PHOENIX — Executive members of the Phoenix Police Department including Chief Jeri Williams used an encrypted phone app that allows users to secretly send and receive text messages without creating a permanent record of the conversations.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the practice also said multiple assistant chiefs were encouraged to use Signal to discuss department business in recent years, including the ongoing scandal with protesters falsely charged as gang members.
The department confirmed Williams had the app downloaded on her phone but deleted it.
“Chief Williams asked that Signal not be used by her executive team for work-related issues and deleted the app from her phone in 2020,” according to an emailed statement. [Full statement is included at the end of this report.]
Signal is known for its encryption, privacy, and disappearing message features.
Experts said use by Phoenix police leaders raises serious concerns, especially since their messages are considered public records and would be discoverable evidence in ongoing criminal and civil cases.
“It’s hard to imagine any other reason why they’d be using Signal, why they would be having secret communications and erasing those communications, other than to protect themselves from public scrutiny of their misconduct and scandals,” said Jared Keenan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
Sources said a cell phone number assigned to Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach, the department’s long-time second-in-command, has been registered on Signal since at least January 2019.
In advance of this report, ABC15 contacted that number using the Signal app. The two check marks shown in the screenshot below show the message was successfully sent and delivered.
In the department’s statement, a spokesperson wrote, “Chief Kurtenbach does not have the app on his work phone. The screenshot you provided is a personal number.”
Public record laws still apply to messages on officials’ personal devices if they’re about government business.
The use of the Signal app by top Phoenix police officials is alarming to civil rights attorney Stephen Benedetto, who represents dozens of protesters currently suing the city.
“I am deeply concerned that there are communications we would be entitled to if they had not been destroyed,” Benedetto said. “We have already seen that the [Maricopa County Attorney’s Office] was apparently using Signal.”
Phoenix police are currently under a sweeping Department of Justice pattern or practice investigation. One of the key focuses is centered on the city’s treatment of protesters, who were arrested and falsely charged in multiple cases throughout 2020.
In the most egregious case, ABC15 exposed that Phoenix officers and county prosecutors colluded to invent a fictional gang and then charge protesters as members.
Following ABC15’s investigation, sources said assistant chiefs were specifically told to communicate about the protest scandal via Signal.
The fallout from ABC15’s investigation into the protest cases is substantial.
In addition to the DOJ, the city was forced to hire an outside law firm to investigate and launch multiple internal investigations. There’s a current criminal perjury investigation. Dozens of protesters have also filed federal civil rights lawsuits.
“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,” Benedetto said.
Earlier this year, ABC15 also obtained and broadcasted secret recordings of multiple high-level officials accusing Chief Jeri Williams of misleading the public and city council about her role in the protest scandal.
Williams claimed she was not properly informed about the plan to charge protesters as gang members and publicly blamed three assistant chiefs.
Phoenix Police Statement:
“The preponderance of cell phones and other technology has brought with it an abundance of communication channels. Those various channels, including the Signal app, when used to conduct City business, are subject to public records law and are handled by the City’s public records team in the same manner as a text messages sent through the iPhone or Android ‘Messages’ apps. Chief Williams asked that Signal not be used by her executive team for work-related issues and deleted the app from her phone in 2020. Chief Kurtenbach does not have the app on his work phone. The screenshot you provided is a personal number.”
Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.