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Phoenix police called protesters 'targets' during surveillance, before arrests

Black Lives Matter protest Phoenix
Posted at 10:42 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 09:04:34-04

PHOENIX  — New documents show Phoenix police spent hours monitoring protest leaders during a peaceful October demonstration.

Officers called the activists "targets" while surveilling them with drones, surveillance cameras, and vehicles.

The charges have since been dropped as part of the continued impact of ABC15's "Politically Charged" investigation, which uncovered police and prosecutors worked together to charge Valley protesters as a "criminal street gang" based on exaggerations and lies.

The latest incident of potential misconduct occurred October 3 in downtown Phoenix.

Valley activists were out protesting again that evening in connection to the death of Dion Johnson, a Valley father who was shot and killed by a Department of Public Safety trooper after passing out in his vehicle on the interstate.

"Allister Adel had chosen not to hold George Cervantes, the murderer of Dion Johnson accountable. So this was our march in response to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office," said Zarra Teacola, a leader with Black Lives Matter (BLM) Metro Phoenix.

Zarra and two other activists were not arrested until after the peaceful protest, where they spent much of their time leading chants, some in the street, and giving speeches.

They were getting into a car when they were confronted by officers.

"We believe that [officers] did that so that they could try to get us on charges like resisting arrest," said Zarra. "Because we asked them, 'Why are you here? Do you want to arrest us?' And they refused to answer."

All evening though, officers were answering on their radios - communicating about their surveillance of leaders.

"Keep an eye on Lee Christian Percy throughout the night," one officer said, according to Computer Aided Dispatch [CAD] documents.

The officers appear to be waiting for Percy to mess up, according to documents obtained by ABC15.

"Is he...in roadway ever?" one officer asks.
"No, constantly on sidewalk."
"He has been careful about that lately."

Percy was a protest leader throughout the summer, following the deaths of George Floyd, Dion Johnson, and Breonna Taylor.

The dispatch communication made it clear, officers were intent on arresting Percy that night, in connection to a prior crime they allege he committed.

The crime was from a protest two months earlier, in August, where he allegedly locked arms with a female protester who was being arrested, preventing officers from taking her into custody.

"Christian Percy moved, anyone have eyes on him?" an officer asked.

The CAD log goes on to document:

"Sgt Hammons - your group assigned to Lee Percy Christian charges from Aug 9th."
"Do this on our time. Arrest away from groups."
"Reminder: he resisted arrest last time."
"I remember. Put up a pretty good fight."
"You have your info sheet with pictures of them?"
"Be posted...in case Percy leaves, to ID him."
"I'm kicking out Percy's picture now"
"MCSO: we have Percy on the drone."
"Keep the drone trained on him."

In addition to MCSO's drone, Phoenix police were filming with their surveillance pick-up truck, cameras on their headquarters, and officer body cameras.

At one point, the officers come close to arresting a different Black man, thinking he is Percy.

"Anyone have eyes on Lee Christian [Percy] still?
"Walking away... I think that's him... all by himself... what do you think?"
"Yeah, if he's by himself... get him out of sight from the group."
"I'm not sure that's him. Need to verify that."
"I don't think that's him...he's definitely in front of 620."

"620" refers to Phoenix police headquarters, where Percy was most of the night. Officers realize he is still there and resume monitoring.

"Hey Ben, you see him? Try to find him."
"Keep eyes for later."
"It's thinning out...[we] will wait and when its good and thinned out, [we] will take actions."

The officers also discussed their belief that some protesters were intent on getting arrested, because they chained themselves to a block.

Officers then begin to hype themselves up for a confrontation, which never occurs.

"Info received they want to get arrested. When that occurs crowd will throw things at police and attack us," one said, according to the dispatch log.

"They are trying to bait us into something. Wait it out," someone says 12 minutes later.

"It was intentional that they arrested us to stop the protests," said Zarra. "It shows that we are under a high level of surveillance."

Officers called Zarra "a secondary target."

Before they identified Zarra, they looked up their information through the license plate database, in addition to at least three other protesters.

At one point an officer asks, "Zaharra (sic) in the group?"

"You can't miss it," one replied. "She's running the whole show."

At one point, an officer asks about arresting another woman with a megaphone.

"No we want one in PLE shirt. She has black megaphone," someone replies, referring to Zarra. "None of our targets have left so far."

"That night, they ended up arresting a total of seven people. Myself and Zarra included," said Keisha Acton, a single mother and fellow BLM leader locally.

"I was facing up to eight to 10 years," said Acton. "[Prosecutors] later added a gang enhancement to my sentence."

Like dozens of other protest cases, those "gang" charges have since been dropped. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, though, could still file new charges.

"The reality is they did do this to stop us," said Zarra. "I felt hunted like an animal."

"They're targeting leaders of the movement to silence their ability to continue being leaders of the movement," said Jamarr Williams, a defense attorney and local activist. "It's absolutely because they fear the how vocal and how knowledgeable those individuals are about how corrupt the system is."

Williams himself has been wrongly arrested during a protest. He is now suing the City of Phoenix in federal court.

The October arrests had a chilling effect on some of the in-person protests.

"It caused us to move in a different way," said Acton.

"They can never take our voice away... but they've forced our hand into a diversity of tactics," said Zarra. "It was a terrible experience and that they need to be held accountable for that."

The question of accountability remains to be seen, but already MCAO has put the lead prosecutor, April Sponsel, on leave for working with officers to bring gang charges against protesters.

According to the dispatch log, Sponsel was intimately involved in the October 3 arrests because before the activists are ever booked into jail an officer says: "Doug, give April Courtesy Call. Let her know got electronic devices."

Zarra called the move "ridiculous" and says officers were intent on getting her cell phone.

"So that demand was actually from April to grab our phones. And if you look at the charges, they tried to give us charges around our electronic devices."