In December, the city of Goodyear fired its police chief, Jerry Geier, days before Christmas. City officials have yet to say a word about the reason for the move, nor have they explained why Geier or his second-in-command, Deputy Chief Justin Hughes, were placed on administrative leave prior to Geier's termination.
Phoenix New Times previously reported that Geier and Hughes may be in hot water for weaponizing internal affairs investigations against officers they didn't like, while protecting favored officers from facing consequences for misconduct. Two reports recently obtained by New Times provide even more evidence for this possible explanation.
Geier and Hughes were placed on admin leave pending the results of a city-led investigation at the beginning of October 2019, along with two other Goodyear police employees: Officer Kyle Cluff and Susan Petty, the city's police administrative services manager. While the records on Geier's and Hughes' investigations remain under wraps for now, the city released the December 2019 reports on Cluff and Petty to New Times following a request under state records law.
(Geier is appealing his termination and Hughes is on extended personal leave. Hughes cannot be disciplined until his leave is over, and the city cannot release the findings of the investigation until he is disciplined. Nor can the city release the findings on Geier while he is appealing his firing.)
The Cluff and Petty reports are heavily redacted, though slip-ups — like failing to black out Geier's name from the table of contents — and context clues make it possible to figure out who did what despite the redactions.
In essence, these two reports detail a jarring, disproportionate series of events that unfolded after an officer pointed out misconduct to his supervisor. But notes by investigators hint that what they heard from Cluff and Petty was merely the first step toward uncovering additional misconduct by Goodyear's commanding officers.
For example, attorney Susan Segal wrote in the reports that she was asked by the city to investigate allegations against Cluff "because of other events, both related and unrelated to the allegations against Cluff."
The investigation that ended Geier's career began with a run-of-the-mill patrol briefing around noon on October 2, 2019. At the briefing, someone stated that the night before, Goodyear officer Cody Poole mistakenly pulled over an undercover Neighborhood Enforcement Team (NET) vehicle. Poole had no reason to think the NET vehicle was full of Goodyear cops at the time, since the van was using a fictitious California license plate.
At the briefing, Cluff pointed out that using unauthorized fictitious plates violates department policy. While officers may use false plates while undercover, they must be properly acquired from the Department of Public Safety. It is not only a policy violation to use unregistered fictitious plates, as Cluff pointed out, it is also a crime under Arizona law. And it is a safety hazard for police officers, one that creates the exact situation that occurred when Poole pulled over the NET van full of armed people he had no idea were cops.
Cluff's superior, Lieutenant Scott Benson, told Cluff and others at the briefing that he'd bring the issue up with the command staff at Goodyear P.D. But about an hour and a half later, Chief Geier contacted a person whose name is redacted, but who, given the context of the situation, appears to be Chief Deputy Hughes.
Here's why that's likely the case: Four Goodyear police officials were placed on administrative leave and investigated at the same time, and Hughes' name is the only one of the four consistently redacted throughout the investigative reports. Hughes also has a storied history of involving himself in aggressive internal affairs investigations. In addition, at one point in the report, the "Deputy" is not redacted in a heading ("Deputy [redacted redacted] and Deputy Chief Rodriguez's Follow Up Conversations with Susan Petty"). There are only two deputy chiefs at the Goodyear Police Department: Hughes and Rodriguez. Finally, two Goodyear cops who spoke with New Times said they are certain the redacted name is Hughes. While Hughes' name does not appear in the parts of the reports described below, based on the aforementioned context, New Times is naming Hughes in instances where the redacted name can reasonably be inferred as his.
Hughes did not respond to an email from New Times laying out the accusations against him in the Cluff and Petty reports. Neither he, Cluff, nor Petty could be reached by phone, and none responded to voicemails left by New Times.
The following information and quotes are taken from the two reports:
Benson may have told Cluff he'd bring up the fictitious plate issue with the command staff, but Geier told Hughes that someone else had told him about the plate — before Benson had a chance to tell any supervisors himself. Geier also told Hughes he had spoken with the supervisor of the NET squad and told him not to use a fictitious plate on the undercover van.
It was clear to Hughes that someone had reported misconduct directly to Geier, and "undermined the chain of command." Hughes talked to lieutenants Joe Pacello and Benson about it, and Benson said that Cluff had pointed out the issue at a briefing earlier that day. Benson said he had intended to call Geier and another lieutenant about it, but before he could do so, he received a call from Geier asking him when he learned of the fictitious plates.
Hughes suspected that Cluff told Susan Petty about the plates. Petty and Cluff are close, and Petty "is a longtime assistant to Geier." But when Hughes called Cluff, Cluff denied telling Petty about the plates.
Hughes didn't believe him. Lieutenant Pacello suggested he ask Petty about it. Hughes went to her office. According to Hughes, Petty answered the door slowly, had her cellphone in her hand when she entered, and acted nervous when asked about Cluff and the plates. Petty said she had talked to Cluff several times that day, but that they had not talked about the plates.
