Phoenix officials issue warning to protesters: Officers will not tolerate criminal activity

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams says protesters Friday night criminally damaged 18 properties – shattering doors and windows, spraying graffiti on walls. (Photo via Facebook)

PHOENIX – Phoenix officials on Saturday braced for another night of protests and said they would continue to allow for peaceful demonstration. However, officers will take action if those demonstrations turn criminal: “To be clear: The level of criminal behavior we saw last night will not be tolerated today,” Police Chief Jeri Williams said.

City officials held the Saturday afternoon news conference after demonstrations turned violent earlier this week.

On Thursday night, police declared an unlawful assembly after protesters gathered in downtown Phoenix streets for hours. And on Friday evening, a vigil for Dion Johnson at Eastlake Park east of downtown turned into a march to the Phoenix Police Department headquarters, according to Johnson was shot last week by an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer near Loop 101 at Tatum Boulevard.

Protesters also expressed anger and frustration over the May 25 death of George Floyd, 46, a black man who died after bystander videos showed a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. The death has sparked protests nationwide.

“This is not the first time we have seen this type of interaction, and it’s an outward manifestation of the racial inequity that has plagued our nation for centuries,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said. “People are upset, enraged that this has happened again – and they should be.”

She said issues have been ignored for years, and the majority of people who gathered in Phoenix to grieve and protest had every right to do so. However, she said a “smaller, but dangerous” group of people broke windows, confronted reporters and vandalized private and public buildings.

Williams said protesters criminally damaged 18 properties – shattering doors and windows, spraying graffiti on walls.

Police said demonstrators smashed windows or slashed tires on eight marked police vehicles, according to KTAR. Police also said protesters assaulted eight officers by throwing objects at them.

Williams estimated it would cost hundreds and thousands of dollars to repair the damage.

“We cannot let a small group (with) a propensity for violence and chaos direct our attention away from the very real conversation that needs to be had about race and policing in America,” Gallego said.

Williams echoed Gallego’s statements, adding that the officers on her force will support peaceful demonstrations, but they will shut things down if people don’t follow the law.

“If the activities of the evening turn criminal, officers will and must take action to protect the safety of everyone involved,” she said. “We also will not allow the violent actions of these individuals to overshadow the peaceful protests being practiced by other residents.”

Williams also said the department is responding to graffiti threats that the city would “burn.” In addition to more fencing, Williams said she has reached out to additional law enforcement agencies to help with both manpower and equipment.

Williams said the department will be “smarter about the number of people that we have on scene today versus what we had yesterday.” She also said officers would not allow as much time and room for people to stop criminal behavior, and they will be more proactive about taking action.

Councilman Michael Nowakowski had a message for parents: “As a father, I wanna make sure that the parents know that if your children come out tonight, your young adults come out tonight and they decide to throw rocks, burn trees or graffiti our buildings, that can lead up to a felony and they will be arrested.”

The news conference, which also was shared live on Facebook, attracted mixed reactions on social media. Some users showed support for city officials and police officers, while others expressed anger at how officials have responded.

Others shared mixed sentiments. One Facebook user commented, “I don’t support property damage, but you’d be naive not to understand the emotion behind it.”

Gov. Doug Ducey released a statement on Saturday, complimenting law enforcement officers for “their professional and valiant work the last two nights in protecting public safety and defusing the situations in downtown Phoenix and Tucson.”

“We will always respect the First Amendment rights of citizens to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard,” the statement said. “We will not, however, tolerate rioting, looting, violence, destruction of property or any behavior that endangers the safety or rights of other individuals.”

Ducey said he has offered the “full support” of the state to Williams and Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus. “We’ve got their backs,” he added.

Jalpan Nanavati jul-puhn nah-nah-vuh-tee (he/him/his)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Jalpan Nanavati is an undergraduate student from India majoring in journalism and mass communications with a minor in film and media production. He was a journalist for Cronkite News in summer 2020, and he’s returning as a broadcast reporter in summer 2021. He has produced and directed short films and a full-length documentary.