Another probe into so-called "challenge coins" that celebrated shooting protesters in the groin that were exchanged among police officers found that "similar items," including patches, hats, and shirts were frequently exchanged by "dozens of Phoenix police officers." This investigation found that Phoenix Police Department leadership "failed" to properly investigate the problematic memorabilia.
The reports' findings add weight to the U.S. Department of Justice's own sweeping probe of the Phoenix Police Department that was announced last week. Federal officials are scrutinizing the department for a variety of potential civil rights violations, including whether Phoenix police retaliated against local protesters.
Over a dozen people who were arrested at an October 17, 2020 protest in downtown Phoenix were later charged with assisting a criminal street gang after Maricopa County prosecutors obtained a grand jury indictment. However, reporting revealed that prosecutors and police misled the grand jury by falsely depicting the protesters as part of a nonexistent criminal street gang. The charges were ultimately dismissed by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel last February and protesters are now suing Adel and Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.
The collapse of the controversial case against the protesters also coincided with new reporting from ABC15 on the "challenge coins," which featured slogans like "GOOD NIGHT LEFT NUT” that bore a troubling resemblance to white supremacist rhetoric. In response, the city of Phoenix hired the national law firm Ballard Spahr last February to conduct investigations into both scandals.
Copies of reports produced by Ballard Spahr on these investigations were obtained and reviewed by Phoenix New Times. A summary of their findings is featured below.
A 'Deeply Flawed' Case
The probe of the controversial protester gang case, which involved reviewing internal Phoenix Police Department records, body camera footage and interviews with over a dozen department officials — including line officers, Chief Williams, and four assistant chiefs — examined how the law enforcement agency was involved in the botched prosecutions. Notably, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (MCAO) "ultimately declined to make any of its employees available for an interview" or to respond to written questions by the law firm, citing pending litigation.
In their report, the Ballard Spahr investigators concluded that police and prosecutors behind the case used "inconsistent and inaccurate police reports, and dubious Grand Jury testimony" to build their "deeply flawed" case that the protesters were part of a criminal street gang. The involved individuals initially excluded the Phoenix Police Department's own Gang Enforcement Unit and Chief Williams from the investigation into the protesters. The probe slammed the department's investigation of the case as "insubstantial and result-driven."
"We found no credible evidence to support the assertion that ACAB is a criminal street gang, that it organized the protest of October 17, or was prone to violence," the report states.
According to the report:
During the tumultuous months last summer prior to the October 17 protest, the Phoenix Police Department was "focused" on several local anti-police brutality activist groups that the department believed were violent. The department wrongly "conflated" the "beliefs, characteristics, and practices of these groups to construct its theory of a single united group named 'ACAB'."
The basis for this assertion was flimsy. For instance, prior to October 17, a protester named Riley Behrens told a detective with the Gilbert Police Department during an interview about a different demonstration that he was part of a group called "ACAB" — a synonym for "All Cops Are Bastards" — whose members "discussed stealing police bicycles" and got "ACAB" tattoos. He said that one member said that she wanted to kill "the next officer that touches one of us." However, the Ballard Spahr investigators assessed that the Phoenix Police Department and MCAO wrongfully took this information at face-value despite Behrens' "prior history of lying to the police," which included a "criminal conviction for filing a false emergency report."
Police obtained a search warrant for the cell phones of members of the W.E. Rising Project, an anti-police brutality activist group, following a July 2020 protest. They found that Suvarna Ratnam, a protester who would eventually be charged as part of the gang case, and another individual had exchanged the home addresses of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Chief Williams, and other police officials. Later, on August 23, Ratnam was arrested at a protest for allegedly throwing a water bottle at police and using an umbrella as a "weapon" — allegations that would eventually be proven false by video footage. One Phoenix official told Ballard Spahr investigators that Ratnam "emerged as part of [ACAB's] leadership" and got on their "radar" after the August 23 arrest, but were unable to "identify other instances where individuals they claimed were members of ACAB acted violently."
The idea to charge Ratnam and the protesters arrested on October 17 as members of a criminal street gang was first proposed by Karl Martin, a former Phoenix Police Department gang detective who currently works as an MCAO investigator. In an October 21 email titled "Take a look at Ratnam for street gang" that was sent to April Sponsel, an MCAO prosecutor, Vince Goddard, the agency's former division chief, Martin wrote that Ratnam "met at least four of the criteria that indicate she is part of a criminal street gang. He cited her "ACAB" tattoo, the August 23 arrest, and the text messages. Four minutes later, Sponsel "excitedly replied" by writing, "I agree!! This a [sic] amazing."
Sponsel introduced Martin to Sergeant Douglas McBride, the officer who would later tell a grand jury that the protesters were part of a gang similar to Hells Angels, and the group moved ahead with the gang-charges strategy. However, other Phoenix police officials felt that they were being kept out of the loop. In response, a large "pre-charging meeting" was called on October 23 to discuss the case; Goddard (then with MCAO), Sponsel, Martin, FBI Special Agent Phillip Bates, Sergeant McBride, and Assistant Chiefs John Collins, Lawrence Hein, and Gabriel Lopez, were among those who attended. Several attendees told Ballard Spahr investigators that Sponsel, Martin, and McBride "spoke in support of charging the [protesters] under the gang statute." None of the meeting attendees who were interviewed recalled anyone openly opposing the plan.
In their report, the investigators indicate that Chief Williams was siloed from this decision-making process. The investigators did not find "any evidence" that Williams had "knowledge of the October 23 meeting" and "simply found no suggestion that Williams was told of the decision to charge the [protesters] as members of a criminal street gang" until after the case was presented to the grand jury on October 27.
The Phoenix Police Department's own Gang Enforcement Unit (GEU) was also kept out of the loop — seemingly intentionally. Lieutenant Chas Clements, who led the unit, was not asked to participate in the "deliberations leading up to the October 27 indictment," including the large October 23 meeting where the case was discussed. Similarly, Commander James Gallagher, who heads up the Drug Enforcement Bureau and has "supervisory authority" over the gang unit, was not invited to weigh in on the case. Investigators found that the individuals behind the case "consciously avoided GEU's involvement" and that this was done to "sideline those deemed likely to object to charging the [protesters] as members of a criminal street gang."
One unnamed Phoenix police official who had with "supervisory authority over" the gang unit told investigators that he would thought that the protesters do "not meet the definition of a criminal street gang." The official added that he perceived an intent among those on the case to "keep this close to the chest" and to "keep it quiet." The official speculated that this was probably due to the fact that "those involved were likely aware" that the charges would be controversial. None of the Phoenix police personnel who were interviewed could "recall a single other occasion" where the gang unit wasn't involved in identifying a new street gang.
In the "late stages" of the criminal investigation into the protester case, there was an attempt to invite the gang unit into the fold. Between the October 23 meeting and the October 27 indictment, Sergeant McBride called Lieutenant Clements to ask that the gang unit aid the investigation by serving search warrants on the protesters. When Commander Gallagher was eventually called by a lieutenant to discuss the unit's potential involvement in the case, Gallagher allegedly "heard of the existence of the investigation for the first time." Gallagher denied the request to help with the case at all due to his "effort to distance GEU from the investigation because, in his view, the investigation was being conducted inappropriately and that it risked doing substantial harm to GEU's credibility."
The Ballard Spahr investigation found that Sergeant McBride appeared to be "creating a paper trail" to support his testimony to the grand jury on October 27 after the fact. Records showed that McBride completed a second incident report the day after he gave his testimony to the grand jury — and 11 days after the October 17 protest — in which he "revised his description" of the protesters to "conform to his testimony," such as describing the "ACAB group" as "one that has been mimicking the behavior of a criminal street gang and should be classified as such." This was despite the fact that none of the other officers involved in arresting the demonstrators alleged in their reports that they were members of a "criminal street gang."
In April 2021, Chief Williams requested that an internal investigation be opened into McBride for possibly committing perjury while testifying before the grand jury. The internal probe found that while the "investigative methodology" in the case had been "unorthodox," there was no evidence that McBride's testimony had been "perjurious."
Based on their findings, the Ballard Spahr investigators recommended that the Phoenix Police Department retain an outside law enforcement agency to "conduct a thorough investigation" by using its authority to "compel the production of documents and testimony. They called for the department to "revise investigative guidelines" for "applying the criminal street gang statute" and to clarify its policy for vetting information for credibility.
When contacted for comment on the reports, Dan Wilson, a spokesperson for the City of Phoenix, referred Phoenix New Times to a news release describing the city's response to the findings. The city says Chief Williams is reassigning three assistant chiefs to be commanders and Sergeant McBride has been placed on leave pending "criminal and administrative investigations." City Manager Ed Zuercher disciplined Chief Williams with a "one-day suspension" and has requested that the Arizona Attorney General's Office conduct criminal and administrative investigations into "other employees involved in the case."
