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Phoenix Chief Disciplined, 3 Asst. Chiefs Demoted After Rioters Were Hit With Gang Charges

Phoenix, AZ – Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams was suspended for one day and three assistant police chiefs have been demoted following an investigation into gang charges filed against rioters and an inappropriate challenge coin commemorating the police response to 2017 protest.

The announcement from Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher came one week after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the Phoenix Police Department (PPD).

Garland said federal investigators would probe whether Phoenix police had engaged in discriminatory policing practices, including using excessive force and abusing homeless people, the Associated Press reported.

The “pattern or practice” investigation is a sweeping review of the entire police department that will explore whether Phoenix police have a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.

The city hired consulting firm Ballard Spahr to conduct independent investigations into allegations that officers had trumped up gang-related charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, according to a press release from the city manager’s office on Thursday.

Fifteen protesters were arrested at a protest in Phoenix on Oct. 17, 2020 and they were all later indicted by a grand jury for assisting with a criminal street gang.

Ballard Spahr’s investigation determined Phoenix police personnel and prosecutors from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office collaboratively decided to charge the protesters as a gang, according to the press release.

The allegation was that the protesters were all members of the group “ACAB”, which stood for All Cops Are Bastards, and had organized themselves to create violence against police.

Charges were dismissed against all 15 rioers on June 11 after the court found that police and prosecutors had behaved in an “egregious” manner and given “false information” to the grand jury to secure the indictments, according to the summary of the investigation.

The investigation also found that those involved “consciously avoided” involving the PPD’s Gang Enforcement Unit (GEU) to avoid “those deemed likely to object to charging the protestors as members of a criminal street gang.”

According to Arizona statute, “a person commits assisting a criminal street gang by committing any felony offense, whether completed or preparatory for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with any criminal street gang.”

Use of a “common name or common identifying sign or symbol” may be used as evidence supporting “the existence of a criminal street gang” under the law.

According to police, members of the group hurled “incendiary devices that emitted smoke” at officers near 10th Avenue and Van Buren Street at approximately 8 p.m.

The rioters also allegedly damaged a marked patrol vehicle while knocking over barricades, The Arizona Republic reported.

The Phoenix Police Department (PPD) declared an unlawful assembly about a half hour later, but the rioters refused to disperse, PPD spokesperson Sergeant Ann Justus told the paper.

“As officers began making arrests, another incendiary device was thrown at them,” Sgt. Justus said. “Due to the ongoing criminal activity and assault, the Phoenix Police deployed less lethal munitions in order to safely make arrests.”

The rioters used black umbrellas in a failed attempt to keep police at bay.

Two teens and 15 adults were arrested by the time the mayhem was over, The Arizona Republic reported.

Two of the suspects police arrested had also been arrested during previous recent protests.

The group was initially charged with offenses including obstructing a thoroughfare, unlawful assembly, and rioting, the Phoenix New Times reported.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office later charged 15 of those suspects with the offense of assisting a criminal street gang, according to KNXV.

During a bond hearing, prosecutors alleged that the gang charges were based upon the rioters’ use of umbrellas, their all-black clothing, and their joint chant of “all cops are bastards,” KNXV reported.

Ballard Spahr said that Chief Williams hadn’t been aware of the decision to bring gang charges against the protesters, but said members of her executive team were made aware, according to the city manager.

Zuercher said that as a result of the findings of the probe, he had given Chief Williams a one-day suspension and she had demoted three assistant chiefs to commander.

Additionally, a Phoenix police sergeant was placed on administrative leave pending the completion of criminal and administrative investigations into his role in the scheme, the press release said.

Ballard Spahr was also tasked with investigating an offensive challenge coin created to commemorate Phoenix police shooting a protester in the groin with a pepper ball during an anti-President Donald Trump protest in August of 2017.

The incident occurred when Joshua Cobin, who was wearing a gas mask, ran in front of police lines and refused to disperse when ordered to do so, The Arizona Republic reported.

According to court documents, Cobin ran over to a tear gas canister and attempted to kick it at police. He ultimately picked the canister up, and threw it at officers.

Cobin then hurled a second canister, and later admitted to KPHO that he sustained second-degree burns from the canister’s hot metal.

A video showed Cobin kicking another gas canister at the officers, who responded by firing a less-lethal round at the man, hitting him near his groin.

Cobin later filed a lawsuit against the city and several police officers but a judge dismissed it in February of 2020 because there was no “factual allegation in the complaint,” KPHO reported.

The challenge coin at the center of the controversy depicted a man being shot in the crotch and featured the phrase “Good Night Left Nut” on one side and “Making America Great Again One Nut at A Time” with the dateline “Phoenix, AZ, August 22, 2017” on the other, according to the independent investigative report.

Investigators determined that the same graphics had also been printed on patches, hats, and shirts that were circulated by Phoenix police officers, sometimes during work hours, the report said.

However, Ballard Spahr did not find that any PPD officer had created the images or the accompanying text.

Nor did the independent investigation find any evidence to back allegations that officers had knowingly used words that could be associated with the Nazi phrase “Good Night Left Side,” according to the report.

The press release said the city manager had issued a written reprimand to Chief Williams for the challenge coins and related memorabilia and directed her to draft 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.

Zuercher said that the law did not permit the city to discipline police officers based on the findings of an independent investigation.

However, he said the City Manager’s Office and Human Resources Department were conducting their own internal investigations into the challenge coin incident that would likely result in discipline for those involved.

KNXV reported that the Phoenix Tactical Response Unit (TRU), the department’s civil disturbance response team, shared the coin amongst its members.

It was members of the same unit who Ballard Spahr said helped falsely charge the ACAB protesters in 2020.

Written by
Sandy Malone

Managing Editor - Twitter/@SandyMalone_ - Prior to joining The Police Tribune, Sandy wrote the Politics.Net column for the Wall Street Journal and was managing editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. More recently, she was an internationally-syndicated columnist for Conde Nast (BRIDES), The Huffington Post, and Monsters and Critics. Sandy is married to a retired police captain and former SWAT commander.

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Written by Sandy Malone

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