Phoenix Police got burned using the Signal app. Will others learn? – The Arizona Republic

Law enforcement’s handling of a 2020 case involving protesters turned out to be a series of knuckleheaded decisions.
Perhaps the most knuckleheaded was the use by Phoenix Police brass of the secretive messaging app Signal to discuss the case in the aftermath.
There’s no evidence that Police Chief Jeri Williams knew beforehand of the decision to charge protesters as street gang members, or that she and her subordinates used Signal to circumvent a sweeping Justice Department investigation into claims of abuse, excessive use of force and discrimination by Phoenix Police.
But that misses the point.
Which is the implication that goes with merely using disappearing-messaging apps: Someone is hiding something. Even if there may be no proof.
Why else would anyone need an encrypted messaging system that automatically deletes the content?
The implication packs a serious punch for Phoenix Police and poses a cautionary tale for other government officials. Just look at how the innuendos have been wielded in this case in recent months.
The messages Williams purportedly sent in Signal in August 2021 to underlings in a group named “Just the Top” – and captured in screenshots that were leaked to the media as part of a lawsuit filed by demoted assistant chiefs – were innocuous.
“Don’t act like we don’t have culpability in some of this. Collins should not have been arrested. We should have never sought gang charges. Settle In that guys.”
“A test we are not meant to pass. Settle into that also.”
A year later:Justice investigation into Phoenix police continues
And a couple of days later:
“Forewarning everyone report will go tomorrow or Friday. It will not bode well for many of us on our floor. Don’t know the extent. The Gang Charges is the one.”
Then, when the city’s independent report was issued, a message fired off to one of the demoted assistant chiefs: 
“John, I just heard and I’m sick to my stomach over the news. I don’t know how we got to this point and I can only imagine how you feel. I wish there was something, anything I could do.”
Williams hurt her own cause big-time when her office told reporters that she had in 2020 stopped using Signal and instructed her executive staff to do likewise – only for those screenshot messages dated 2021 to surface and make her out to be lying.
Her critics took that and ran with it. Williams, the argument goes, knew of the case long before she acknowledged publicly, throwing her subordinates under the bus to save her own job.
And that at the chief’s direction, they were encouraged to use Signal on department matters to avoid establishing a records trail.
Williams, of course, had little to counter the narrative.
Her Signal app, the screenshots indicate, was set to delete all messages 30 minutes after they have been read. At most, messages on the app last for four weeks, then are automatically erased. Never mind that the content of her captured messages didn’t involve the actual carrying out of an official duty or policy.
The absence of a record means there is no way for her to prove what, if any, official business messages she sent or received (unless she, too, took snapshots of her own).
The absence of a record means there is no way for her to prove what, if any, messages she sent or received (unless she, too, took snapshots of her own).
The city of Phoenix, too, got painted with the same innuendos – that officials have largely stayed silent on the lawsuit and Williams’ use of the self-destructing messaging app because they, too, are compromised.
Mayor Kate Gallego, for instance, is on Signal, as are, or were, several other City Council members. As were members in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the protesters’ case.
The same can be said of some state lawmakers and who knows what other government officials. If not Signal, then WhatsApp or Telegram or some app with the same auto-erase function.
They all risk being accused of conducting government business in secret and landing in hot water.
Arizona law considers any communication by elected officials and other government employees about work –- ones that relate to the office’s “functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations” – to be a public record that must be maintained and provided upon request. 
That’s regardless of whether the communication is done on a work-issued device or a personal one. 
Message-deleting apps present a novel challenge given there’s no database from which to recover the contents or metadata of erased messages. But that doesn’t relieve officials of the duty to review those messages and preserve ones that are public record.
Depending on the importance of the record, it wouldn’t be out of bounds for a lawyer or a judge to assert that a government official using a message-deleting app for business constitutes knowingly destroying or losing a public record and faces repercussions.
Determining whether Phoenix Police brass’ use of Signal falls into the crosshairs of the Justice Department’s ongoing probe will take months, perhaps years, to play out.
Odds are, other officials in Arizona will become case studies in the perils of using self-destructing message apps before then. They should consider themselves forewarned.
Reach Abe Kwok at On Twitter: @abekwok
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