Phoenix police Chief Jeri Williams 'falsely' claimed she wasn't told of gang charges, lawsuit alleges
Phoenix police Chief Jeri Williams and her second-in-command "falsely" claimed they weren't informed of plans to charge 15 protesters as gang members, three demoted police commanders contend in a lawsuit.
A trio of Phoenix police commanders — John Collins, Lawrence Hein and Gabriel Lopez — filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court in April. The lawsuit claims they were unfairly demoted from their assistant chief positions in the fallout surrounding the Maricopa County prosecutor's 2020 decision to charge 15 protesters as gang members.
The lawsuit also alleges Phoenix Police Department's top brass didn't criticize the gang-related charges until the city commissioned an investigation into the police department's collaboration with the County Attorney's Office.
Police arrested nearly every protester at an October 2020 demonstration. The three demoted commanders claim they learned of the plan to charge them as gang members at a meeting with MCAO officials six days later. Amid community outcry, prosecutors dropped the gang charges four months later.
The city commissioned an external investigation that same month, in February 2021.
That investigation was completed in August and found no evidence that Williams knew of the gang charges ahead of time. After the report came out, Williams said she did not. She said the charges shouldn't have been filed and called the plot "flat out ... a bad idea." She was given a one-day suspension.
"We're really focusing on getting things right, recovering from our mistakes and making sure that I am informed of everything I need to be informed of, without fail," she said at the time. "Communication was broken down."
But the three commanders are calling that investigation's findings into question and doubling down on their allegation that Williams and Executive Assistant Chief Michael Kurtenbach "falsely" claimed ignorance.
They allege that:
- Two of them informed Kurtenbach, their direct supervisor, of the MCAO plan to charge the protesters as gang members. They say they were "unaware" if he briefed Williams on the plan. But, they say, that isn't their problem.
- Kurtenbach didn't "object to or otherwise question" the plan.
- Once the charges were filed, Williams "did not utter one word of criticism" against them until the city commissioned an external investigation.
- The external investigation was "incomplete" and "factually inaccurate."
"Williams' and Kurtenbach's eleventh-hour claims that they were never informed of the impending gang-related charges against the protesters are transparently self-serving and false," the lawsuit says.
A Phoenix police spokesperson said Williams and the department would not discuss the lawsuit, or a potential investigation by the state panel that oversees police certification.
Williams announced last week that she would retire this summer after more than five years as chief.
Chief Jeri Williams is retiring:What comes next for the Phoenix Police Department?
Lawsuit claims Williams hid info from external investigators
The lawsuit raises questions about when Williams knew about the controversial gang charges.
Even though the city-commissioned probe found no evidence that she knew before they were filed, the lawsuit claims Williams may have been keeping that knowledge from the outside investigators.
The lawsuit points to a letter that then-Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel sent to Williams while the city-commissioned investigation was underway as evidence that the chief was not forthcoming.
It contends that Adel in April 2021 wrote to Williams "questioning the reliability of the factual basis for the gang-related charges provided to the MCAO by several Phoenix police officers directly involved in the ... arrests."
Adel's letter asked Williams to investigate those concerns, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit claims Williams placed Assistant Chief Steve Martos in charge of that investigation and told him not to speak of Adel's request or the investigation to anyone other than her or Kurtenbach.
External investigators in their report noted that they weren't immediately notified of the correspondence between Adel and Williams.
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"Notably, the investigation team was not made aware of (Adel's) letter until June 11, nearly two months after it was sent to (Phoenix Police Department)," the investigation says. "To date, PPD has failed to explain why it did not provide a copy of this letter until that time."
That "suggests that Williams was attempting to conceal the materials from the investigators," the former assistant chiefs allege in their lawsuit.
One of the three, Collins, allegedly asked Williams what they did wrong, according to the lawsuit. The suit claims that Williams "simply admitted they were 'collateral damage.'"
Kurtenbach allegedly put it another way. He told the three their demotions were "an absolute hatchet job," the lawsuit claims.
A call for state investigation
As Williams faces the lawsuit from three of her commanders, a conservative watchdog group wants to see a state investigation.
Judicial Watch on May 2 asked the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, a regulatory panel with the ability to strip officers of their certification, to investigate whether Williams lied when she claimed she didn't know about the gang charges.
Williams herself sits on that board. Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her in 2021.
Matt Giordano, the board's executive director, in an email told The Arizona Republic he would not speculate on whether he'll open an investigation into Williams.
Williams announced her retirement the day after the Judicial Watch letter.
What's next for the Phoenix Police Department?
With Williams soon retiring, city leaders are focused on hiring an external interim police chief and then conducting a national search for a permanent replacement at a later date.
Phoenix's next top cop will be charged with steering the department through a time of low morale and poor retention.
Phoenix's elected officials have a broad range of priorities — ranging from more police reform to an end on "political attacks" — for whomever gets the job, but it ultimately isn't their call. City Manager Jeff Barton, who's been in the role for seven months, has the final say.
There's also the elephant in the room: the looming U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which was launched in August.
Federal investigations like this typically take years.
Joshua Cobin, the protester featured on the now-infamous Phoenix police challenge coin, told The Arizona Republic he participated in an interview with the DOJ within the past few weeks.
He said he isn't vindictive but hopes the probe brings "general reform" to the police department.
"Police celebrating someone getting injured at a protest after the way they broke up a protest … I don’t think that’s something we should see as 'protect and serve.' They’re supposed to be working for us," he said. "I’m not looking for a pound of flesh or anything there."
From arrests and gang charges to a lawsuit and a retirement. When it all happened
Oct. 17, 2020: Police arrest nearly every protester at a Phoenix demonstration.
Oct. 23, 2020: Members of the Phoenix Police Department and Maricopa County Attorney's Office meet. Collins, Hein and Lopez allege this is when they learned of the gang charges.
Oct. 27, 2020: A grand jury indicts the protesters on charges of rioting, unlawful assembly and assisting a criminal street gang.
Feb. 12, 2021: Prosecutors dismiss the gang charges.
Feb. 15, 2021: Ballard Spahr announces it is investigating the gang charges and another matter related to a challenge coin.
April 19, 2021: Adel sends a six-page letter to Williams expressing concern over "the conduct of certain (Phoenix police) officials in connection with the investigation into the protesters," according to the city-commissioned report.
June 11, 2021: Prosecutors dismiss the remaining charges against the 15 protesters.
Aug. 12, 2021: Ballard Spahr releases its city-commissioned report into the gang charges. Williams gets a one-day suspension. Collins, Hein and Lopez are demoted.
Aug. 24, 2021: Williams tells the Phoenix City Council the gang charges were "a bad idea."
Feb. 4, 2022: Collins, Hein and Lopez file a $15 million notice of claim, a mandatory precursor to a lawsuit, against the city alleging they were unfairly demoted.
May 3, 2022: Williams announces her retirement.
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