Instead of focusing on the crime Cluff had pointed out, Hughes instead went back to Geier and told him he "suspected" Cluff and Petty were lying. Geier instructed Hughes to conduct further "inquiry" of both, and ordered Deputy Chief Santiago "Jimmy" Rodriguez to accompany Hughes.
Hughes and Rodriguez met with Cluff, and Hughes told Cluff that "in the future, he should let the lieutenant do his job," since Benson had already said he was going to bring the fictitious plates up with command staff. Then he asked Cluff again if he had told Petty about the plates. Cluff denied it, but Hughes continued to question him, stating that he "hated to question [Cluff's] integrity," but didn't believe he was being honest.
Cluff denied contacting Petty again, said that he had spoken with her several times that day about other things, and showed his phone to Hughes. Hughes still didn't believe him and told Cluff he was asking "a simple question," at which point Cluff said he "wanted Garrity," meaning he believed he was entitled to a warning permitted to police officers under a Supreme Court ruling that held law enforcement officers have a right to be free from compulsory self-incrimination in an administrative investigation.
Hughes told Cluff it was just an "inquiry" so no Garrity warning was required. Hughes asked Cluff again if he had talked to Petty. Cluff said no.
Rodriguez and Hughes believed Cluff was lying to them and decided to interview Petty again. When Hughes and Rodriguez asked her again whether Cluff had talked to her about the plates, Petty said she thought Hughes was on a "witch hunt." Rodriguez asked her to "just be honest," and she admitted that Cluff had, in fact, told her about the plates, adding that she had simply been caught off guard when aggressively confronted by Hughes about the plates.
Instead of stopping there, Hughes continued to interrogate Petty. He asked her what time Cluff told her about the plates. Petty said she didn't know. He asked to see her phone and asked Petty if she had contacted Cluff since Hughes first spoke with her. Petty said no.
When interviewed by the independent investigators tapped by the city to look into the accusations, Rodriguez, who had accompanied Hughes on the last two interviews, stated that Hughes "appeared frustrated, and was agitated during the interview of Cluff."
"Rodriguez described [Hughes] as 'on a mission'" and told investigators that he thought Hughes' behavior was inappropriate because, even when he had the answers he needed, he kept asking more questions in an attempt to get Cluff and Petty to lie.
When investigators Susan Segal of Gust Rosenfeld P.L.C. and Donald Conrad, a former Arizona U.S. assistant attorney general, later interviewed Cluff at the city's behest, Cluff admitted that he lied about the plates and said he did so because he was scared.
"I didn't know what [Hughes'] mental or physical intentions were. I reported a crime against one of his friends and he was instantly coming after me and it appeared he was not dealing with the crime," Cluff told investigators. "His voice was altered and I had personal knowledge of some potential medical issues he was having or mental issues and some improper things he had done in the past investigations. I didn't know at what point it might escalate and I was scared."
In describing Hughes' physical demeanor during the interrogation, Cluff told investigators that Hughes' voice was raised, his skin was flushed, his lips were tight, and he seemed upset.
When Conrad and Segal interviewed Petty, it became clear that Petty not only knew about the fictitious plates long before Cluff told her about them, but had photographed the illegal plates on the NET van a month earlier and reported it to Chief Geier.
"As part of her duties, Petty handles the registration and acquisition of false identification for undercover officers and undercover license plates for the Department," the city's report on Petty states. "During August 2019, on a Friday, Petty had seen the NET van in the Department parking lot with fictitious plates from California. She took photos of the van on her cell phone and showed them to [Geier] the following Monday."
After Petty told Geier about the plates, he called another Goodyear cop into his office and questioned him about the plates. The officer claimed the plates "were made available by the FBI." Geier instructed the officer to stop using the plates. Later, someone whose name is redacted in the reports approached Petty about the plates and claimed that "he got the plates from a Mesa detective and that there was an officer exception."
Petty rebuked this and stressed that the exception doesn't matter because it is an officer safety issue.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Petty told investigators that by targeting her and Cluff, she believed Hughes was protecting someone else because he knows that the use of fictitious plates by a NET van was a serious mistake.
Ultimately, the city-commissioned investigators sustained the allegations that Cluff and Petty had violated department policy by lying when questioned by Hughes. Petty has since been demoted to an assistant. Cluff has resigned.
However, in concluding their investigation, Segal and Conrad stated that the "aggressiveness" of Hughes' interrogation of Petty and Cluff "seems disproportionate in comparison to the relatively minor issue of who told [Geier] about the van's unauthorized plates."
It was "an inappropriately intense interrogation, given the comparative insignificance of the issue at hand," Segal and Conrad wrote. "The issue that gave rise to the inquiry was more of a management issue — chain of command. The questioning spiraled out of control... further, Petty had every reason to tell Geier about the plates, given her discussion with him in August and her knowledge that [redacted, a member of the NET squad] had been told to discontinue using fictitious plates. It is understandable that she was flustered that [Hughes] was questioning her so aggressively rather than dealing with the problem."