3 former Assistant Chiefs sue Police Chief Jeri Williams, City of Phoenix

Published: May. 13, 2022 at 2:00 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Three former Assistant Chiefs are suing Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, Executive Assistant Michael Kurtenbach, Edward Zuercher, and the City of Phoenix for what they say were “false claims” made against them in August 2021.

Phoenix Police Commanders John Collins, Lawrence Hein, and Gabriel Lopez were all promoted by Chief Williams to Assistant Chiefs. Collins was promoted in 2017, Lopez in 2019, and Hein in 2020. The three are claiming that they were later demoted “without notice” on August 12, 2021, on “false claims that they failed to advise Chief Williams and Kurtenbach of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s decision to dismiss all charges against a group of protestors who were arrested on Oct. 17, 2020.

[RELATED: Phoenix PD, County Attorney release investigations on gang charges, challenge coin from protests]

Phoenix police officers monitoring protests that night believed the group was trying to block a light-rail train. Police say some of the protestors in the group were carrying weapons like an AR-15, a pistol, a Taser, a metal club, a brick, a knife, and smoke bombs. According to court documents, when the group ignored police commands to clear the street, a police Lieutenant at the scene ordered their arrest.

After the protestors’ arrest, Deputy County Attorney April Sponsel and veteran detective Karl Martin met with several law enforcement officials, including Collins, Hein, and Lopez, on Oct. 23, 2020, to discuss the possibility of charging the protestors with “assisting a criminal street gang.” After the meeting, Collins and Lopez claim that they informed their supervisor, Kurtenbach, of the meeting and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s potential of charging the protestors with gang-related charges. Documents state that Collins and Lopez didn’t inform Chief Williams at the time because, in accordance with the Department’s chain of command, they had already briefed their direct supervisor.

Hein didn’t file a brief because his departmental duties were completely unrelated to the arrests or prosecution of protesters, the paperwork states. The protestors were indicted for assisting a criminal street gang (among other charges) by a Maricopa County Grand Jury on Oct. 27, 2020. On Feb. 12, 2021, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, under the leadership of former County Attorney Allister Adel, moved to dismiss all charges against the protestors “without prejudice.” The protestors’ legal representatives argued that the charges be dismissed “with prejudice” to prevent a re-filing of charges. Their case was soon dismissed, with a Maricopa County Superior Court judge concluding that Sponsel and a Phoenix Police Sergeant presented “false and misleading evidence to the grand jury.”

Allister Adel wrote Chief Williams on April 19, 2021, questioning the reliability of the charges put against the protestors. Court documents say Williams assigned Assistant Chief Steve Martos to investigate the issues raised and reportedly asked for his confidence to keep his findings between herself and Kurtenbach, according to court documents. Then, on Aug. 12, 2021, court documents state that Chief Williams demoted Assistant Chiefs Collins, Hein, and Lopez for “failing to advise Chiefs Williams and Kurtenbach of MCAO’s decision to bring gang-related charges against the protestors.” The City of Phoenix also reduced their salaries and lowered their performance evaluation results.

The three believe their demotions were a violation of their rights under the Peace Officer Bill of Rights within Arizona’s state constitution. The three say that they were told of their demotion in a meeting with Chief Williams on Aug. 12, 2021, and that they had “five minutes to call their wives” with the news before the media was informed. When Collins reportedly asked Chief Williams what they had done wrong, the plaintiffs claim Williams admitted they were “collateral damage.”

In a meeting with Kurtenbach, the day after the demotion on Aug. 13, 2021, court documents claim that Kurtenbach told the three former Assistant Chiefs that their demotions were “an absolute hatchet job,” adding that the City of Phoenix had punished them for nothing more than “attending a meeting.” A short time later, Williams announced to the Phoenix Police Department that she had demoted Collins, Hein, and Lopez for “failing to advise her of the charges” against the protestors by MCAO, which Collins, Hein, and Lopez claim as defamation.

Lawyers for Collins, Hein, and Lopez say they’ve filed a lawsuit to prove that their rights were violated, that they are reinstated in their former positions and receive back pay with interest, and that the City formally retract all false and defamatory statements against them.

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