MPD Excessive Force Complaints Coming to Light

Jul 8, 2020

In the wake of the recent George Floyd protests, law enforcement agencies nationwide are reconsidering what accountability and transparency means to a community. 

But as the media begin to pore over internal documents connected to race and policing, opacity is slowing down the search for answers.

One recent examination of Memphis Police Department use of force documents found the case of Daniel Jefferson, who shot an undercover police officer in the leg. 

In April 2015, Jefferson was being followed. When he pulled over, a bearded man in a t-shirt and camouflage pants jumped out of an unmarked police car with a gun. Jefferson says he panicked, having been shot before.

Jefferson's previous arrests for selling marijuana didn't prepare him for this booking at the Raines precinct police station. While restrained in handcuffs which were fastened behind his back, three uniformed police officers attacked him. 

"It's a group of officers come in and surround me," he said. "They take me into this little room with a ping pong table, like a recreational room. They take me in the recreational room, I was already handcuffed, they start beating me, they stomped me in my private parts, they hit me with chairs, they hit me with ping-pong tables."

Following an internal investigation, the officers were suspended for 15 to 20 days each. Legal experts now believe this case was mishandled. MPD failed to send the investigation to District Attorney Amy Weirich's office for possible criminal charges. The case is just one of several reports of excessive force now coming to light. 

Last week, Mayor Jim Strickland announced the launch of a new website, reimagine.memphistn.gov, that could eventually allow reporters to see misconduct reports online. 

"This new site will provide guidance and understanding to any individual or group interested in truly learning what our officers do and don't do," Mayor Strickland said. 

But access to documents are currently restricted. The Institute for Public Service Reporting has been allowed to view reports for about six hours per week. Veering from past practice, Strickland's administration won't allow picture taking of documents with a smartphone; it's notes only. 

Some of those internal reports raise questions of racial profiling and improperly detaining suspects. Gunita Singh, a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says withholding the records is contrary to the public interest. 

"The public and the press deserve meaningful, unencumbered access to law enforcement records," she says. "Understandably, there is an acute interest in law enforcement records right now in light of renewed discussions about police violence and oversight. Given that public records laws are a fundamental means with which we exercise oversight and accountability, agencies must make it easier -- not harder -- to secure access to records like excessive force reports."

Attorney General Amy Weirich says her office investigates complaints only when Shelby County police agencies self-report misconduct.

"There are times when they may send us information about an officer because of truthfulness concerns," Weirich says. "So there's lots of different buckets of categories of conduct on behalf of officers that we are asked to review. But, again, we don't know what we don't know."

With no apparent standards or policies currently in place over which excessive force reports get referred to local prosecutors, and internal police reports kept behind paywalls and at arms' length, victims of misconduct say greater scrutiny is needed.

"You can't be a tyrant over the community, man," says Daniel Jefferson. "You can't just beat and put your hands on people whenever you want to, however you feel like it."