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Former Arizona prison director Charles Ryan and Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel
Former Arizona prison director Charles Ryan and Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel

Ex-Prison Boss Drunkenly Pulls Gun On Cops, Shows Two Tiers Of Justice

Meg O’Connor, The Appeal

On the night of Jan. 6, Arizona’s former prison director, Charles Ryan, drank half a bottle of tequila and got into a three-hour armed standoff that involved about 50 police officers. After a tense confrontation in which Ryan repeatedly pointed a gun at officers, Tempe police took Ryan into custody and brought him to a hospital — but he was never booked into jail. In the end, Ryan went back home like nothing had happened.

The incident began with a 911 call from Ryan’s wife, who told police she feared that her husband had injured himself. When police arrived, Ryan’s wife stepped out of their home and told police that Ryan had been “consuming half a bottle of tequila regularly at night for the past two years.” Ryan eventually stepped outside and pointed a handgun at two cops for over 30 seconds.

When someone points a gun at police officers, they often get shot. But instead, police went to incredible lengths to protect Ryan from himself, even as he put officers’ safety in danger.

First, police hit Ryan with a beanbag round, prompting him to return inside his home. In the ensuing hours, a swarm of law enforcement officers, including hostage negotiators and SWAT teams, descended on the upscale, gated community where Ryan lives. Police evacuated seven homes in the area. They spent hours urging him to come out over a loudspeaker. They brought a robot and an armored vehicle to the scene, and eventually used the robot to push open Ryan’s front door. Then they convinced Ryan to go to the hospital with them. 

This more compassionate, though in many ways still militarized and excessive, approach shows that police absolutely can peacefully de-escalate deadly situations if they want to. But the approach officers take is often based on their perception of the threat an individual poses, as well as the value they place on that person’s life — judgments that are inherently tied to race, class, and status. While all of this worked out in Ryan’s favor, it tends not to when the individual isn’t wealthy, white, and powerful.

Tempe police did not show the same restraint in January 2019, when they encountered Antonio Arce fleeing down an alley with a toy airsoft gun in his hand. Instead, an officer shot the 14-year-old boy in the back and killed him. After the shooting, the officer retired and now collects about $30,000 a year in retirement benefits. He faced no criminal charges, no official discipline, and no other form of accountability. This sort of disparate treatment is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the U.S. justice system. 

Tempe police submitted charges against Ryan to the county prosecutor’s office for aggravated assault on a peace officer. But Ryan’s fate is now in the hands of a fellow privileged white person who has made headlines after drinking: Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. 

Adel — who decided not to charge the Tempe cop who killed Arce — has been embroiled in scandal since her election in 2020 to a full term as top prosecutor for the third-largest prosecuting agency in the country. That drama began on election night, in fact, with a trip to the hospital for emergency surgery after she fell and hit her head. Adel has denied the fall had anything to do with her very public battle with alcoholism.

In the time since, Adel’s office has colluded with Phoenix police to manufacture gang charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, a scandal that has triggered multiple outside investigations, resignations and demotions of both prosecutors and police, several lawsuits, and the dismissal of nearly 40 bogus cases against protesters. 

In August, the Department of Justice launched a pattern-and-practice probe into the Phoenix Police Department, citing, among other things, the fabricated charges against protesters. In September, the county sheriff forced Adel to admit that she wasn’t in the office because she was at an out-of-state rehab clinic getting treatment for alcoholism, anxiety, and an eating disorder. At the time, Adel asked the public to treat her with “patience” and “grace,” despite the fact that her office almost never shows such sympathy to less privileged people who are struggling with the same challenges. 

Adel returned to work after 19 days in rehab — though she has repeatedly misstated how much time she spent there — but a recent story by the Arizona Republic revealed that she has been absent from many events she was expected to attend. One staffer reported that Adel was slurring her words during an after-hours call in November, leading the employee to believe she was inebriated. 

