO’s intent to charge the suspects with gang related offenses,” according to the notice of claim.
The former assistant chiefs also claim that Williams intentionally withheld information and documents from a law firm hired by the city to investigate the issues raised in ABC15’s reports.
Their claim also states that Kurtenbach instructed Lopez to not have detectives interview a key officer accused of perjury.
“Kurtenbach strongly suggested that he believed the allegations of perjury against Sgt. McBride were unjustified because he directed Assistant Chief Lopez not to interview McBride regarding either the arrests or Sgt. McBride’s grand jury testimony,” according to the claim.
Sgt. Doug McBride testified that the protesters were a gang and comparable to the Bloods, Crips, and Hells Angels.
He also falsely testified that they sharpened their fingernails and umbrella metal tips to attack officers. Both were proven false by photos of the protesters’ hands and of the umbrella tips, which were plastic and round.
The former assistant chiefs claim they were improperly demoted without due process given to them under Arizona’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights.
They’re demanding $5 million to settle their claims or they will file a lawsuit.
The legal threat is one of many now facing Phoenix and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Protesters have filed individual cases and joint lawsuits in recent months.
Prosecutor April Sponsel, who was involved in the decision to charge the protesters as gang members, is also suing County Attorney Allister Adel.
Sponsel claims she was also scapegoated by Adel, who claimed she was not properly informed of the decision to charge protesters as gang members.
The City of Phoenix provided the following statement: "The City is aware of the notice of claim but does not have any further comment on this pending litigation."
Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.