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'Prime for abuse': Lack of oversight lets Phoenix police add protesters to gang database

Outrage over gang charges for police protesters
Posted at 9:48 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-05 15:08:21-04

PHOENIX — This report has been updated to show the Department of Public Safety declined to add the group into the state’s gang intelligence system. According to an email sent on February 25, 2021 to Phoenix’s gang unit, a DPS administrator wrote, “I consulted with our Legal Counsel at DPS. Based on the information we have right now, this group does not meet the criteria for entry into the gang intelligence system.”

“ACAB” was never a real criminal street gang in Phoenix.

But as part of an effort to overcharge and suppress a group of police protesters, city officers and county prosecutors made it up in late 2020.

The fictional gang, an acronym for the common protest chant “All Cops are Bastards,” was created by officials using wild exaggerations, lies, and an informant with a documented history of lying.

Despite those problems, 17 protesters were officially documented as members of “ACAB” and Phoenix officers attempted to add them to Arizona’s gang database, according to records obtained by ABC15.

Law enforcement officials declined to answer any questions for this report. However, internal records show the Department of Public Safety declined to add the group to the state’s intelligence system.

“I think it really shows that this is a strategy being used and being abused by law enforcement to criminalize targeted groups, whether they are communities of color, low-income communities, or political protesting communities,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, a Phoenix Democrat.

On October 17, 2020, Phoenix police arrested a group of protesters, who were then indicted on criminal street gang charges.

Following the indictment, officers completed “Gang Member Information Cards,” or GMICs, for 17 of the protesters. GMICs are used to enter people into a statewide database called “GangNet.”

GangNet is managed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and police departments across the state have access to the database.

ABC15 obtained copies of the GMICs for the protesters.

Each of them are two pages. Many are hand-written. The cards contain each defendant’s personal information, including their name, address, phone number, email, Social Security number, picture, tattoos, and details about their alleged gang membership.

The group’s gang name was documented as “ACAB” and designated as an “extremist” group with “violent tendencies.”

In the notes section of most of the GMICs, it stated: “(Defendant) was part of a group that took over the city streets in downtown Phoenix and marched in the streets chanting, 'ACAB, all cops are bastards.' The members of this group wore primary all black clothing and possessed black umbrellas.”

RELATED: Phoenix Police Department falsely claimed protester stabbed officer with ‘sharpened’ umbrella

The protest case highlights larger issues with the vague nature of Arizona’s gang statutes and the broad power provided to law enforcement agencies to document and track alleged gang members without public scrutiny.

“You don’t know you’ve been entered into it, and you have no opportunity to challenge your inclusion into it,” said Seth Apfel, a defense attorney who’s successfully challenged portions of Arizona’s gang statutes. “It is a database entirely maintained by law enforcement that has no scrutiny from any other branch of government or from any citizen organization or anybody else whatsoever. They control this database completely; and if they want you in this database, they can put you in this database.”

In Arizona statutes, street gang classification requires only two of the following criteria to be met: (1) Self proclamation; (2) Witness testimony or statements; (3) Written or electronic correspondence; (4) Paraphernalia or photographs; (5) Tattoos; (6) Clothing or colors; (7) Any other indicators.

Phoenix police Sgt. Doug McBride, a “grenadier” who manages the Tactical Response Unit and former gang detective, testified the group of protesters met three of the criteria.

The first was chanting “All Cops are Bastards,” which he claimed was self-proclamation. The second was because most of the group dressed in black, which met the colors requirement. And the third was many of the group carried umbrellas, which McBride claimed was part of their uniform.

Police and prosecutors also told a grand jury that “ACAB” was as dangerous as notorious gangs like the Crips, Bloods, and Hells Angels.

“The gang criteria is so broad, over-broad, that it is just prime for abuse,” said Marci Kratter, a defense attorney who represents some protesters arrested in 2020.

Multiple defense attorneys said they believe the GMICs prove that Phoenix police tried to manufacture evidence after the indictment to justify the false testimony before the grand jury.

To obtain the gang charges, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office called Phoenix officers to testify on October 27, 2020.

The GMICs for all 17 defendants were completed in the days that followed.

“It’s a subsequent fiction that they’re making to justify things, and that’s what makes it obscene,” Kratter said.

The county attorney’s office reassigned the initial prosecutor behind the gang charges and dismissed all counts against the protesters without prejudice.

In a recent court motion, a newly-assigned prosecutor admitted the grand jury presentation was “deeply flawed” and there was “no likelihood of conviction on the gang charges.”

The motion also states that “gang” theory was heavily based on information from an informant with a "troubling history of lying to police, even going so far as to fabricate text messages as part of a sexual assault hoax in Tempe.”

However, MCAO denies that prosecutors and police targeted protesters based on their political beliefs.

Phoenix officials would not answer questions for this report.

“The Phoenix Police Department declines to comment on this case due to ongoing litigation,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Many protesters have filed notices of claim against the City of Phoenix due to the police response and arrests in 2020.

A Department of Public Safety spokesperson also declined to answer questions, saying that information can’t be released due to GangNet policy.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.