Things took a sharp turn for the worse earlier this month. The top spokesperson for the county attorney’s office announced her resignation, citing frustrations over repeatedly being called on to defend Adel personally. Then, in a seemingly retaliatory move, Adel had the spokesperson escorted out of the building and ordered her not to have any contact with other employees. 

Now, five of the top-ranking officials within the county attorney’s office have sent a letter to Adel, county officials, and the state bar association calling on Adel to resign. The head staff outlined numerous issues with Adel’s behavior and absence at the office, and alleged that during work hours at 11 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 14, Adel made another drunken call to one of the office’s top prosecutors to talk about “pranking” an employee who had just resigned. 

Adel has vehemently denied the allegations and says she has no plans to step down. And why would she? Powerful people like Adel rarely have to face consequences for their own actions. Consequences are for other people — like the 62-year-old man struggling with substance use who Adel’s office sentenced to years in prison after he failed to return a rental car on time.

It’s against this backdrop that Adel is weighing charges for Charles Ryan, a man who retired as Arizona’s corrections director in 2019 after it was revealed that he had ignored serious safety issues in prisons and put people’s lives at risk. (Ryan faced no official punishment in that instance, either.) Although Ryan’s January actions would constitute a grievous crime in almost any other circumstance—pointing a gun at the cops is routinely punished by extrajudicial execution—Adel may see them as little more than regrettable indiscretions, akin to drunk-dialing a colleague. 

Ryan has already received such special treatment once, from the police who proved that it’s possible for them not to kill someone pointing a gun at them. Now, Adel will decide whether Ryan will get the same harsh treatment she’s doled out to so many others, or whether he’s deserving of the sort of compassion that Adel wants others to grant to her — a compassion typically reserved for powerful white people and few others.

In the news

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San Francisco police linked a woman to a property crime using DNA from her rape kit. District Attorney Chesa Boudin said his office learned last week that the police use DNA samples from victims of sexual assault to identify potential perpetrators in other cases. Boudin is calling on the legislature to ban the practice. Boudin’s office has dropped the charges against the woman. “This practice treats victims like evidence, not human beings,” Boudin said. “This is legally and ethically wrong.” [Megan Cassidy / San Francisco Chronicle]

New York City’s child protective services agency took Kenneth Watkins’s son when he was less than a week old. There were no allegations of abuse or neglect. Over the next few years, Watkins, who is Black, was forced to take parenting classes, attend countless court hearings, and have the minutiae of his parenting scrutinized — from the movies he showed his son (The Lion King) to the food he fed him (french fries). The court finally agreed to give Watkins custody of his own son, but ordered him to move out of his mother’s home, where he’d lived since before his son was born. With nowhere to go, he and his son, then a toddler, entered the shelter system. [Petra Bartosiewicz / New York Magazine]

Waverly Lucas says Suffolk County police ripped off his prosthetic leg. Lucas is now suing the department. Video shows the police tossing his leg in the back of their police cruiser. The department has still not returned his leg. Lucas was charged with possession of pain medication, which he said he has a prescription for and takes for his leg. “To rip that off, it’s like someone ripping off your skin,” Lucas told NBC New York. [Pei-Sze Cheng / NBC New York]

Shelby County, Tennessee, District Attorney General Amy Weirich told The New Tri-State Defender that Pamela Moses, who was sentenced to six years for voter fraud, brought the sentence upon herself by deciding to go to trial.  Moses was convicted of registering to vote while still on probation even though a probation officer had signed a certificate stating that her probation had ended. “I gave her a chance to plead to a misdemeanor with no prison time,” Weirich told the paper. “She requested a jury trial instead.” [Sybil C. Mitchell / The New Tri-State Defender]

Rebecca Hogue’s boyfriend killed her 2-year-old son while she was at work. Hogue was convicted of her son’s murder under Oklahoma’s “failure to protect” law. The jury recommended life without parole. The judge sentenced her to 16 months in prison. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones]

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