Police

Jeri Williams Is Quitting as Phoenix Police Chief Amid New and Mounting Scrutiny

Phoenix police chief Jeri Williams announced on Tuesday that she was retiring.
Phoenix police chief Jeri Williams announced on Tuesday that she was retiring. City of Phoenix
On Tuesday morning, Phoenix police chief Jeri Williams and the city of Phoenix issued a coordinated announcement: She was retiring. The city was starting a search for a new chief.

Williams, who has served as police chief for more than five years and will remain in the role until the city replaces her, wrote that nothing, in particular, had triggered her decision. She has spent 30 years in law enforcement and is now in her mid-50s. “There is never a perfect time to transition, but the time feels right for me now to step aside,” she wrote. “I feel called right now to go into a new direction, allowing me the rare opportunity to prioritize family and explore future endeavors.”

Not mentioned in her letter was the political pressure that has been steadily mounting on Williams and her department.

The city is facing an extensive U.S. Department of Justice investigation into its law enforcement practices. And alongside the federal probe, there’s continued fallout from the department’s efforts to bring felony gang charges against political protesters in October 2020, most of which were dismissed four months later. Just two weeks before Williams announced her plans, ABC15 published audio of conversations between top officials in the department, which indicated that Williams and second-in-command Mike Kurtenbach scapegoated lower-level officers under pressure.

In response to questions for this story, Phoenix police spokesperson Donna Rossi wrote to Phoenix New Times: “I would direct you to statements already made earlier this week by both Chief Williams and City Manager Jeff Barton: The chief made the decision on her own to move in a new direction to prioritize family and explore future opportunities.”

Regardless of Williams’ rationale, for many of her critics, her planned retirement has been interpreted as a quiet resignation. Her planned departure fits a “pattern of top officials jumping ship before the whole thing unravels,” according to Lola N’sangou, the executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona, a local advocacy group.

N’sangou was referring to former City Manager Ed Zuercher, who left in October 2021. There was also the unspoken example of Allister Adel, the former Maricopa County Attorney who died tragically this month shortly after resigning from the office. She, too, was under scrutiny for months over the political prosecutions.

“It’s a scandal,” N’sangou said. “And [Williams] is leaving right in the middle, while she’s on the hot seat.”

On Monday, the day before Williams’ announcement, the Washington, D.C.-based conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch sent a letter to Arizona’s state police professional standards board, demanding an investigation into the Phoenix police chief. Judicial Watch says its focus is holding government officials accountable, and that it often files flurries of public records requests to do so. The group is controversial, though, and sometimes plays into right-wing conspiracies.

In the letter to the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board (AZPOST), which New Times obtained, Judicial Watch cites a legal claim against Williams by three high-ranking officers in the Phoenix Police Department, as well as reporting by ABC15 on the officers' allegations. In that lawsuit, the officers — former assistant chiefs Gabriel Lopez, John Collins, and Lawrence Hein — alleged that Williams had made false and misleading statements about her knowledge of the gang charges.

The three were demoted as a result of an investigation into the political prosecutions commissioned by the city. They claim that, after being briefed about the planned gang charges by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, they briefed Kurtenbach, their direct supervisor. It was Kurtenbach who would have been responsible for briefing Williams. And it’s impossible, the three officers claim, that Williams didn’t know about the charges once the protesters were indicted, despite her indications to the contrary.

Williams has called the gang charges a “personnel and systems failure” in which communication had “broken down.” In a presentation to the city council in August 2021, Williams emphasized that she was changing department policies to ensure she was informed in such future cases.

In recordings of private conversations among the officers aired by ABC15, Kurtenbach alludes to the fact that Williams was, in fact, informed of the charges. "You just got fucked," Kurtenbach tells Collins in the recording, apparently referring to his demotion. Kurtenbach later adds: "It's unconscionable to me to think that there were these failures to notify for months.”

As N’sangou emphasized, the recordings were just further evidence of what many activists, including people stuck with bogus gang charges, have been alleging since 2020: that Williams, despite her claims of ignorance, was culpable for the scandal.

Mark Spencer, the Judicial Watch researcher who authored the letter, cited the new revelations in his demand to the AZPOST. He asked for an “investigation into the alleged misconduct” of Williams and Kurtenbach, her second in command.

The AZPOST board regulates law enforcement training and certification in Arizona. It has the power to revoke officers’ licenses to work in the state, should they violate board rules. Notably, Williams sits on the AZPOST board, where she deliberates on dozens of misconduct cases involving Arizona officers across the state.

Spencer wrote that she and Kurtenbach should be investigated for violating several AZPOST rules, including dishonesty, malfeasance in office, and “engaging in any conduct or pattern of conduct that tends to disrupt, diminish, or otherwise jeopardize public trust in the law enforcement profession.”

