Investigative reporter Dave Biscobing breaks down the problems with MCAO and Phoenix PD

“The more I dug, the worse it got.”

If you want to understand how policing and the criminal justice system in the Valley works — or doesn’t — you have to watch Dave Biscobing’s reporting on ABC 15

His “Politically Charged” investigative series began in February with a single story about the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office charging a group of Black Lives Matter protesters as a street gang, saying they were as dangerous as the Bloods and Crips. 

Roughly fifty stories later, MCAO has dropped the charges on dozens of protesters, and Biscobing has laid bare the lies and incompetence that plagues the MCAO and the racism that underlies one of the most violent police forces in the country, the Phoenix Police Department. 

His work examines not only the crackdown against Black Lives Matter protesters — which the The U.S. Department of Justice is now actively investigating — but law enforcement’s favoritism to far-right groups, while highlighting the stories of those caught in the crosshairs and the crossfire. 

Biscobing recently compiled that mountain of work into an hourlong special that is a must-watch for anyone who demands a just and accountable police department and prosecutors office — a list that should include the police and prosecutors themselves.

We asked him to break down his seven months of reporting via Google Chat and he obliged. 

Briefly describe “Politically Charged.” What is the investigation about topically, and what is it that you’re showing us more broadly?

The name of our investigation is literal. We named it Politically Charged because police protesters faced political charges in modern day political prosecutions.

On a specific level, our reporting exposed that the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office colluded at the highest levels (we’re talking multiple police assistant chiefs and MCAO directors) to invent a gang and charge a group of protesters as members.

I think that is worth repeating: Two of America’s largest law enforcement agencies OK’d a plan to create a fake gang in order to stop people who are known and outspoken critics. And it wasn’t just the “gang” case. The offices falsely charged protesters with crimes in multiple cases.

On a broader level, these protest cases raise serious concerns about how well Phoenix and MCAO can police themselves, if at all. Neither the city nor the county did anything until our reporting exposed their egregious misconduct.

You’ve been covering police and criminal justice in Phoenix for a long time. When did you realize what was happening in the MCAO and Phoenix PD was so much bigger than a story about wrongful prosecution of one group of protesters?

I’ve covered Phoenix PD and MCAO off-and-on for more than a decade. I’ve found some pretty concerning stuff: Phoenix lying about kidnappings stats, prosecutors withholding evidence in criminal cases, untested rape kits, and quite a bit more. My colleague, Melissa Blasius, has done dozens of stories (maybe more than 100) over the past couple years about Phoenix’s use of force.

As a reporter, you take all of that history into consideration when looking at new problems with Phoenix and MCAO. But the protest cases are the most troubling I've seen.

The more I dug, the worse it got.

But the moment I knew it was really bad was when I saw a copy of the confidential grand jury transcript in the protest gang case. A Phoenix sergeant and MCAO prosecutor told jurors that the protesters were like the Bloods, Crips, and Hells Angels. That’s a shocking lie.

Almost everything about these protest cases was made-up. A sergeant even testified and said that all the protesters sharpened their fingernails to use as weapons against officers. The problem: There’s booking photos of all of their nails. None — not one of them — had sharpened fingernails.

The “challenge coin” episode sheds a lot of light on why Phoenix PD gives far-right and white supremacist groups preference.

You also dug up a new camera angle on that “nut shot” that put it in a whole new light and showed who fired the shot. What did that angle show and what did you find out about that cop?

The challenge coin (and related memorabilia) was widely shared within Phoenix’s Tactical Response Unit, which handles protests. But we found it also spread further into the department. In fact, there’s a video that shows a uniformed sergeant bragging about having a coin with members of Patriot Movement AZ.

That’s concerning considering the coin’s language. On the front, it says “Good Night Left Nut.” That’s a phrase based on “Good Night Left Side” — a slogan used by fascist groups and white supremacist groups. There’s a reverse version, “Good Night Right Side” too.

Alt-right groups were often given a pass by Phoenix PD and MCAO throughout 2020. We highlighted many examples of the disparity. A good example is in the video of this story.

And to get back to the origin of that coin, it was created to memorialize and celebrate a protester who was shot in the groin in August 2017. To my surprise, there was a lot more to that situation than I realized. I interviewed the protester and showed him a picture of the coin, which had never seen before. And then, he provided me with new footage of what happened.

Basically, the assumption by all is that police shot the man in the groin because he kicked a tear gas canister back at police first. Well, he did kick the can. But the new angle shows what happened before that.

A Phoenix “grenadier” shot some sort of munition (tear gas or pepper ball) at a woman’s head. It appears to graze her and she went down. That’s when the protester and another person run in to help her up and get her away from the police line. As they’re carrying her away, the same grenadier shot them in the back with a tear gas canister. That’s why the protester went back and kicked the can back at the police line.

The “grenadier” is Officer Christopher Turiano. He’s on the Brady list because he had previously choked a handcuffed man and some of his fellow officers reported him for the violence. I already some of his misconduct file from my Brady list reporting last year.

OK, so you’ve established that Phoenix PD has a history of targeting and arresting leftist protesters, which is problematic enough. But what was MCAO’s role in all of this? And what was the office’s original response when you started asking questions about the charges?

MCAO had an equal, if not greater, role in the protest gang charges.

