(Watch this exclusive Phoenix New Times video put together from police videos of the night of the Donald Trump rally in Phoenix.)
The trouble began earlier on August 22 than most had thought. Flashpoints outside the Phoenix Convention Center bubbled up as early as 2:35 p.m., a full six hours before the gas and smoke, the flashes and bangs, told the world that trouble had followed President Donald Trump to Phoenix.
The most detailed account yet has emerged from the Phoenix Police Department’s after-action report on the incident, plus 82 pages of reports submitted the next day by more than 30 officers on the scene that night.
Newly released records show that Phoenix police fired nearly 500 rounds of pepper spray balls during the unrest, along with 16 canisters of tear gas. In total, they shot 71 rounds of less-than-lethal weapons, including beanbags and foam batons directly at protesters and flash-bangs and smoke bombs overhead.
Together with the department’s 22-page Use of Force policy, the documents back up the account police have stuck to all along. With remarkable consistency, officer accounts say projectiles – including a can of tear gas – were thrown first at police lines. The reports repeat official claims that police verbally ordered protesters to stop throwing objects and that, later, when antifa agitators tried to topple a barricade, police responded with a measured escalation of force, consistent with the departmental policies and the orders of the lieutenant on the ground.
Of the 14 officers who reported firing less-than-lethal weapons, five documented at least 10 years’ experience with their use, and four more listed up-to-date training with those weapons. One more, a sergeant in command of one squad, is a certified instructor. Three made no mention of their training or experience with such weapons.
Police deployed all the weapons starting at 8:33 p.m. in the area of Monroe and Second streets, at the exact moment Trump left the capacity crowd of 11,500 inside the Convention Center.
Outside, another 4,500 people had lined up to get in, while an estimated 6,000 showed up in protest.
It was between those two throngs that trouble first surfaced, according to the following Phoenix Police Department timeline and police reports.
2:35 p.m. – Opposing groups throw “items” at each other across Second Street near Monroe Street.
5:57 – Police usher four armed men away from the parking garage on the northwest corner of Monroe and Second streets.
6:00 – Somebody burns an American flag in front of the Herberger Theater Center.
6:18 – Crowd attempts to break barriers at Third Street. The report does not specify where or who.
6:20 – Police observe a dozen armed people leaving the Convention Center area.
6:22 – Police respond to reports of seven men with rifles at Van Buren and Fifth streets
6:23 – Trump arrives at Phoenix Convention Center
6:35 – Police respond to reports of “multiple” armed men in downtown.
6:39 – Police respond to fighting at Third and Washington streets.
7:03 – Water bottles first thrown at police at Monroe and Second streets. Police accounts all evening describe plastic bottles filled with liquid and frozen water. Video footage shows plastic bottles but occasionally it picks up the sound of broken glass.
7:15 – First police announcements at Second and Monroe to stop throwing things, according to timeline.
7:23 – Police ordered to don riot helmets.
7:29 – Officer Brandy Thwing is ordered to start making announcements, according to her report and that of Sgt. Douglas McBride, who gave the order. Several other officers corroborated the action in their reports. Thwing reported the volume on the loudspeaker of the amplified LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) was at full volume and she told the crowd, “Do not throw objects. Do not throw water bottles. This is a peaceful gathering.”
She stopped at 7:35. Several officers noted hearing the message through their helmets.
Protesters and legal observers with the American Civil Liberties Union say they never heard any verbal warnings. In a report to City Manager Ed Zuercher, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams concluded that was one area for improvement: “Increase the number and use of bullhorns/megaphones and related means to direct the crowd when necessary.”
7:33 – Report of protesters damaging vehicles at Second and McKinley streets.
8:00 – First use of LRAD, according to the official report timeline. The timeline says this went on for 25 minutes between Second and Fifth streets, with police walking up and down Monroe Street telling protesters to stop throwing objects. This is half an hour after, and for about 20 minutes longer, than reported by several officers.
8:15 – Police report water bottles being thrown at them from the garage at Monroe and Second streets.
8:23 – Police notice a large group of protesters assembling behind the cover of an antifa banner at the Herberger.
8:33 – Trump leaves the convention center. Antifa activists try to topple pedestrian barricades at the Herberger on Monroe Street. The barricades were there to keep rival demonstrators apart and to establish a safe zone in the street for police to operate and keep the factions apart. Police report being under attack from rocks and water bottles. Police Lieutenant Benjamin Moore had he ordered that “under no circumstances were protesters allowed to breach the buffer zone.” Now he gives the order to deploy pepper balls. Police start shooting pepper balls. From nearby, it sounded like a string of firecrackers.
This is the first time police use force.
Departmental policy says force can be used, among other reasons, when the “subject creates jeopardy to the officer or others” and “other alternatives have been reasonably considered.” The policy goes on to say, “When use of force is needed, employees will assess each incident to determine, based on policy, training, and experience, which use of force option will de-escalate the situation and bring it under control.”
No specific policy exists for pepper balls, but for pepper spray, officers are directed that use of spray is justified and reasonable to subdue someone who is threatening physical harm, resisting arrest, or rioting. Officers firing pepper balls reported that they aimed first at the street to disburse the crowd trying to topple the barricade. After protesters retreated, some continued to hurl objects and some officers targeted their torsos.
