PHOENIX — Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams has been suspended for one day and others in her executive staff have been demoted after outside investigations into bogus gang charges for protesters, and a department "challenge coin."
The decision to falsely charge a group of protesters as a criminal street gang was approved and known at the highest levels of the Phoenix Police Department, according to the investigation conducted by an outside law firm.
The probe found that protest response officers built the case on dubious and non-existent evidence and intentionally tried to “keep things quiet” to circumvent the normal process of classifying a brand new street gang.
The investigation was completed by Ballard Spahr, a law firm hired after ABC15 exposed the gang charges and a controversial challenge coin shared by the city’s protest response officers to celebrate injuring a protester.
WHAT THE INVESTIGATIONS UNCOVERED
On Thursday, city officials released the firm’s 50-page investigation into the gang charges and ABC15 has spoken to multiple others who have seen or reviewed the findings.
The firm’s investigators also criticize the city for a lack of cooperation.
“It bears noting, however, that we reach these findings without the benefit of all possible information,” the firm wrote. “PPD did not provide certain information we requested and, on multiple occasions, certain relevant information was provided to the Investigation Team several weeks after information was known to PPD.”
The firm said PPD did not provide certain information in a timely manner allowing certain emails and other documents to be purged due to retention schedules.
The firm also said that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined several requests for information and interviews.
There is a separate report on the challenge coin in which, despite specific and clear knowledge, Chief Williams and other top department leaders failed for years to investigate a controversial challenge coin circulating among the ranks, according to an outside investigation obtained by ABC15.
On Oct.17, 2020, a group of protesters was arrested in downtown Phoenix. Ten days later they were indicted by a grand jury on multiple counts, including the street gang charges.
Police and prosecutors testified the group was a gang called “ACAB,” which is short of the phrase “All Cops are Bastards.”
The report determined there was a “pre-charging” meeting on Oct. 23, 2020, to specifically discuss whether to seek the gang charges.
The meeting was attended by officials from the FBI, Phoenix Police Department, and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. In attendance were two Phoenix assistant chiefs: John Collins and Lawrence Hein.
“In various interviews, high-ranking PPD officials told us that the ‘whole point’ of the meeting was to decide whether to charge the protesters under the gang statute. One PPD official discussed it as a ‘pre-charging meeting,’” according to the report.
The law firm’s investigators determined that there was a lack of credible evidence that ACAB is a gang or that protesters would resort to violence.
However, despite the lack of evidence, it was decided at the meeting that Sgt. Doug McBride would testify before the grand jury and author a new incident report to “bolster the charges.”
“According to an analysis of PPD’s electronic records system, Sgt. McBride completed a second incident report on October 28 at 7:17 p.m., the day after his Grand Jury testimony — and eleven days after the protest. In this report, Sgt. McBride revised his description of the Protesters’ activity to conform to his testimony, as compared to his first incident report,” the investigators wrote. “More specifically, he described the ‘ACAB group’ as ‘one that’s been mimicking the behavior of a criminal street gang and should be classified as such.'”
The law firm also wrote that Assistant Chief Collins said he spoke to Executive Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach following the October 23 meeting. But Kurtenbach told the law firm he didn’t recall that conversation or what was discussed.
The law firm stated that it did not uncover any evidence that Chief Williams had any knowledge of the October 23 meeting or that she was told of the decision to charge the protesters as a gang.
Once the charges were made official, they were not a secret.
ABC15 first reported on the existence of the gang charges on Oct. 30, 2020. In early February, the station launched its ongoing investigation, “Politically Charged,” which directly led to the permanent dismissal of the gang charges and a total of 39 Phoenix protest cases.
The law firm also documented that Phoenix police opened their own probe into the gang charges in April. But the department’s Special Investigations Detail didn’t find any misconduct.
“Investigative steps taken by SID were limited and in light of the information it had at the time of its inquiry, warrant independent scrutiny,” the report said.
For example, SID did not attempt to interview the key officer behind the false testimony, Sgt. Doug McBride, the investigation said.
The report also found SID officials were involved in the initial discussions to charge the protesters as a gang.
In their report, the law firm said it received a letter from an attorney representing a number of PPD officials in connection with our investigation.
The letter “levied blame for any inappropriate charging decisions squarely on MCAO.”
The report did find that former PPD gang detective Karl Martin, who now works as an investigator with MCAO, came up with the idea to charge protesters as gang members.
County Attorney Allister Adel has declined a standing interview request with ABC15 to discuss the protest cases. Her office ordered their own outside probe, which has not been released.
Ballard Spahr was also hired to conduct a separate investigation into a challenge coin that was shared and sold among members of Phoenix’s protest response team.