The plan was approved and coordinated between Phoenix PD and line prosecutors by top MCAO officials. For example, one of the first written records we can find about the plan is from MCAO Director of Investigations Tom Van Dorn (who’s also a former Phoenix PD commander). He sent an email to a subordinate on September 28 telling him to explore building "conspiracy and syndicate type cases” with Phoenix PD against protesters.

You can see that in the fifth segment of our hour-long special report.

An MCAO bureau chief and division chief also both signed off on the plan. County Attorney Allister Adel claims she didn’t know. But the main prosecutor in the case, April Sponsel, said that’s a lie, and she’s prepping to sue Adel and MCAO for being made the “scapegoat.”

Now, MCAO’s original response. At first, the office was indignant when we raised questions about the gang charges. Just look at the response the office sent on Nov. 15, 2020, when I did a story about community groups speaking out about the charges.

It’s longer than what I’m about to copy-and-paste. But here’s some of that statement, in part. The asterisk was added by MCAO.

“While some will attempt to describe these defendants as ‘protestors,’ a grand jury found probable cause to *charge this group with crimes, including the planning of violence... As County Attorney Adel has publicly stated numerous times, MCAO is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike. While we fully support the rights of everyone to exercise their first amendment rights, we will not allow violence to take over our streets.”

One of the things I hadn’t realized until watching your reporting was just how lockstep the police and prosecutors are. Why is that kind of relationship problematic?

I think the question kind of answers itself.

After our reporting removed any speck of legitimacy left in the protest cases, the county attorney hired a retired judge to conduct an outside review into how MCAO handled everything.

The retired judge pointed out that prosecutors had too much “affinity” for police officers. Affinity is a gentler word for bias. MCAO prosecutors were biased. They believed and worked with Phoenix Police to build a gang case even though there was no evidence. So, they then tried to create the evidence through false testimony and bogus supplemental documentation. Here’s one example:

But there’s a deeper issue here.

All felony protest cases were specifically screened and sent to MCAO’s First Responder Bureau, or FRB. Adel created the FRB. It was one of the first major moves Adel made after her appointment in late 2019. One of the key functions of the FRB: Prosecute crimes against police. Think about that. MCAO took police protester cases and specifically assigned them to the unit primarily responsible for prosecuting crimes against police.

So I wonder what you think is at the heart of the problem within both PPD and MCAO. Essentially, who or what is to blame for the culture that has allowed this kind of thing to happen?

The heart of the problem is a lack of accountability. They largely police themselves. They’re protected by qualified immunity (for police) and absolute immunity (for prosecutors).

In these cases we’re talking about, Phoenix PD and MCAO framed protesters. They tried to falsely label them gang members and charged them with felony crimes, which could have put them in prison for decades.

At the top, Chief Jeri Williams got a one-day suspension for the gang charges and a piece of paper (written reprimand) for ignoring the coin. Adel got nothing. She’s an elected official. She would have to punish herself.

Both Williams and Adel claimed they didn’t know about the gang charged before they were filed. But they both knew almost immediately after. They did nothing until our reports exposed the misconduct.

Here’s a good example of Phoenix's passive initial response to our reporting.

A good answer to your question comes from a defense attorney we profiled in one of our reports and mentioned earlier in this interview. Jamaar Williams was falsely charged by Phoenix and MCAO in 2019. I asked him something similar. His answer was surprisingly simple.

“The county attorney isn’t going to hold them accountable. No one at the city is going to hold them accountable. No one at the police department is going to hold them accountable… So of course they are going to keep doing things they get away with.”

And I want to take a minute to look back at what this has all amounted to. Besides MCAO dropping charges, what are the concrete wins that have come out of your reporting? 

First and foremost, 39 felony protest cases were dropped.

The last one to be dismissed was from an August protest arrest. It was as egregious and full of lies as any of them. Rather than describe it, it’s best just to watch:

Obviously, the biggest impact was the Department of Justice launching an investigation. Phoenix is facing a massive probe: Protest cases, excessive force, how they investigate themselves, how they treat homeless people, and more. This will not be a short process. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some MCAO personnel pulled into the probe in some way.

Five Phoenix officers are supposed to face criminal investigations for their roles in the cases. But Phoenix was struggling to find an outside agency to actually take the investigation on. The AG’s Office said no. Tucson was balking. (I need to follow up on this. Thanks for the reminder!) But that really highlights your last question about the heart of this problem. In Arizona, police struggle to find somebody independent to investigate officers.

There were also demotions of multiple assistant chiefs and blocked future promotions for any commanders involved in this on the Phoenix side. More than a dozen protest response officers were reassigned. Two MCAO executives resigned. The main prosecutor on the case is on leave. But others at MCAO involved in all of this remain untouched.

But in all honesty, in the end, no one wins.

The protesters may have had their cases dismissed. But many of them lost a lot (jobs, housing, etc.) and the arrests are still on their record. They’re all suing. But in lawsuits against police and prosecutors, there are no guarantees.

Here’s one of the lawsuits.

Taxpayers will have to pay for the failures of Phoenix PD and MCAO. Not the officers. Not the prosecutors. The taxpayers.

Big picture, the protest scandal may be one that forever defines Phoenix PD.

It takes a lot to trigger a DOJ probe.

Minneapolis PD’s federal investigation was triggered by George Floyd’s murder. Louisville PD’s federal case triggered by officers killing Breonna Taylor. And now Phoenix, in large part, is facing one because of these protest cases.