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Lawsuit Filed Over Phoenix Police 'Challenge Coin' Depicting Injured Protester

A police officer has filed a lawsuit seeking to bar the city of Phoenix from continuing its internal investigation of him for allegedly possessing a law enforcement souvenir that depicted a protester getting shot in the groin outside a 2017 rally held by then-President Donald Trump.

Officer Christopher Turiano, who fired the pepper ball that struck the protester and was found in a separate inquiry to have possessed a rubber patch portraying the protester’s injury, has refused to turn over his personal cellphone data to internal investigators.

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The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleges his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was being violated. He is seeking a court order that bars the investigation from continuing until a judge examines his legal claims.

The internal investigation centers on special “challenge coins” and patches that are circulated among officers to commemorate police operations. Phoenix officers passed around coins and patches that portrayed a demonstrator wearing a gas mask getting shot with a pepper ball and contained a vulgar comment about his injury.

The image on the souvenirs closely resembled a protester who was shot during a 2017 protest outside a Trump rally in downtown Phoenix. Video of the encounter, which also showed the protester kicking a smoke canister back at police officers, became viral on social media.

Phoenix Police challenge coins
"Challenge coins" allegedly created by a team of Phoenix Police officers to commemorate injuring a protester.

“The city stands by its right to receive and to expect cooperation from its employees in internal investigations and looks forward to clarification from the court as to the issues presented,” said city spokesman Dan Wilson.

Last week, Police Chief Jeri Williams received a written reprimanded for leadership lapses stemming from the souvenirs depicting the injured protester. A law firm hired by the city to conduct a separate investigation couldn’t determine who created the coin, but noted it was circulated among officers in late 2017, while they were on city property and on the clock. The lawyers said Turiano had received a patch from a detective.

The police chief didn’t know of the offensive souvenirs’ existence until August 2019, right before her deposition in a lawsuit that alleged police used excessive force and violated the free-speech rights of protesters outside the Trump rally.

As part of that lawsuit, Turiano agreed to give access to his phone data, but the information was to be kept confidential and could be used only in the litigation. He has since declined requests for the data in other inquiries, according to Turriano’s lawsuit.

His lawsuit said Turiano has been told by investigators that he could face discipline, including being fired, for his refusal to provide his cellphone data.

The protester who was shot in the groin received probation for his misdemeanor disorderly conduct conviction stemming from his actions at the protest.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a  widespread investigation of the Phoenix Police Department to examine whether officers have been using excessive force and abusing people experiencing homelessness.

The investigation also will seek to determine if officers have retaliated against people engaged in protected First Amendment activities.

Vaughan Jones is the weekend reporter for KJZZ, and a graduate of ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism, with a minor in music. As a Phoenix native, Jones’s dream is to serve his community by covering important stories in the metropolitan area.He spent two years as music director at Blaze Radio, ASU’s student-run radio station. His passion for radio stems from joining Blaze his freshman year as a DJ.When he is not working, Jones can be found writing music with his band, playing video games with his friends, or watching his favorite Phoenix-area sports teams.