Phoenix police chief, officers disciplined after investigation into gang charges, challenge coins

The Phoenix City Manager has released the results of two separate investigations into the Phoenix Police Department regarding two cases: allegations that protesters were falsely arrested on gang charges in 2020, and a challenge coin connected to protests in 2017.

Case involves 15 protesters who were arrested

The case from last year began on Oct. 17, after 15 protesters were arrested during a march against police brutality in Downtown Phoenix. They were indicted by a grand jury on charges of assisting with a criminal street gang.

According to a letter from Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher to Arizona Attorney General's Office Chief Deputy Joe Kanefield, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office alleged, in front of a grand jury, that the protesters were part of a gang called ACAB - "All Cops Are B******s." Prosecutors said the gang was made to create violence against police.

The investigation noted that both Phoenix Police and the MCAO made the decision to press gang-related charges.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel filed a motion in June to dismiss all of the charges related to the protests, citing a lack of time and resources needed to pursue the case.

"The events of that night were captured on video," her office wrote in a statement. "It clearly shows there was probable cause to arrest and file charges against certain individuals who committed misdemeanor crimes. However, as we highlighted in recent pleadings to the court, the more serious charges as originally filed did not meet our standards."

Meanwhile, in a letter to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, Zuercher said the testimonies of a Phoenix police sergeant and a deputy with MCAO were described as "egregious" and that information presented to the jury had been "false." During a testimony by Sgt. Douglas McBridge, investigators say McBridge compared the group to notorious street gangs like the Bloods and Crips.

"It also found those 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,'" officials said in a statement.

The Gang Enforcement Unit's supervisor told investigators he would have said the situation did not meet the definition of a criminal street gang. The report said the GEU's lack of involvement is a red flag.

The investigations were conducted by an outside law firm called Ballard Spahr.

Challenge coin circulated among Phoenix officers

The city of Phoenix also confirmed that a challenge coin had circulated among police officers during former president Donald Trump's visit back in 2017.

The coin depicted a man being shot in the groin with a pepper ball with the phrase "Making America Great Again One Nut at A Time," officials said. The coin also had a second phrase: "Good Night Left Nut."

"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," city officials said in a statement. "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 investigation found that supervisors had given the coin as gifts to subordinates within the department, and some of those coins were bought or exchanged while on duty.

"Legally, police officers cannot be disciplined based on the results of this outside investigation," read the statement from the city manager. "Rather, the City Manager's Office and Human Resources Department are completing their own internal investigation of this incident which will lead to appropriate employee discipline."

Phoenix Police Chief suspended, assistant chiefs reassigned

City officials said that Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams was disciplined with a one-day suspension due to the department's decision to charge the group as a gang. Williams reportedly was not made aware of that decision, but other members of her executive team were aware.

"It's very concerning. It's very concerning to her too because that's really what the report showed. There was some sort of effort to keep the chief and keep the Gang Enforcement Unit, the people with the charge of determining those shorts of charges, to keep them in the dark," said Zuercher.

A police sergeant who had a lead role in filing the original report was placed on administrative leave, and three assistant chiefs were reassigned as commanders within the police department.

Meanwhile, Chief Williams has issued a response, saying the department must and will do better, and calling the actions in the report 'reprehensible.'

"The issue is that the community deserves a department that serves them consistently and protects their rights," said Zuercher. "When that doesn't happen, we have to make changes. The community should watch and expect results from those changes. That's the only way you regain trust or build a reputation."

Zuercher says Chief Williams has 30 days to give him a update on revised policies and the administrative investigations into the employees.

He also said that he is requesting the Arizona Attorney General's Office to investigate other personnel involved in the case.

"We can't deny what the report says, and we have to face up to what the report says," said Zuercher.

He also noted that during the investigation, Phoenix Police would sometimes take weeks or months to provide the necessary information. Other times, the department would ignore requests altogether.

Lawyer speaks out on report amid lawsuit against Maricopa County

Steve Benedetto represents some of the protesters accused of being in a gang, and they currently have a civil case against Maricopa County.

"When they were notified, they indicated that there was no basis for these these allegations, and they would not stand behind them because it would compromise their unit's credibility," said Benedetto.

Benedetto's lawsuit accuses the MCAO of colluding with Phoenix Police to fabricate charges against lawful protestors, and suppress their First Amendment rights. Benedetto says the investigation's findings bring some satisfaction, but there's more work to be done.

"We look forward to some entity, whether it's the Department of Justice or our law firm and our co-counsel, someone with actual subpoena power to get to the root of what actually happened here," said Benedetto.

City officials speak out regarding investigation

Mayor Kate Gallego released a statement about the findings of the investigation:

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.

Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia released a similar statement condemning the Phoenix police force:

The contents of these reports are not a surprise. The members of our community that elected us to serve have repeatedly told us exactly what these reports confirm. In response, other colleagues on this council have shut down, ignored, and ridiculed the real experiences of our residents. The injustices outlined in these reports have and will continue to destroy people’s lives if we don’t take serious and swift action to rectify these egregious harms. 

Phoenix police union speaks out

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association released a statement:

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association has received the investigative reports released by the City of Phoenix today. We are in the process of a critical review of the findings to determine whether the disciplinary actions against a number of Phoenix officers are warranted. We continue to support the due process rights of our officers and will monitor each case closely.

We stand with the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department who go above and beyond their duty of service each day to protect our community. Keeping Phoenix residents safe is our top priority and we will continue to do our jobs with the highest level of ethics and professionalism.

Read the full review here:

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