PHOENIX — In a collection of recorded conversations, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams’ top aides privately stated that she misled the city council and public in the wake of an ABC15 investigation that exposed how police and prosecutors falsely charged protesters as gang members.
Williams publicly claimed the gang charges were a “bad idea” and that there was a failure by her chain of command to inform her of the decision.
But Executive Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach, the department’s second in command, repeatedly told other top officials it would be “absolutely insane” to dispute that anyone at the top of Phoenix remained unaware of the case.
“The boss knew about this for months. We didn’t hide it,” Kurtenbach said in a conversation recorded between him and then-Assistant Chief Gabriel Lopez. Kurtenbach added, “My only dispute, and it’s neither here nor there, is when I was told. But I will never dispute that we all knew about it. That would be insane. Absolutely insane.”
ABC15 obtained multiple recordings of different conversations on August 13, 2021 between Kurtenbach and two assistant chiefs who were demoted after the scandal: John Collins and Lopez. [The news station did not make or commission the recordings.]
“I thought, how is that f***ing possible? Well, it’s not,” Kurtenbach told Collins. “It’s not, that [Williams], that nobody knew about this. Nobody, including [then-City Manager Ed Zuercher], until February. It’s just crazy to me.”
In a separate conversation recorded on September 29, 2021, Collins also discussed the scandal with former City Manager Ed Zuercher.
“It was not a secret on the [top floor of Phoenix PD]. It was not a secret. This was all good with [Williams] until the very end,” Collins said. “There were no issues. We were just cruising along.”
In addition to revealing the level of dysfunction, distrust, and deception at the top of the Phoenix Police Department, the recordings also bolster allegations made in a new lawsuit filed on April 18 by three assistant chiefs: Collins, Lopez, and Lawerance Hein.
The lawsuit named Williams, Kurtenbach, Zuercher, and the City of Phoenix as defendants. It alleged those officials defamed and improperly demoted the assistant chiefs in the wake of the scandal to protect themselves.
“Finger-pointing and scapegoating soon prevailed at the very apex of the Phoenix Police Department, with Chief Williams and Executive Assistant Chief Kurtenbach falsely claiming they were not informed by their leadership team (i.e. Collins, Hein, and Lopez) that MCAO intended to charge the October 17, 2020 protesters with the offense of assisting a criminal street gang,” according to the lawsuit.
In response for a request for comment, a Phoenix police spokesperson wrote, "As you point out this is regarding pending litigation and we are unable to comment at this time."
THE PROTEST GANG SCANDAL
On October 17, 2020, a group of 18 protesters was arrested following a demonstration. They were indicted on multiple felony charges, including the gang counts, on October 27.
ABC15 first broke the initial news about the gang charges on October 30, 2020.
The case was built on wild exaggerations and lies from protest-response officers and Maricopa County prosecutors. But neither Phoenix PD nor MCAO did anything to stop the case or probe the underlying claims until ABC15 launched its "Politically Charged” investigation in February 2021.
Prior to the indictments, Phoenix police and Maricopa County prosecutors held a high-level meeting on October 23, 2020 to discuss the case.
Assistant chiefs Collins, Lopez, and Hein attended.
In their lawsuit, Collins and Lopez said they directly and immediately informed Mike Kurtenbach of MCAO’s plan to seek gang charges against the protesters.
Because of ABC15’s investigation, the city ordered an outside investigation to be conducted by the law firm Ballard Spahr.
The results of the outside investigation were released publicly on August 12, 2021.
The law firm said it did not find evidence that Chief Williams was informed of the plan to charge protesters as gang members before the indictments. Similarly, the outside probe said that Kurtenbach “could not recall” if other assistant chiefs informed him of the plan.
In response to the findings, Chief Williams answered questions before the city council on August 25, 2021. [She has never interviewed with ABC15 in regards to this incident.]
“It flat-out was a bad idea. Systems were bypassed, personnel matters were bypassed, communication was broken down,” Williams said.
She continued: “I’ve had very strict and stringent with my new team and new staff about the expectation to absolutely, without fail, keep me informed of things that rise to the significant level of community interest."
As a result of the Ballard Spahr report, Williams cast blame on Collins, Lopez, and Hein and demoted the trio to the rank of commander.
Whether or not Chief Williams knew about the charges before the indictments, she did know after and took no action until the city was publicly embarrassed by the scandal.
In the three months between ABC15’s first report and subsequent multi-part investigation, assistant chiefs all stated that the case was the topic of “repeated” conversation.
“Each time the issue of the indictment of the suspects for assisting a criminal street gang was raised at the Monday briefings, neither Williams nor Kurtenbach in any way questioned the propriety of the indictment or claimed they had not been briefed on the MCAO’s intent to charge the suspects with gang-related offenses,” according to the lawsuit.
LAWSUIT AND RECORDINGS
The recordings will likely play a significant role in the lawsuit filed by the demoted assistant chiefs.
In Kurtenbach’s conversation with Collins, he doesn’t deny that he was told about the plan to charge protesters as gang members. He also laid out why a lack of knowledge by Williams and other top city leaders was impossible.
“I don’t remember the conversation we had. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. I just don’t remember,” Kurtenbach said. “But what I do remember, and [Lopez] confirmed, was that by October 30, Biscobing was already tweeting about the gang charges. So this whole idea, that the way PAB scours social media, and the way they report to this floor, it’s unconscionable to me that there were these failures to notify for months. Know what I’m saying?”
So Maricopa County Attorney's Office is now charging some police protestors as gang members, which is serious from a criminal and constitutional standpoint.— Dave Biscobing (@DaveBiscobing15) October 30, 2020
One defendant has an evidentiary hearing right now. Can't go in person b/c COVID, and no one activated the call-in line.
In addition to broadcasting, publishing, and tweeting about the gang charges on October 30, ABC15 also aired a report days later in early November.
The PAB is the department’s Public Affairs Bureau and Kurtenbach and Lopez shared similar thoughts in a conversation recorded the same day.
“If you look at the reporting and the way that it’s talked about: [Williams] didn’t know, we let her down, and this is apparently news to her. I went through Dave Biscobing’s tweets. His first tweet about these gang charges is October 30, 2020. At a minimum, that’s nine months and we’re going to play a surprise game and that we failed her,” Lopez said.
Kurtenbach responded, “It’s funny you bring that up. Because you and I both know that PAB scours social media, and especially a guy like Dave Biscobing.”
The three demoted assistant chiefs allege in their lawsuit that their demotion violated the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights – a specific state law that guides internal investigations and discipline.
The trio alleges that the Ballard Spahr probe doesn’t meet the standards and process required for discipline.
Kurtenbach “absolutely” agreed and trashed the process in conversations with Collins and Lopez, calling it a “hatchet job.”
The high-level police officials also talked about a broken promise by city management to keep the Ballard Spahr investigation from becoming public.
“I think you know, as well as I know, that Ballard Spahr was supposed to be a draft document that was supposed to be handed over to [the Professional Standards Bureau],” Kurtenbach told Collins. “That’s all it was supposed to be.”
The Professional Standards Bureau, or PSB, is the unit inside the Phoenix Police Department that handles internal investigations.
“I was naïve in thinking that the city would hold up its end of the bargain and not publish that document,” Kurtenbach said in the recording. “Treat it as a draft. Hand it to PSB. So PSB could follow the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights.”
It's also clear from the recordings, that the department’s second-in-command agreed that the assistant chiefs were, in fact, scapegoated.
“I’ll just say it, you don’t have to say it, you just got f***ed,” Kurtenbach told Collins. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.