Deleted following tweet.— Dave Biscobing (@DaveBiscobing15) August 12, 2021
City spokesperson just clarified that there will not be a press conference. But City Manager Ed Zuercher will conduct one-on-one interviews this afternoon.
We will ask to speak to Chief Williams as well. @ZachCrenshaw is also working this story today. pic.twitter.com/vqF5JGeVl0
RESPONSE FOLLOWING INVESTIGATIONS' RELEASE
On Thursday, the Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher issued multiple actions in response to the results of the outside investigations, including a one-day suspension and written reprimand of Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams. Other members of Williams' executive staff are also being demoted to commander positions.
Watch our complete interview with Zuercher in the player below.
BREAKING: Chief Williams just sent a memo to staff saying that she is accepting a one day suspension for the gang charges and a written reprimand for the coin investigation.— Dave Biscobing (@DaveBiscobing15) August 12, 2021
Basically, claims she didn’t know.
Three assistant chiefs have been demoted to commanders.
Additionally, Zeurcher mentions in the summary that they have asked the Arizona Attorney General's office to further investigate "potentially criminal matters arising from this report."
Read the actions listed by the Phoenix City Manager in the document below.
In a separate move announced Thursday night just before 6 p.m. the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office released documents from an external review it requested from a retired judge named Roland Steinle. The judge was asked to review what led up to the false gang charges that were filed by MCAO against the protesters.
MCAO released the documents, which were dated August 6, and a statement from its office Thursday night.
"Affinity of the first responder unit creates the predilection by the prosecutors to accept the Phoenix Police narrative without any review."
The report states that prosecutors would have noticed false narratives given by responding officers in the protest incident that identified those involved as gang members for their actions if they had simply reviewed body camera video of the incidents.
“This false narrative would have been revealed if someone had taken the time to watch just a limited amount of BWC videos of Sgt McBride, Joseph Crowley, Sgt Groat and Jeffrey Raymond. The request by the County Attorney to have the Chief of Police conduct an investigation into Sgt. James Groat, Sgt. McBride, Officer Jeffrey Raymond, Officer Volk, and Joseph Crowley demonstrates this flaw. In the letter, she outlines, in detail, the issues with the reports filed and testimony given in Court proceedings including the fact that the reports omitted several significant exculpatory statements
made by Ryder Collins in his recorded interview as well as the issues with Sgt. McBride testimony which the judge used in her ruling finding misconduct. Ryan Green and his team actually watched the available video and it was apparent from his report that there was a substantial discrepancy between the two version of the events.”
On top of changes MCAO says it has made since the false charges came to light, MCAO says the following moves will be made based on Judge Stenile’s review.
- Develop better guidance for MCAO staff on the handling, reviewing, and disclosing body-worn camera footage and the importance of that footage in charging decisions.
- Create training curriculum for MCAO staff related to First Amendment Rights, and other issues raised during the course of these cases.
- Place new leadership in charge of the First Responder Bureau.
- Create a policy that ensures the executive team is formally briefed when unprecedented approaches to the law are being considered, and full, formal case reviews occur prior to the filing of charges.
- Continue to review the conduct in these matters as it relates to issues of honesty and integrity.
“In these cases, we made mistakes. As an agency charged with doing justice, we must be willing to admit this,” Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said in a written statement. “And, moreover, we must be willing to correct them. Much of our work in this office is holding people accountable for their actions when they do not meet society’s expectations. We must be willing to hold ourselves accountable as well.”
Adel's late-day document drop on the same day Phoenix released their outside probes drew criticism from defense attorney, legal advocates, and activists who considered the move a cowardly way to minimize media coverage and public scrutiny.
In fact, an NPR journalist reported shortly after the report's release that MCAO failed to redact the faces and names of minors arrested during the October 17 protest. Those minors are innocent and not facing any charges.
The county attorney ordered the outside probe earlier this year hours after ABC15 sent written questions specifically asking how much Adel knew about the gang charges.
Adel has repeatedly declined ABC15's interview requests and used the outside review as the reason to further delay a potential interview.
While the judge behind MCAO's probe said he was not provided information to show that Adel was briefed ahead of the indictments, the embattled prosecutor in the case claims the county attorney was informed.
In a notice of claim filed this month, MCAO prosecutor April Sponsel wrote that Adel was personally told about the plan and is now "purposely lying" to make her a scapegoat.
Read the full MCAO report below:
Mayor Kate Gallego released a statement in regards to this investigation, stating, "I’m disheartened and deeply disappointed by the findings of this investigation. The behavior described falls far below my expectations. More importantly, it fails to meet the expectations of our community."
Read Gallego's full statement below:
FULL INVESTIGATIONS' RESULTS
The Phoenix City Manager's officer on Thursday released a summary of the law firm's investigative findings, along with the full report.
Read the summary and report below.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.