PHOENIX — Were officers simply enforcing the law or was it an intimidation tactic? That is the question hanging over the recent arrests of protesters after five had their charges immediately dismissed in court.
The group took to the streets, outside police headquarters, on Friday night to demonstrate in solidarity with the "March on Washington." At one point, multiple demonstrators laid down in the middle of Washington. At no point did the protest ever turn violent. In fact, multiple people tell ABC15 they were arrested as they were heading home.
"We were leaving when it happened," said Christopher Johnson, who goes by Alex. "That’s when the cops kind of swarmed in on us and stopped the car before we could even go anywhere. They pulled all of us out of the cars and arrested us."
All 12 protesters were charged with a misdemeanor,"obstructing a thoroughfare." Three had additional charges, such as resisting arrest. Instead of choosing to issue a citation and release the protesters that night, officers booked them all into jail overnight.
"I didn’t get released until 1:00 p.m. the next day," said Johnson, who also questions the sanitary conditions of the jail. "They kept us all in one small room that wasn’t clean."
At his initial court appearance though, a judge dismissed the misdemeanor charge.
"They did not find that the evidence was there to sustain the charges," said Christina Carter, with Carter Law, who represented all twelve protesters. "Without probable cause, It’s a blatant constitutional violation and a seizure of your person and your property."
Five protesters total, including one who a judge deemed overcharged with a felony, were immediately released. Seven are still facing charges.
"I don’t find probable cause for the offense that you were arrested for. So, you’re going to be let go without any sort of restrictions," said a judge, talking with Leslie Pico.
"I don’t consider that a failure," said Sgt. Ann Justus, a spokesperson for Phoenix police. "It’s just something we deal with in police work, where we sometimes have to add additional information."
The question many protesters have is why were they even booked in the first place, especially during COVID-19, when they could have been cited and released?
"Particularly in the time of COVID, when [officers] have the discretion to be able to cite and release, [protesters] should not be arrested and taken to jail for 12 to 32 hours," said Carter.
Chief Williams, along with other law enforcement leaders like Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, said in March that they were going to refrain from booking non-violent misdemeanor offenders into jail.
"We’re making every attempt to minimize transportation and exposure to the jails. If the situation is violent or dangerous they will transport as necessary," said Chief Williams, in the video posted to YouTube on March 24.
For Johnson, and other protesters who spent a night behind bars, the booking was an obvious message. "I think it’s clear, they are trying to silence us from protesting, and they are trying to silence our message," he said. "They want to shut us up."
"I do believe it is absolutely a tactic to dissuade and intimidate [them] from participating," said Carter.
Phoenix police takes umbrage with the insinuation. "I can say for sure that it’s not the case. Our arrests are not made to make a statement or scare people," said Sgt. Justus.
Arizona State University Professor, Dr. Ed Maguire, is an expert who has spent years studying police and protesting.
"Police are going to make a decision to arrest, rather than cite, when there is something they are attempting to stop," said Dr. Maguire, who said he could not speak on the specifics of Friday due to his unfamiliarity with the story.
Sgt. Justus confirmed Dr. Maguire's statement. "Our officers have the ability to issue citations, in lieu of detention, on certain misdemeanors," said Sgt. Justus. "One of the things that they take into account is whether the individual will continue to commit violations if they are cited and released. Ultimately, that decision is made by the on-scene supervisor."
Johnson and other protesters tell ABC15 they were already in the car and heading home, clearly not posing an immediate threat to "continue [to] commit violations." Furthermore, some of the protesters, like Johnson, have already been arrested for similar misdemeanors while protesting and do not view it as a deterrent in their fight for police reform and defunding.
"Not just on Friday, but countless times over the past few months, they’ve been specifically choosing to arrest people - usually after the protest is over when everyone is trying to get home," said Johnson.
Police can still re-submit charges with more evidence, but it is unclear if they will expend the time and resources to follow through on minor misdemeanor charges.
"These are still ongoing and open investigations," said Sgt. Justus. "I believe they are still being pursued."
Dr. Maguire said this is far from the first time, nationwide, that charges have been quickly dismissed after protest arrests.
ABC15 reported on a similar situation back in June, when judges determined more than 100 cases lacked sufficient probable cause after being submitted with the same copy-and-paste statement as evidence.
"It is a common approach in policing, not necessarily a positive one, to make arrests at protests where the charges are later thrown out, and the arrest ends up being more punitive," said Dr. Maguire.
"It's a waste of time and money and resources that could be better spent within the community," said Carter.