In October 2016, a woman met with a Phoenix police lieutenant to report a sexual assault. She had been held against her will by her then-boyfriend, she told him. There was evidence at the home to prove it.
But the lieutenant, Brian Thatcher, cut their conversation short. He did not think a crime had been committed, he told her, and he would not be collecting any evidence.
The woman, whose name New Times is withholding for her privacy, was distressed, but unsurprised: The man she was accusing was Thatcher’s colleague, Phoenix sergeant Leroy Potter.
Back in 2016, Phoenix police dealt with the incident quietly. The woman filed a lawsuit against the city, but the eventual settlement was kept under wraps. Internally, Thatcher received a 15-day suspension, but the incidents were not reported to the state. Nor was Thatcher placed on a Brady list, which prosecutors use, sometimes haphazardly, to keep track of officers with credibility issues. Instead, Thatcher has since become one of the force’s most highly paid lieutenants and the vice president of Phoenix’s sergeants and lieutenants’ union. Potter, meanwhile, retired in the wake of the allegations, without other repercussions.
But Thatcher may yet face a more serious punishment over the incident, Phoenix New Times has learned. The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training board, which can revoke officers’ law enforcement certifications, has reopened his case.
According to emails obtained by New Times, Arizona POST’s deputy director, Ben Henry, began to look into Thatcher in March of this year — apparently, after stumbling on a single news brief from 2017, which included the bare bones of the woman’s claims against the officers. He sent a link to the Phoenix police, requesting the department’s own investigation into the incident.
“There was a concern about him on an earlier project too,” a POST officer wrote to Henry in another email.
"Copy," he replied.
The board’s notes on the case, which were obtained by New Times after proceedings began in June, arrived at some damning conclusions.
In her lawsuit against the city of Phoenix, the woman alleged that Potter, who had worked as a Phoenix police officer for more than two decades, had sexually assaulted her several times. He had locked her in handcuffs for multiple hours while she cried, she said; he had misplaced the key, and been forced to cut her out of the cuffs with bolt cutters.
According to case notes from AZPOST, the woman told all of this to Thatcher days after it occurred, begging him to investigate his colleague. Their initial conversation was recorded; partial transcripts appear in Thatcher’s case file. As they spoke, the woman told Thatcher a dozen times that she was “held against her will,” and that she had been raped. There was evidence, she said: The handcuffs were still at the property, she said, as was an audio recorder that she thought had captured the incident. “[Potter] is drinking a lot, okay?” she said. “I want him charged.”
Thatcher, in their conversation, refused to collect evidence from the scene (“No ma’am,” he told her) and continually denied that the assaults had been non-consensual. “I don't think there's an adequate basis to believe that a crime occurred,” he said, at the end of their meeting.
Thatcher would go on to tell his supervisors that the woman had not alleged any crime at all. She was “just annoyed,” he told a supervisor, according to one sergeant’s account; the sex was consensual, he said. He did not attempt to gather any evidence. Eventually, another call from the woman prompted Phoenix’s investigations unit to look into her claims, but the officers’ work was “absolutely” impacted by Thatcher’s statements, one officer later testified.
“Had the information been delivered in the unbiased manner that it should have been ... it would have been an easy call to say, okay, let’s jump on this,” another sergeant told investigators.
Ultimately, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Potter for the assault, citing a low likelihood of conviction. Potter was never investigated internally by Phoenix police, either, according to court documents, because he retired shortly after the incident. At that time, according to city records, he was still able to collect a lump sum retirement payout of over $75,000, in addition to a monthly pension. (He did not reply to an inquiry from New Times.) An internal investigation determined that Thatcher, meanwhile, had failed to “properly investigate” a complaint, and sent him on the short, unpaid suspension.
“It felt like it was not given the attention it deserved,” says Jody Broaddus, an attorney who represented the woman who brought the case. The eventual settlement was kept out of public view, as the city pushed the payment low enough not to require approval by the city council, Broaddus says. (The amount was $7,500, per records obtained by New Times, plus an unknown amount paid by Potter.) Confidentiality provisions included in the final agreement prevented the woman from speaking out.
It seemed that Thatcher would face no further consequences for the incident. Arizona officers can be banned from law enforcement for failing to properly investigate crimes, or for dishonesty in investigations, and they frequently are. But that's only when the AZPOST board becomes aware of the misconduct. And under Arizona law, local departments are only mandated to report violations when officers depart the force. Suspensions, meanwhile, have no reporting requirements — even if the offenses are potentially fireable, as in Thatcher’s case.
So for Thatcher, and the union representing the city’s sergeants and lieutenants, the new investigation has caused some unease. In a statement to New Times, Thatcher wrote that he felt the proceedings “smack of political retaliation” for his role with the union, where he is involved with officer discipline.
“Should AZPOST staff decide to continue to try and take action against my certification,” he wrote, “I will provide information showing that nothing I did rises to the level of impacting my peace officer certification." He added that he would attempt to “uncover” the reasons why AZPOST had taken action.
As for the incident at hand? It “could have been handled better,” Thatcher admitted.
Ben Leuschner, the union president, wrote in an email to New Times that the investigation was "fundamentally unfair," given the time that had passed since the initial case. "Absent some type of clear neglect or investigative misconduct by a police agency," he said, it was inappropriate for AZPOST to step in.
But Phoenix police have long faced pressure to share more incidents of misconduct with AZPOST, beyond what is mandatory — precisely because officers have remained on the force even in the face of serious allegations of misconduct. Last September, Chief Jeri Williams pledged to bring more such cases to the state, although the details of the new policy are still fuzzy.
According to police spokesperson Ann Justus, the department has done so: Out of 11 cases sent to AZPOST for review in 2021, she told New Times in an email, just five were mandated by law — a trend confirmed by Matt Giordano, AZPOST executive director. Among Phoenix cops, the policy has faced pushback. Leuschner wrote that it could result in “the weaponization of AZPOST for political purposes."
Giordano disagrees. "When we are made aware of possible misconduct," he wrote in an email to New Times, "we have an obligation to the community we serve to hold officers accountable."