8:34 – Moore orders officers to halt shooting pepper balls to determine if it worked. A police helicopter with a spotlight is ordered in, but delayed, awaiting clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration. Police report a smoking canister is lobbed at them, and several officers in their individual reports describe watery eyes and a slight burning sensation on their exposed skin, which they knew came from tear gas. Moore orders them to don gas masks. Protesters across Monroe Street continue to hurl objects. Five officers report dodging “large river rocks,” one as large as six inches in diameter. A flag is thrown like a spear.
8:35 – Police fire inert smoke bombs at the crowd in front of the Herberger.
8:36 – Police resume use of pepper balls and fire flash-bang grenades into the crowd. From nearby, a grey-green plume of smoke is seen rising from the street and the first loud boom can be heard. Department policy is silent on the use of smoke bombs and flash-bangs.
Over the next 10 minutes, protesters continue to lob items back at the police line, including water bottles, smoke bombs, tear gas canisters, and some sort of pyrotechnical object.
8:40 – The police helicopter arrives.
8:52 – The helicopter begins issuing loudspeaker announcements to disperse or face arrest for unlawful assembly. Police report hearing it, and it was easily audible to observers.
8:56 – The police picket line on Second Street begins moving north to push a loose throng of protesters out of the area. Over the next 35 minutes, police use pepper spray, pepper balls, and “tactics” to disperse the straggling crowd.
9:02 – Police use a loudspeaker in a vehicle to warn remaining protesters they constitute an unlawful assembly.
9:14 – “Grenadiers target anyone who aggressively approaches the police line with pepper balls.” During the standoff on Second Street, video shows and observers saw a handful of protesters charge the line or throw water bottles at it. The sound of breaking glass is audible.
During this skirmish, Officer Christopher Turiano joins the police picket and reports seeing a man in blue shorts run toward the line and kick a smoke grenade at it. He notes the danger to the protester, as the canister reaches temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Turiano reports firing an “OC impact round at the male’s lower torso” from about 20 yards.
“It hit the male and seemed to have good effect.” Turiano continues to fire nonlethal weapons. “I targeted additional protesters who were throwing things, kicking or throwing our hand-thrown munitions back at us, or rushing at the skirmish line to engage officers.”
Video of the incident shows the protester, later identified as Joshua Cobin, getting hit in the groin, collapsing, and being dragged off. Cobin was later arrested. He faces charges of aggravated assault against a police officer and unlawful assembly in Maricopa County Superior Court. He was treated for burns on his hands.
Turiano fired 40 rounds of impact weapons, tear gas, and smoke bombs, more than half of all such weapons used. Turiano did not list his qualifications or experience in his report.
“When use of force is needed, employees will assess each incident to determine, based on policy, training, and experience, which use of force option will de-escalate the situation and bring it under control,” the Phoenix police Use of Force Policy states.
The policy does not specify rules for all the impact weapons fired that night, such as bean bags and foam dowels, but says bean bags should not be fired at closer than five feet, and that the lower torso, legs, and buttocks are primary targets. It states that the head, neck, and spine – but not the groin – are off-limits.
The aftermath – Corbin was one of eight suspects and among the five arrested that night. Police suspected five protesters of assaulting an officer, two for unlawful assembly or refusal to disperse, and one for criminal damage.
The Phoenix Fire Department reported 53 emergency medical calls, 10 of which came after 8 p.m. Some 11 people were taken to hospital. The vast majority of cases involved heat-related symptoms. The thermometer hit 106 just before Trump arrived.
After he left, almost all of the medical calls were to aid police or reporters. Beyond that, one person was treated for a cut on the face, and two more for an unspecified “illness.” None went to the hospital.
Critics of the Phoenix Police Department’s handling of the Trump rally dispute the official version, saying close to three dozen people reported injuries.
“The Phoenix Police Department did not protect the First Amendment rights of protesters and caused many people to go home with cuts, bruises, and other injuries. There are many videos of officers attacking protesters with pepper spray and projectiles at dangerously close range. It is shocking and disheartening that the department determined this excessive use of force was justified,” ACLU of Arizona legal director Kathy Brody said in a prepared statement in response to the report.
“Chief Williams has said that her officers made sure everyone went home safely. But the truth is many peaceful protesters went home with injuries caused by her officers. The police are supposed to ensure people can fully exercise their First Amendment rights. On this occasion, the Phoenix Police failed to do that,” Brody added.
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The operation cost the City of Phoenix nearly $573,000. Police overtime comprised $477,000.
Williams said that evening and ever since the response was good. There were no reports of major injuries, damage ,or widespread arrests.
“Our goal was to provide for a safe event with preservation of life and property at the top of our list. My instructions to our officers were clear: be professional, decisive, and immediately responsive,” Williams wrote.
“I still believe the actions of our officers reflected the direction I gave them,” she added, noting that Trump’s visit followed quickly on the heels of the deadly confrontation involving neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, Virginia, and violent protests in Boston and Berkeley, California. “The tragedies that happened in other cities did not happen in Phoenix.”