Trump Protester Shot in Genitals by Phoenix Police Sues After Facebook Posts

Phoenix police officers' posts mocking Josh Cobin.
Phoenix police officers' posts mocking Josh Cobin. Facebook

On August 22, 2017, Phoenix police officers and anti-Trump protesters clashed outside the Phoenix Convention Center, where President Donald Trump was giving a speech. The protest started out peacefully, but things turned violent after police fired tear gas and pepper-spray bullets into the crowd.

In the scuffle, police hurled a tear gas canister toward Scottsdale man Josh Cobin and other protesters. Cobin kicked it back. Then, police shot him in the groin with a pepper ball. Cobin fell to the ground in pain.

Cobin was featured prominently when screenshots of Phoenix police officers' questionable Facebook posts surfaced last month.  At least eight Phoenix cops publicly mocked Cobin in posts calling him "pepperballs" and celebrating the officer who shot him.

"It was a projectile the size of a golf ball that was shot at 220 miles an hour from a distance of 20 yards ... at my groin," Cobin said. "It was humiliating, and then to see Phoenix police officers posting about it and mocking me was even worse."

In June, Cobin filed a pro se lawsuit against Phoenix, the police department, and several of the officers involved for excessive force. Now, civil rights attorney Elizabeth Tate is representing Cobin. Tate told Phoenix New Times she will file an amended complaint by August 2, which will emphasize how Phoenix police violated Cobin's constitutionally protected rights and caused serious injuries.

"There were clear Fourth and Eighth Amendment violations when the officer shot him with the pepper bullet in the groin. It is cruel and unusual punishment, and it's excessive force," Tate said. "We believe it was done purposefully."

The city and the Phoenix Police Department do not comment on pending litigation. Chief Jeri Williams previously said officers used tear gas only after members of the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles, though an independent report examining the department's handling of the protest that night found police fired tear gas canisters 17 minutes before issuing their first warning to the crowd.

"We also plan on including one count of unlawful dispersement of the crowd. Phoenix police dispersed the crowd when they shouldn't have," Tate said.

After he was shot, Cobin drove himself to the emergency room while in excruciating pain, the lawsuit states. Police later charged Cobin with aggravated assault on a police officer. The charge was dismissed as part of a plea deal where Cobin pleaded guilty to the much lesser charge of disorderly conduct. Tate says Phoenix police purposefully arrested Cobin at his place of work, even though he had communicated with the department about turning himself in.

"The police were set on arresting him at his place of work. It shows the vindictive spirit the police had toward him," Tate said. "Josh was acting in self defense when he threw that can back. He was defending himself and the crowd."

New Times previously reported that it appears police identified Cobin after he posted about his actions on Reddit.

In response to someone asking why he kicked the canister, the user who claimed to be Cobin wrote, "Because I believed we had the right to peacefully assemble and that right was being violated. I knew once I kicked it that I was going to be a target for rubber bullets or pepper balls so it wasn't a huge surprise."

Cobin's decision to file a pro se lawsuit last month was influenced by the revelation that a number of posts about him were included in a database of 282 offensive social media posts from 97 current and former Phoenix police officers. The database was created by the Plain View Project in an effort to catalog bigotry and racism among police officers nationwide.

The posts show Phoenix police officers frequently referred to black people as "thugs," called for violence against protesters, denounced Muslims as rapists, and joked about refusing to help citizens who criticized the police. Last week, a New Times investigation found four of the officers whose posts were included in the database had also been accused of killing people. Seven of the officers have been accused of seriously injuring people.

Two of those officers shared posts on Facebook mocking Cobin after the protest. In August 2017, Phoenix police Sergeant Sean Coutts changed his Facebook profile picture to a screenshot of a news story about Cobin getting shot in the genitals with a pepper ball. Coutts had previously been named in a lawsuit brought by the family of Tony Arambula after one of Coutts' officers shot Arambula in the back six times and Coutts tried to cover it up, according to the lawsuit.

Arambula had called the police for help after an intruder broke into his youngest son's bedroom. Arambula was still on the phone with 911 when one Phoenix cop stormed in and shot him six times. That officer can be heard confessing to his mistake on the 911 recording — and Coutts can be heard telling him, "Don't worry about it. I got your back. We clear?" (The officer later told internal affairs Arambula had pointed a gun at him, which was not true.) The lawsuit was settled for $1.75 million in 2011.

Police officer Nicholas Chacon shared a video of Cobin getting shot. "Awesome shot!!" Chacon wrote.

It appears that in March 2018, Chacon was one of two officers involved in a shooting near 59th Avenue and Thomas Road.

A criminal defense lawyer blog that aggregates news about officer-involved shootings copied the contents of an ABC15 story about the shooting word for word. However, the current version of the ABC15 story about the shooting no longer contains the line identifying the two officers involved in the shooting.

The website, which takes screenshots of websites and preserves them by date, shows that on April 3, 2018, the ABC15 story did identify Chacon and another officer, Anthony Deida, as being involved in the shooting death of 27-year-old David Gardea after responding to a domestic violence call. There is no correction or note explaining the change included in the current version of the story.

Another officer who ridiculed Cobin online was included in the Maricopa County Attorney's Brady list, a list of police officers who are so notoriously unreliable and dishonest that prosecutors must disclose the officer's reputation to defense lawyers. Ray Santoyas shared several articles about the incident, including one from titled "WATCH: Antifa Member Gets Pounded in Family Jewels by Tear Gas Canister" and another titled "When Antifa Protestor Kicks Smoke Grenade at Cops, That's When the Stuff of Internet Legend is Born."

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said the department's Professional Standards Bureau will review the Facebook posts for potential misconduct. Williams said she has taken officers who made particularly egregious posts off of their "enforcement assignments" and placed them on desk duty, though she declined to specify which officers or how many.

Phoenix already has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union over the police department's handling of the Trump protest that August.

In September 2018, the ACLU of Arizona, Puente, and Poder in Action filed a class action lawsuit against Phoenix and Chief Williams alleging that police used excessive force when they dispersed the crowd. Officers fired nearly 600 projectiles indiscriminately into the crowd without warning, the lawsuit states.
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.

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