'Disparagement of Protest Activity'
Ballard Spahr's other probe into the so-called "challenge coins" found that, in addition to the coins, a variety of patches, hats, and shirts that featured similar rhetoric "circulated among dozens of Police officers." The items were "routinely circulated during working hours and at work locations." Investigators did not find any evidence that public funds were used to create or purchase the items.
While the probe did not find "any evidence that any officers knowingly associated" the phrase "Good Night Left Nut" with the neo-Nazi phrase "Good Night Left Side," different wording that appeared on challenge coins, "Making America Great One Nut at a Time," was "knowingly associated" with former President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. The coins can "fairly be viewed as conveying both the disparagement of protest activity as well as an endorsement of former President Trump," the report states.
Notably, investigators state in their report that it "became clear" that "certain members" of Phoenix Police Department leadership were "aware of the challenge coin in real time" and "failed to take appropriate steps to investigate" the memorabilia. The report states that "no official investigation" into the items was launched until Ballard Spahr was brought in by the city of Phoenix years after the fact.
The challenge coins scandal stems from an August 22, 2017, protest outside of a Trump rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in downtown Phoenix. The Phoenix Police Department's Tactical Response Unit (TRU), which is typically tasked with crowd control at large events, was on the scene and ended up firing smoke grenades, pepper spray, and other munitions at the protesters. One protester, Joshua Cobin, was hit by a "powder round" in his "lower torso or groin." (In 2018, protesters and two local anti-police brutality groups sued the city of Phoenix over the incident.)
On August 23, the day after the protest, Phoenix police officers began posting messages on the internet "mocking Cobin." The image of Cobin wearing a gas mask and getting hit in the groin complete with the "Good Night Left Nut" slogan that eventually appeared on challenge coins "began circulating on social media within days" of the protest. In an early indication that challenge coins celebrating the incident were being created, that same day, Lieutenant Benjamin Moore received a text message from now-retired officer Pat Hoffman, who recommended changing the slogan to "protestus interruptus" to make "the patch/hat more presentable." Sergeant McBride — the same officer involved in the protester gang case — posted on Facebook about the patch, though he told Ballard Spahr investigators that the post was "meant to be facetious."
While investigators found that numerous law enforcement agencies, including the Phoenix Police Department, use challenge coins to commemorate specific events, teams, or bureaus within an agency, the probe shows that some staff within the Phoenix Police Department found the protest challenge coins and related memorabilia to be problematic.
In the fall or winter of 2017, a "box containing memorabilia bearing the Cobin image" arrived at the Phoenix Police Department's Downtown Operations Unit. Lieutenant Moore, who was on the premises at the time, opened the box and saw t-shirts, baseball caps, and circular items with the image of Cobin on them. He asked his commander, Brad Burt, for guidance on what to do with the box because he "didn't think we should probably have that image at work." Commander Burt eventually told him to throw the box away, though some officers had taken items before Moore disposed of it in a dumpster. Around the same time in late 2017, Detective Tobi Myers separately purchased several "rubber circular 'patches' or coasters" online that had the same imagery and distributed them to a group of officers who primarily worked in the TRU. Investigators found that at least 30 members of the Phoenix Police Department possessed a challenge coin or piece of memorabilia.
Chief Williams told investigators that she wasn't aware of the challenge coins until she was deposed in August 2019 in the litigation over the department's response to the 2017 protest. She said that she was "unaware of any official department investigation" into the memorabilia but had become concerned about it recently due to news reports highlighting the similarity of a challenge coin slogan to hate speech. However, investigators concluded that it "stands to reason that Chief Williams was aware" of the connection prior to this year based on court filings in the litigation over the 2017 protest.
The Ballard Spahr investigators tore into the department leadership for failing to properly investigate the challenge coins in their report: "Ultimately, each member of PPD leadership seemingly relied on assumptions or representations that others were examining the coin situation without adequate follow-up or any documentation whatsoever," the document states.
The report recommends that the Phoenix Police Department further investigate the challenge coins, "take appropriate disciplinary action, "adopt" new policies to address such challenge coins and hate speech, and improve its internal investigative methods.
Chief Williams was again reprimanded by Zuercher for the report's findings concerning the challenge coins for "lapses in executive leadership," according to the city's news release. Williams has also been instructed to "write new policies or strengthen existing policies" related to hate speech, political speech while on-duty and "commemorative items."