It would be unusual for the board to take up a case against a chief. The majority of the cases handled by the board involve low-level officers and recruits at the police academy. But AZPOST has the power to discipline higher-ranking officers such as Williams — or, instead, to request that local law enforcement conduct its own, internal investigation.

A spokesperson for Judicial Watch said the organization had no further comment on its letter or on Williams. Rossi, the Phoenix police spokesperson, declined comment and said that any questions regarding the letter should be directed to the board, not the department.

Matt Giordano, the board’s executive director, told New Times that, "I never comment on anything which may be presented to the board at some point in the future." Given that the Phoenix Police Department still has ongoing internal investigations into some of the issues referenced in the letter, Giordano said, the board would "review them for AZPOST rule violations" once they are complete.

In the days since Williams announced her planned departure, glowing tributes to her tenure with the agency have flooded in from many in city leadership. But the same leaders have been mum on investigations, scandals, or reports of turmoil on the fourth floor of the Phoenix Police Department.

Barton wrote that Williams “has devoted her professional career to the city she loves,” and overseen important reforms to the department. Councilmember Sal DiCiccio said Williams had done “an amazing job at the city of Phoenix given the toxic attacks on police we have witnessed in the past two years.” Williams “blazed a trail,” wrote Councilmember Ann O’Brien. Several others referenced reforms she had ushered in such as body-worn cameras for all officers and prompt release of videos of "critical incidents," where a cop shoots someone or is shot.

City Councilmember Carlos Garcia, often the most vocal critic of law enforcement on the council, took a more muted approach. He called the chief and her family “pillars in our community.” But, he noted, Williams’ departure “marks a shift for our city” — an opportunity, he said, to “redefine and create better public safety for all.”

As city officials emphasized, Williams had a long tenure with the Phoenix police. She worked on the force for more than 20 years, moving through the ranks from officer to assistant chief. In 2011, she left for Oxnard, California, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles, to head up its police force. In October 2016, she returned to her hometown of Phoenix, becoming the first woman to lead the agency.

Joe Clure, the president of the Arizona Police Association and a former Phoenix cop, has known Williams for decades. They worked together, he recalled, in the Maryvale precinct, some 30 years ago, when Williams was still an unflinching beat cop. Since, Williams has led a “pretty amazing career,” he said.

The Arizona Police Association represents rank-and-file officers around the state (typically, police sergeants and lieutenants have their own, separate labor unions). Clure hesitated in response to questions about the state of the Phoenix force in recent months.

“Obviously, unless you’ve been living in a cave the last year or so, there’s a tremendous amount of turmoil within the Phoenix Police Department,” he said.

Asked if he believed Williams’ departure could be related to that turmoil — and, specifically, the recent release of the recordings — Clure said: “I think you'd have to be kind of naive if you think that didn't play some degree into the thought process," he said, though emphasizing he “did not know for a fact” either way.

The now-notorious "ACAB gang" scandal was hardly the only controversy of Williams’ tenure, perhaps as is to be expected when overseeing a police force in one of the largest cities in the country. In 2017, the death of Muhammad Muhaymin, a Black Muslim man, during an arrest prompted national shock and outcry — and a years-long, costly legal battle for the city. In 2018, Phoenix cops shot enough people to rank the agency as the deadliest police force in the country.

And by June 2020, even before the agency pushed to bring gang charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, officers were shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators and trading tokens that memorialized the August 2017 shooting of a protester with a PepperBall during a presidential visit by Donald Trump.

Clure’s main concern, though, involved allegations of Williams’ dishonesty about the 2020 gang charges. Such accusations at the highest levels of the department were “very, very concerning,” he said, and demoralizing for officers. It also set a poor standard for the department, he said, citing the proverb: “A fish rots from the head down.”

The city now plans to bring in an “external interim” chief, who will “guide the department” through the DOJ probe. Given that the probe could drag on for years, as such investigations have elsewhere, it’s unclear what, exactly, “interim” means in this case. City spokesperson Dan Wilson said the city manager was looking for a chief with "specific skills and experience" related to the DOJ probe, and confirmed that the search for the permanent chief would not commence until the end of the investigation.

Clure called the planned external hiring a “vote of no confidence” from the city in its department. “I think at this point it was a given,” he said.

For N’sangou, the promise to bring in an external chief to lead the agency is all theatrics. “I think Barton is trying to throw up a diversion,” she said. N'sangou has little faith in the idea that an external hire would do much to fix the agency, which was, she said, "riddled with issues that are much deeper than any individual officer."

Her organization’s focus, she said, would be to push the city to be transparent in the hiring process moving forward. “We’re going to demand transparency, we’re going to demand opportunities for the community to be involved,” she said. As for Williams, she said: “We want her to take accountability.”
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk