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Phoenix Cops Could Face Felony Charges For Pepper Spraying A Homeless Woman And Lying About It

CREDIT: MARIO KLINGEMANN/FLICKR
CREDIT: MARIO KLINGEMANN/FLICKR

The Phoenix Police Department is recommending felony charges against two of its officers after an investigation revealed they lied about their conduct following an incident in May that ended in the pair pepper spraying a woman.

This past May, Officers Christopher Tiona and Logan Egnor got into a verbal altercation with a woman who some local news reports have described as homeless. The conversation turned into a shouting match. Body camera footage shows Tiona telling Egnor to “spray her then.” Egnor pepper-sprays the woman, and Tiona says “You wanna be a dumb [expletive]? Go.” The two then return to their car.

In a report on the incident, the officers claimed they stayed with the woman for five to seven minutes to make sure she was okay. But GPS data confirms they actually left 40 seconds later. Additional body camera footage, captured after a supervisor reportedly told the officers to return to the scene, shows a conversation between the officers and a neighbor who is complaining that their actions left people in the area to deal with a woman screaming in pain.

The department has asked the Maricopa County Attorney to charge both officers with a felony over their false report, and recommended a misdemeanor assault charge against Egnor for spraying the woman.

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“I am extremely disappointed in the actions of these officers,” Chief Joseph Yahner said in a statement Friday, because they “chose to ignore our core values of professionalism and respect as well as policy and training.” Yahner was likely also referring to a third officer who the department wants to be charged with misdemeanor assault following a separate incident where video showed him repeatedly punching a suspect who was neither resisting nor armed.

Egnor, 30, has been with the Phoenix police for just over a year, Sergeant Jonathan Howard said in an email. Tiona has been on the force for over 8 years, according to local news reports. More detailed personnel records on the two were not immediately available.

It remains to be seen if Maricopa County will follow the department’s recommendations for charges. But the specific nature of those urgings — felony charges stemming from dishonesty, and a misdemeanor charge for the actual abuse of force underlying the false reports — is particularly noteworthy in light of how other law enforcement agencies have handled disciplinary matters involving officers’ truthfulness in cases with a much larger national media profile.

The most serious charges that Egnor and Tiona could face would punish an attempt to cover up misconduct. Recent decisions to prosecute officers in Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and South Carolina over civilian deaths, however, have seemed to omit accountability for the cover-ups that followed in each case.

In Chicago, Officer Jason Van Dyke is being charged with first-degree murder after shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October of last year. But accountability for the series of decisions that led to a 13-month delay between McDonald’s death and the release of video footage of the killing has not yet materialized, beyond the firing of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. The only criminal charges stemming from the events are against Van Dyke, even though other officers deleted video evidence of the shooting from a nearby Burger King and numerous city employees would likely have been involved in promoting the city’s official, dishonest narrative of the teenager’s death.

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Baltimore jurors will begin deliberating Monday on involuntary manslaughter and other charges against Officer William Porter, one of six officers being charged in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray Jr. Gray died in early 2015 from injuries that prosecutors say were sustained from a “rough ride,” a little-known form of police abuse in which officers put a restrained suspect in the back of a vehicle but do not buckle the person into a seatbelt — and then intentionally cause the person to get banged around the back of the vehicle by driving aggressively.

Gray’s attorneys have accused the city of withholding evidence about the case and trying to cover up the circumstances of Gray’s death. The six officers are being charged with a long list of crimes, but all relate to the acute circumstances of Gray’s death rather than to subsequent efforts to control the story.

Questions of information and deceit in the Gray case are relatively murky compared with two other recent police killings of black men where officers actually face charges. When Walter Scott and Sam DuBose were shot dead by officers in South Carolina and Cincinnati, respectively, the law enforcement infrastructure immediately circled the wagons around their killers. It was only after videos of the two incidents became public that the official stories in the two killings dissolved, and the officers responsible were brought up on criminal charges. But the other officers and supervisors who amplified and supported those initial lies have not faced the kind of stringent punishment for dishonesty that Phoenix is seeking from Tiona and Egnor.