PHOENIX — The Phoenix Police Department lied about the use of secret messaging apps by Chief Jeri Williams and her executive staff, according to a letter sent to City Manager Jeff Barton by an attorney who represents multiple top cops.
The letter – which contains multiple screenshots – was sent in response to an ABC15 report earlier this week that exposed the use of Signal by high-level police officials.
It states Williams used the app long after the department claimed to discuss city matters including a high-profile scandal involving falsely-charged protesters.
“The City is supposed to serve the people, and the people are not served by lies,” wrote Stephen Montoya, an attorney for three recently demoted assistant chiefs who worked directly with Williams. “The City should stop lying to the public.”
Signal is known for its encryption, privacy, and disappearing message features.
In advance of ABC15’s report on Wednesday, Phoenix Police Director of Communications Donna Rossi said, “Chief Williams asked that Signal not be used by her executive team for work-related issues and deleted her app from her phone in 2020. Chief Kurtenbach does not have the app on his work phone.”
But Montoya’s letter said both of those statements are false and misleading.
“I was alarmed that the City would publicly proclaim to the media that Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams deleted her Signal app in 2020 and urged her subordinates not to use the app for Department business. This claim is demonstrably false. In fact, Chief Williams used the Signal app regarding Department business well into 2021, as the attached examples unequivocally demonstrate,” according to the letter.
As for Kurtenbach, Montoya wrote, “And for the record, during this time period, Kurtenbach did not have a City issued cell phone and routinely used his personal cell phone for Department business.”
Screenshots attached to the letter show multiple messages sent and received in August 2021 in a group chat titled “Just the Top” with names belonging to Williams and other high-ranking police officials.
The screenshots also show that an account titled “Chief Jeri Williams” had Signal programmed to delete the messages after 30 minutes.
The date of the messages would not only contradict the department’s claims, experts and attorneys said they also raise serious concerns about the destruction of public records and evidence in many ongoing civil, criminal, and legal matters.
The screenshots show messages sent starting on August 9, 2021.
They discuss the department’s ongoing scandal for falsely charging protesters as gang members and follow the announcement of a Department of Justice investigation just days earlier.
The messages appear to discuss the upcoming announcement of results from an outside investigation by a law firm into the scandal.
Multiple lawsuits related to the protest scandal were already filed in the summer of 2021, meaning discoverable evidence may now be lost.
“I am deeply concerned that there are communications we would be entitled to if they had not been destroyed,” said Stephen Benedetto, a civil rights attorney who represents dozens of protesters in those lawsuits, in an interview ahead of ABC15’s previous report.
He added, “When you have a case that hinges on who knew what and when, and the most vital documents that would show that have been deleted, you’re talking about a potential obstruction of justice issue.”
Montoya’s letter shows copies were also sent to Mayor Kate Gallego, the entire city council, the City Attorney’s Office, and the state’s police certification and oversight board.
ABC15 reached out to the City Manager’s Office and Phoenix Police Department for comment.
A city spokesperson sent ABC15 the following statement:
"We have received the letter and are reviewing its contents. The City Manager expects all employees to conduct their work in a transparent manner that adheres to all public record policies."
Mass Liberation Arizona, an activist organization that backed many of the falsely charged protesters, released a statement in response that read, in part:
"Chief Williams not only lied about deleting the app, she actively used Signal to intentionally destroy evidence long after she claimed to have told her staff not to use the app. Chief Williams is a liar. She absolutely must not be permitted to retire in good standing; she must be fired. She must also be Brady listed immediately. No public official should be using the Signal app, least of all the chief of the nation’s deadliest police department."
Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.