Phoenix police have been targeting and arresting people protesting police brutality and racial injustice due to their political beliefs, a local activist and his attorney allege.
Bruce Elliot Franks Jr., a former Missouri state legislator and activist currently based in Arizona, says in a notice of claim that he was wrongfully singled out and arrested during an August 9 protest outside of Phoenix Police headquarters. Notice of claims are procedural precursors to lawsuits.
Franks and his attorneys filed the claim on September 9 against the city of Phoenix and Mayor Kate Gallego, demanding $2.4 million in compensation.
"We are creating a precedent within this police department that it can go out and target activists and organizers, critics of the Department, like Mr. Franks, in the community with impunity," said Steve Benedetto, an attorney with the People's Law Firm who is representing Franks, during a virtual press conference on September 9. "This power, when improperly wielded, has the potential to take us down the slope to totalitarianism."
According to the claim, Franks' helped organize and lead the August 9 protest in downtown Phoenix to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, a Black teen who was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The protest has been marketed as a "Blue Silence March" – attendees placed blue tape over their mouths and walked to the Phoenix Police Department at 620 West Washington Street. When they arrived, they found a temporary barricade that had been set up at the curb.
The protesters began chanting along the curb and, per the claim, the fencing "collapsed" and they moved onto the sidewalk toward the front door of the police headquarters.
In a statement issued on September 9, Sergeant Mercedes Fortune, a spokesperson for Phoenix police, disputed this characterization, writing that the demonstrators "took the fencing down." Limited footage of the incident released by the Phoenix Police Department appears to show protesters shaking the face before it fell down.
Per the claim, Phoenix police officers then in riot gear emerged from the building, formed a skirmish line, and began "deploying massive force against the nonviolent protest," pushing the protesters back into the road.
Franks was allegedly trying to calm both the protesters and the officers when Phoenix Police Lieutenant Mark Schweikart, who was standing behind the skirmish line, pointed at him and "barked" orders at the officers. Multiple officers then moved through the skirmish line, grabbed Franks, and arrested him. Franks was cooperative, per the claim.
In a Phoenix police news release the night of the protest, after officers started advancing on the protesters, some demonstrators began retrieving items from backpacks positioned across the street and began "throwing items at officers" and "assaulting officers." (The video released by the department appears to show one object getting thrown at police.) When officers attempted to arrest those individuals, other protesters interfered, per the release. Eight people, including Franks, were arrested that night.
When he was brought to his initial appearance before a judge, Franks was slapped with 13 charges, including two counts of aggravated assault on an officer, one count of participating in a riot, and one count of resisting arrest, for a total of four felonies, and seven misdemeanor counts such as soliciting others to commit criminal offenses. The judge dismissed seven of the 13 charges as "legally meritless," but let six stand stand, including the four felonies and lesser charges for unlawful assembly after an order to disperse and trespassing with property damage.
Per the claim, four days before Franks' scheduled court hearing in the case on August 21, a Phoenix police officer "deliberately misled the grand jury" with "inaccurate hearsay statements" claiming that Franks committed criminal acts. Franks was subsequently indicted.
The claim alleges that the complete footage from body cameras worn by officers during the protest shows that Franks didn't commit the crimes, and that the Phoenix Police Department has not provided the footage.
"Those videos directly contradict the officers' statements," Franks said during the September 9 press conference. "Our First Amendment rights are being infringed upon. Our Fourth Amendment rights are being infringed upon. This is about every single protester, organizer who has been unjustly arrested in the Phoenix metro area."
The claim comes after a summer of frequent protests over racial injustice and police brutality in metro Phoenix and allegations from activists and attorneys that police are targeting demonstrators. In the days after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested in Phoenix, prompting lawsuits. More recently, a 22-year-old man was arrested at his home in in August over his involvement in a protest months earlier. He was arrested once more after that.
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"It seems like they are targeting individuals they’ve seen at multiple protests. And it's intimidation," said Christina Carter, a local attorney who has been representing arrested protesters. "They have had a pattern and practice of pulling folks over as they’re leaving the protest and then arresting individuals in the car on Class 3 obstruction of a thoroughfare."
Fortune, in her statement on behalf of the police department, said "records related to this incident have been requested and will be made available as they were received through our Public Records and Services Unit."
She defended the departments' arrests as based on the probable cause that people have committed crimes.
"Arrests are made based upon probable cause that an individual has committed crime. Once criminal activity has occurred, and public safety is a concern then a decision to arrest is made by the on-scene lieutenant," she wrote. "Arrests made by the Phoenix Police Department are not base[d] on race, sex or religion."