PHOENIX — A controversial challenge coin owned, shared, and sold by Phoenix officers raises serious concerns about the culture inside the city’s police department and a lack of accountability by top leaders, according to a handful of experts interviewed by ABC15.
The coins commemorate the moment when a protester was shot in the groin by a pepper ball in August 2017.
In addition to celebrating violence against a protester, the coin’s language mimics hate speech, which prompted the city to hire an outside law firm to investigate.
ABC15 also discovered Phoenix police leaders, including Chief Jeri Williams, were informed about the coin multiple times in recent years. But no officers were officially investigated or disciplined.
The law firm, Ballard Spahr, is tasked with investigating “the origin of and subsequent circulation and knowledge of challenge coins by Phoenix Police Department,” according to a contract obtained by ABC15.
ABC15 interviewed the following experts on policing and extremism:
- Mike German: A fellow at the Brennan Center at NYU, and a retired FBI special agent who spent time undercover with right-win extremists.
- Heather Taylor: A retired St. Louis Police Department homicide supervisor, who now helps run the Ethical Society of Police. Taylor testified before Congress about policing and far-right extremism in 2020.
- Carolyn Gallaher: A professor at American University, who researches right-wing extremism in the United States.
- Vida Johnson: Associate Professor at Georgetown Law and a former federal public defender. Johnson testified before Congress about policing and far-right extremism in 2020.
A regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, Tammy Gillies, also spoke with ABC15 and sent a statement regarding the coins.
ABC15 has confirmed at least six members of the Phoenix Police Department who owned the coin. Although, there are likely to be many others inside the department. It’s not clear how much input Phoenix officers had with the development of the coins. However, in a lawsuit deposition, one officer said he believed Phoenix officers facilitated production of the coins.
The following are excerpts from expert interviews and other facts related to key issues surrounding the challenge coins.
TIES TO HATE SPEECH
The front of the coin reads, “Good Night Left Nut.”
The phrase is derived from hate speech used on both the far right and far left. It began as the anti-racist slogan, “Good Night Right Side.” It was then inverted by far-right groups, including some white supremacists, as “Good Night Left Side.”
The term and imagery of “Good Night Left Side” is classified as a hate symbol, according to the Anti-Defamation League. “'Anti-Antifa' images are white supremacist symbols and memes directed against antifa activists,” according to the ADL’s website.
A violent white supremacist group known as the Rise Above Movement also uses GNLS (an acronym of the phrase).
Gillies, an ADL regional director, told ABC15 the coins are “horrible." But she doesn’t believe the coins are white-supremacist related. [Gillies said she spoke with Phoenix police Chief Jeri Williams before news about the coins’ language broke several weeks ago].
“This particular use is not white supremacist-related but it is designed to make fun of left-wing protesters and to celebrate that one got injured,” Gillies wrote in an emailed statement.
Experts told ABC15 it’s important for Phoenix to investigate the coins’ origin and intent because the language is too specific to be ignored.
GALLAHER: It’s pretty obvious. If you were trying to say, as a member of the police force, or the person that made it, “I had no idea.” Well that’s like 99.99 percent unlikely… The likelihood of you coming up with this exact phrase and then turning it into “Good Night Left Nut,” it’s implausible for the most part.
BISCOBING: Do you think that’s by chance? Do you that’s innocent, “just boys being boys, let’s have a laugh about this?
TAYLOR: Knowing law enforcement, it was calculated. I believe it was intentional. It was an intentional play on that language… I don’t care who said it (first). It comes from an ideology steeped in racism. It’s ignorant.
GERMAN: Clearly they took iconography that has been used by right and left side groups. But chose to highlight the attack on the left side protesters.
JOHNSON: Whether or not these police officers knew that a particular symbol is associated with white supremacy or a slogan is associated with white supremacy, the fact they’re celebrating their use of violence against their own community is going to undermine public trust. And if I was a police chief, I would be worried about that. So the fact the police chief wasn’t concerned about that is very concerning.
LACK OF INVESTIGATION
The Phoenix Police Department brushed off information about the coin at least three times before ABC15’s report.
In 2017, Phoenix claims Commander Brad Burt reviewed the matter but was unable to substantiate any misconduct. The city said there are no records to document this review took place. in 2019, Chief Jeri Williams was deposed as part of a class-action lawsuit about the city’s protest response. Williams was questioned about the coin and shown pictures.
In response to questions ahead of ABC15’s report on February 5, 2021, a spokesperson sent the following email, which failed to acknowledge the coin existed.
“The Phoenix Police Department did not participate in, encourage, fund or sanction the creation of any such challenge coin. There is also no indication such a coin was used for any public or official purpose on the Department’s behalf. A review at the time by a Commander with the Department was unable to substantiate any claims of misconduct related to a challenge coin.”
TAYLOR: In law enforcement, we all have this morbid sense of humor because we can go from one call of an accident to a murder of a child to unspeakable circumstances. So you have to have a coping mechanism. But that (coin) goes beyond a coping mechanism. It’s embarrassing. Where’s the chief on that? Where’s the city manager on that? It shouldn’t take your news report for them to act.
GERMAN: Police leadership needs to take this seriously because this is a persistent problem in law enforcement.
JOHNSON: The fact that there was no discipline shows this wasn’t a single bad apple within the police department, or one lone wolf. This is the culture in this police department… The part that worries me the worst: This police department is one that’s not interested in being held accountable to the community it’s supposed to be serving.
ISSUES OF BIAS
In addition to the coins’ front, the back also raises questions about bias. It states, “Make America Great Again, One Nut at a Time.”
The protester was shot following a rally held by President Donald Trump.
Phoenix police have been criticized for highly-controversial responses and arrests during protests in recent years. ABC15 discovered officers routinely have lied and exaggerated in written reports and court testimony to justify arrests and charges against protesters.
In one case, Phoenix police and the Maricopa County prosecutors coordinated to charge a group of protesters as a criminal street gang. One sergeant testified that the group was like the Bloods, Crips, and Hells Angels.
The case against the group was dismissed the week following the launch of ABC15’s investigation. The station also subsequently obtained body camera footage of officers calling protesters “dickheads,” “assholes”, and “f***ing liberal pieces of sh**.”
A 2018 video recorded by Patriot Movement AZ, which is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, also captured an identified Phoenix sergeant talking with them regarding the coin and bragging about it.
GALLAHER: We are talking about overt bias… How can we police a multi-cultural society if the police are favoring one set of people over another?
GERMAN: The FBI actually warns its own agents investigating domestic terrorism cases against white supremacists and far right militias that those subjects will often have active links to law enforcement.
TAYLOR: There are white supremacists who are infiltrating law enforcement and a lot of police officers have come to accept racism within their departments.
Editor’s note: This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” The series can be found at ABC15.com/protests. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.