Phoenix PD, County Attorney release investigations on gang charges, challenge coin from protests

Updated: Aug. 12, 2021 at 4:39 PM MST
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PHOENIX, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher Thursday released the results of independent investigations into two high-profile cases involving the Phoenix Police Department.

The first case involved criminal street gang charges filed against a group of protestors in downtown Phoenix in 2020. The second involved the “challenge coin” incident tied to protests in 2017.

Gang Charges Investigation

[Click here for full investigation results]

This investigation focused on the October 17, 2020 arrest of 15 protesters in downtown Phoenix. The protesters were initially booked for rioting and other crimes. But they were later indicted by a grand jury for assisting a criminal street gang.

The report makes it clear that Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams was not made aware of the decision to charge the protesters as a gang, but that other members of her executive staff were made aware. Investigators found that the decision to charge the protestors as a gang was made “collaboratively between some personnel at the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.” It also found that those people who were involved “consciously avoided” including the Gang Enforcement Unit (GEU) in an attempt to “sideline those deemed likely to object to charging the protestors as members of a criminal street gang.”

The city manager’s report also indicated that on various occasions, requests for documents by the investigators were delayed weeks, months, or ignored entirely by Phoenix Police personnel. This despite the department’s assurances that the investigators would be provided with whatever information they needed. Police provided no explanation whatsoever for the delays to the investigators. The city manager says he’s provided Chief Williams with these incidents and expects that the conduct will be addressed and corrected.

As a result, the Chief says she is making changes to her executive team, removing three assistant chiefs from their roles in her office and reassigning them as commanders. They are John Collins, Lawrence Hein and Gabriel Lopez. A police sergeant at the center of the report, Sgt. Doug McBride, has been placed on administrative leave pending criminal and administrative investigations. The City Manager also disciplined the Chief with a one-day suspension in accordance with city policy. The City Manager asked the Arizona Attorney General’s Office conduct a criminal and administrative investigation into other employees involved in this case. However, a spokesperson for the Attorney General said “We have just received the letter from Mr. Zuercher. We do not believe we have jurisdiction and will respond accordingly”.

Chief Williams also says that additional procedures that will be put in place, such as drafting new policies or strengthening those related to gang charging protocols, protection of First Amendment rights of protestors, oversight of the relationship between police and prosecutors, and elevating decision-making on important police and community issues to the Chief.

Attorney General Response

Zuercher asked Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich on Thursday to investigate five Phoenix police officers for potential criminal charges for the arrest reports and their grand jury testimony. Zuercher also requested Brnovich review the filing of the gang charges and the process leading to the grand jury testimony for the indictment.

On Friday, Brnovich’s office responded, stating it doesn’t have the jurisdiction for the investigation, and suggested Zuercher reach out to another county attorney. Brnovich cited the investigation primarily involved personnel and ethical issues as opposed to criminal misconduct. On Tuesday, the City of Phoenix confirmed it would seek another agency to investigate.

Challenge Coin Investigation

[Click here for full investigation results]

In 2017, the Phoenix Police Department was widely criticized after reports surfaced about a “challenge coin” that was allegedly issued during a round of protests during the summer, and was possibly circulated by members of the police department. The “challenge coin” depicted a man being shot in the groin with a pepper ball during an August 2017 protest of then-President Trump’s visit to Phoenix. The coin also had the phrase “Making America Great Again One Nut at A Time,” which the investigation found officers knowingly associated with President Trump’s political campaign. However, there is no evidence that any officers knew of the hate speech ties to the coin’s second phrase, “Good Night Left Nut.”

The man depicted in that coin, Joshua Cobin, told Arizona’s Family that he was grateful officials were looking into the incident. “It’s unacceptable that someone would create a coin like that and have killing me in mind or killing other protesters in mind,” Cobin told us. “That’s just crossing a line right there.” At the time, Chief Williams stated, “Hate speech in any form is unacceptable and even more so from officers who we rightfully hold to the highest standards of excellence.” She said that disciplinary action would be taken against any officers involved in any “illegal or unethical behavior.”

The current investigation could not determine the creator of the image since it appeared in multiple social media locations the day after the protest, and no city funds were used to purchase the coins. However, investigators did find that some challenge coins were exchanged or purchased while on city property and on city time. It also found supervisors gave the coin as gifts to subordinates.

In response to the challenge coin investigation, the City Manager has issued a written reprimand for Chief Williams for lapses in executive leadership. Zuercher also instructed the chief to write new policies or strengthen existing policies related to hate speech, disparaging images or statements about residents, political speech while on duty, and the creation and distribution of commemorative items. “We do not accept hate speech at the City of Phoenix. It is unacceptable,” Zuercher said at the time.

Legally, police officers cannot be disciplined based on the results of this outside investigation. However, the City Manager’s Office and Human Resources Department are completing their own internal investigation of this incident which could lead to employee discipline. The Chief has been instructed to work on a plan of action related to both investigations and report back to the City Manager within 30 days.

[Click here to read about full actions being taken]

Activist reaction

“Fire Chief Jeri Williams, fire Ed Zuercher,” said Bruce Franks Jr. in an interview with Arizona’s Family on Thursday, following the release of the investigation results. He is a former state representative from Missouri who is now a leader with the group Mass Liberation Arizona.

“There’s no excitement. There’s no gratification. There’s no moment of praise or celebration because directly impacted people have been telling you what’s going on,” he said.

The organization is aiming to hold elected officials accountable and has taken to the streets, including hosting rallies, to get charges dropped for protestors arrested in Phoenix last summer after George Floyd’s death sparked a national movement.

Franks does not think a one-day suspension for Chief Williams goes far enough, calling it a “slap in the face.” “We need to fire all of these officers. Fire every officer involved in these political prosecutions, in these wrongful targeting of protestors, because that’s where it started, right?” He also thinks reparations should be made to those directly impacted.

Investigation into the County attorney

A retired judge was hired by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel to look into MCAO and its handling of the gang charges. The final report was released on Thursday evening. The investigation revealed mistakes were made in the way police and prosecutors handled the arrests made at a several Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests.

According to the judge, the allegations against 15 people who were arrested during protests in October were exaggerated, misleading and incorrect. They faced gang-related charges that were later dropped. The judge called one of the prosecutions a “miscarriage of justice,” and found prosecutors didn’t properly vet the evidence from police. One suspect turned out to be a bystander, not even involved in the march.

The judge said a prosecutor was working too closely with police and misrepresented the evidence to a grand jury. The investigation found Adel wasn’t fully briefed on the charges that were being filed. Keep in mind, Adel was hospitalized with a brain bleed for much of November and December. By February, when Adel was briefed on the issues surrounding the cases against the protesters, Adel launched an investigation into what she called “injustices.”

“In these cases, we made mistakes,” Adel said of the gang cases. “As an agency charged with doing justice, we must be willing to admit this. And, moreover, we must be willing to correct them.”

Following Thursday’s release of the investigation results, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego released the following statement:

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.

The recommendations, policy changes, and disciplinary actions the city is taking are necessary first steps in addressing these issues. The safety of our community is of the utmost importance. More needs to be done to restore confidence and have a successful Phoenix Police Department.

All this comes just a week after the Department of Justice announced a probe into Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix.  U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clark say the investigation will see if the department engages in discriminatory policing, if it engages in retaliation for First Amendment acts and if it illegally disposes of homeless people’s belongings. It will also examine all use of forces by officers, including deadly force.