UPDATE: The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has taken legal action against the Phoenix Police Department in defense of the First Amendment. The ACLU announced today it is filing a lawsuit in response to a lack of transparency and a failure to release pubic records from the police department regarding the protest outside of the rally for President Donald Trump.
Our original story, first published last week, begins here:
Questions have lingered like that ghastly green cloud of smoke and tear gas since Phoenix police dispersed an unruly crowd protesting President Donald Trump on Aug. 22. Police now say their internal review of the confrontation won't be finished for another month and a half.
That August evening, a brief spasm of violence erupted as Trump supporters drifted out of the Phoenix Convention Center. Two versions of what happened emerged when the smoke cleared.
The official version goes like this. The Phoenix Police Department said a small knot of anti-Trump protesters clumped in front of the Herberger Theater Center on Monroe Street threw bottles and gas canisters at a line of officers. Those officers issued verbal warnings, donned gas masks, and fired successive volleys of pepper-spray balls, inert smoke bombs, and tear gas. The crowd quickly fled as quickly as the trouble began. There were no reports of injuries.
The unofficial version from some, but not all, protesters was that police fired without warning, hurting some in the crowd who had nothing to do with the disturbance. Some lobbed smoke bombs and tear-gas canisters back at police to get away from them. Dozens complained of injury.
Three months, later the smoke still hasn't cleared and the definitive truth remains elusive. And it will remain that way until the end of the year.
This week, the Phoenix Police Department released a statement to media organizations, including Phoenix New Times, which have requested evidence from that night. The statement said the records will have to wait until the department finishes its internal review.
The response has not engendered trust among some community groups already suspicious of those who are to serve and protect.
One such group is Arizona Center for Neighborhood Leadership.
“It’s an indication of a lack of transparency and accountability at the Phoenix Police Department, and a lack of leadership at the City Council,” said Viri Hernandez, the group’s executive director.
New Times asked the mayor’s office for comment, but none was forthcoming.
Hernandez said this isn't the first time key policing questions went unanswered.
“This is part of a bigger pattern. It’s the culture of the police department. They aren’t used to being questioned,”
she said, referring to numerous requests for details after fatal officer-involved shootings.
After the Trump rally, community activists, plus on-scene doctors and nurses, told Hernandez's staff that more than 30 people complained of injuries from gas and from fleeing the chaos. Many checked into emergency rooms that night, she said, but police commanders have not acknowledged that.
The Center for Neighborhood Leadership asked police to detail the cost of the security during Trump’s visit and a full accounting of all the weapons carried and used that night.
“They keep telling us they don’t have that information. If they don’t, I don’t know who does,” Hernandez said.
She says she doesn't trust the results of an internal review.
But the public will have to wait for that report for answers, according to the department’s statement this week.
“Due to the unique nature of the event, the Phoenix Police Department has sought and gathered many records for review, with the intention of creating a comprehensive after action report,” it said. “The Department hopes to complete the report by the end of the year.”
“You and the other requesters of records surrounding the August 22nd event may review the after action report and be satisfied with the provided information. However, if you desire additional records after review of the after action report, the City is open to dialogue concerning supporting records.”
That’s different from what police were saying shortly after the rally. Back then, police assured that records would be pushed out quicker than usual, due to the amped-up public interest.
And police had every reason to share information with the public. Just over a week after the rally, Phoenix police released a 13-minute compilation video showing protesters lobbying bottles, javelins and cyan-colored smoke bombs at them. With no context, it supported the official line.
On Aug. 23, the day after the protest, New Times asked for police procedures and any surveillance footage they had of the key events. The next day, New Times formally requested all audio and video recordings and any photos from the area on two sides of the Herberger for an hour, plus all the departmental policies governing use of force, crowd control, and civil disturbances.
“We are looking at getting something out quickly,” Sergeant Jon Howard, police spokesman, said in response.
The next week, 200 people crammed into a Phoenix City Council meeting to vent about what they called heavy-handed police methods at the rally. Activists took over the meeting for six hours. They pounced on the city’s plans to conduct an independent review, calling it a sham and a stalling tactic, and persuaded the council to scrap the review, then estimated to cost $45,000.
Instead, the Phoenix Police Department is conducting that review.
Howard explained the change of tune.
“The immense amount of records that exist," he said. "We are working on a method to make the records publicly accessible. Standard release materials, such as CDs and DVDs, is not practical because of the volume.”
There’s another side to this debate. There were only a handful of arrests and no reports of damage during Trump protest. Police couldn’t quantify Thursday the extent or expense of the review. But it sounds like a huge job. Hundreds of officers and other security personnel were on the streets that night.
Supporters of the police action may wonder whether the review is worth it.
Responding to the question, Howard said, “Our concern to ensure we are serving our community to the best of our abilities outweighs our concern over the cost of reviewing our practices.”
And then there are the optics.
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“The Phoenix police should comply with those records requests regardless when they produce their after-action report,” said Dan Barr, a media lawyer who represents the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona.
“That’s the whole point of the public records law: It’s to allow the public to evaluate for itself what its government is doing,” Barr added.
He said delaying the release of key records only fuels suspicion.
“They’ve obviously changed their minds and people in the public have every right to ask why,” Barr said. “It looks like they want to get out their evaluation and explanation of what happened before they release all the material. They may fear if they release all the materials now, they may get all kinds of interpretations.”
It appears that may be already happening.