Phoenix PD punished after investigation reveals bogus charges wielded against protesters

An independent inquiry found that Phoenix Police intentionally misrepresented protesters as gang members last year

The+Phoenix+Police+Department+is+being+heavily-scrutinized+and+has+been+subject+to+multiple+investigations.

Tony Webster

The Phoenix Police Department is being heavily-scrutinized and has been subject to multiple investigations.

Phoenix Police chief Jeri Williams has been issued a one-day suspension, while three members of her executive staff have been reassigned in the aftermath of a dual-pronged, city-commissioned investigation.

Independent firm Ballard Spahr looked into false charges originating from an October 2020 protest in downtown Phoenix, as well as controversy surrounding a “challenge coin” promulgated among members of the Phoenix Police Department’s protest response unit. The findings were made public on Thursday.

The report arrives one month after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office moved to dismiss the last of 39 protest cases brought by the Phoenix PD during 2020.

A document shared with Northeast Valley News prior to its wider release on Thursday explains how high-ranking officials at the Phoenix PD stealthily collaborated to produce falsified gang activity charges. These officials — in concert with county prosecutor April Sponsel and others — aimed to classify protesters shouting the slogan “all cops are bastards” as members of a defined yet nonexistent “ACAB group.”

On Oct. 17, 2020, a planned anti-law enforcement protest began at University Park in downtown Phoenix and moved east along Van Buren Street. After Phoenix police declared an unlawful assembly, officers pivoted quickly to making arrests, apprehending 15 adults and three teenagers before the night was over.

After correspondence with Sponsel and Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Investigator Karl Martin, Sergeant Douglas McBride engineered discussions in the ensuing days which centered on charging protesters with assisting a criminal street gang — a felony charge carrying a maximum 10-year prison term.

One PPD official with supervisory authority over GEU left no room for ambiguity when, during the course of his interview, he told us that if asked to weigh in on the charging decision, ‘I would have offered my opinion that it does not meet the definition of a criminal street gang.’”

McBride filed two incident reports following the protest and took careful steps to keep the Phoenix PD’s Gang Enforcement Unit from interfering. In his second incident report, McBride left a box unchecked that would have automatically transferred all further police action to GEU upon the report’s submission.

“One PPD official with supervisory authority over GEU left no room for ambiguity when, during the course of his interview, he told us that if asked to weigh in on the charging decision, ‘I would have offered my opinion that it does not meet the definition of a criminal street gang,'” per the document shared with NEVN.

The same official believed his colleagues avoided normal channels to keep the deliberations “close to the chest.”

Last October, McBride testified in front of a grand jury that the protesters’ actions constituted gang activity. Ballard Spahr found his allegations light on truth and heavy on exaggeration.

“As to Sgt. McBride’s testimony that ACAB is ‘specifically setting out almost on a weekly basis to disrupt police [and] commit violent acts of aggravated assault against police,’ the court observed that such testimony was provided without any evidentiary support whatsoever,” the document stated. “In all, our Investigation determined that this is because there most likely is no evidence to support Sgt. McBride’s claims.”

In a response to Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher’s rebuke, Williams issued a memo explaining her — and by proxy, the Phoenix PD’s — next steps.

“I feel, perhaps more acutely than most, the need to accept responsibility and to take quick action to address these egregious actions and rebuild trust in the Phoenix Police Department and its officers,” Williams said.

McBride has since been placed on administrative leave and served a Notice of Investigation, while Williams is promising policy revisions and replacements to her staff.