The beating started shortly after they had the prisoner inside the doors of the Raines Precinct offices.
Three uniformed officers of the Memphis Police Department began punching and kicking Daniel Jefferson Jr., who’d just shot and wounded a plainclothes police detective during a chaotic traffic stop.
“They are trying to kill me!’’ Jefferson reportedly screamed during the ordeal, much of it occurring as he lay in handcuffs on the floor. He suffered bruises across his face, chest and back.
Supervisors later handed out suspensions ranging from 15 to 20 days for violations of the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force policy, but legal experts who reviewed the April 2, 2015 incident for the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian say the case appears to have been mishandled.
“That’s tantamount to torture,’’ said former federal prosecutor John Osgood, a defense lawyer in suburban Kansas City who said this is not a standard case of unnecessary force in which officers get too rough when trying to arrest a noncompliant subject.
Osgood and two other legal experts said the case should have been submitted for possible criminal prosecution of the officers. Yet the MPD internal affairs file says the matter wasn’t referred to the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office — an assertion confirmed this week by top prosecutor Amy Weirich, who said “it sounds like it should have been’’ referred to allow her office to weigh possible criminal charges.
In a statement released through a spokeswoman, U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant said federal investigators “did not receive a referral on this incident in 2015,” nor did his office open an investigation “at that time.” Yet Dunavant didn’t seem to rule out any investigation into the matter. His statement went on to say that Justice Department policy doesn’t allow him to “confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations.”
MPD has not responded to two requests for comment, though a spokeswoman confirmed that two of the three officers disciplined for excessive use of force are still on the force.
Available records don’t say why the case wasn’t referred. But police supervisors considered Jefferson’s injuries to be “minor,” and they evidently didn’t believe the beating went as far as he’d claimed.
It’s difficult to say whether the handling of the case is an anomaly or part of a larger practice given the limited access the city has granted to its police excessive force files.
In answer to a public records request filed by the Institute in partnership with The Daily Memphian to inspect excessive force complaints against MPD officers over the past five years, Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration is allowing the review of reports twice a week for about three hours a session. Officers at MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau have told a journalist he can take notes only. Although reporters have been allowed in the past to shoot pictures of documents with smartphones, ISB says that’s not allowed now.
Copies of the records were originally requested, but Strickland’s Public Records Office said it would cost $6,000 and require months to produce the documents. The request was changed to inspect the records, because state law mandates that government cannot charge fees for simple inspection.
The city’s decision runs contrary to trends allowing greater —not restricted — access to police records following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, says Gunita Singh.
“The public and the press deserve meaningful, unencumbered access to law enforcement records,’’ said Singh, legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“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.”
A request to interview Strickland about access to police records was referred to city Chief Legal Officer Jennifer A. Sink, who said it’s been city policy for four years to not allow citizens to take pictures during records inspections. Individual copies can be ordered for a fee, she said.
“We have a legal right to charge you for those copies,” Sink said.
In a news conference earlier this week, Strickland announced the launch of a new Memphis Police Department website —reimagine.memphistn.gov — to increase transparency and help shore up public trust. That eventually could include the ability to review misconduct reports online, though Strickland said the city must first convert its “20th Century’’ system of paper files to an electronic format.
Meantime, the manual search through MPD’s excessive-force investigations is a slow and tedious process. The city is making chronological batches of the reports available for inspection on a rolling basis.
Among 30 reports reviewed from 2015, administrative charges were sustained in nine — 30 percent — including a February 2015 incident in which a lieutenant failed to report to a commander about a juvenile’s allegation of brutality.
Some cases reveal thorny legal issues.
For example, internal investigators did not uphold allegations in a January 2015 case in which officers chased an 18-year-old black man across the grounds of an apartment complex before allegedly kicking in the door to his mother’s apartment only to use force to arrest him on misdemeanor charges.
Such actions pose troubling questions about racial profiling and “raise red flags about the behavior of the individual officers and the larger culture of the Department,’’ said University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman, director of the school’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.
“Each of these decisions raise serious civil rights issues and issues about Departmental policies, practices, supervision, training, and most importantly accountability. The accountability concerns are even more striking, in light of the Department’s failure to refer the officers in (the Jefferson case) to the local & federal prosecutors,’’ Futterman said in an email.
Beating follows shooting
It was not quite noon that day when MPD Organized Crime Unit detective Robert Armour was shot.
He’d been following a suspect — 29-year-old Daniel Jefferson — for several blocks when the situation blew up. According to police, Jefferson suddenly stopped and bounded from his car. When Armour did the same, Jefferson fired several shots from a handgun, striking Armour in the leg.
In an interview this week, Jefferson admitted shooting Armour. But his version of events is far different than that given by police.
“I did what I did out of self defense. I was protecting my life,” said Jefferson, now 34, as he stood in his mother’s driveway in Whitehaven, not far from the scene of the shooting five years earlier.
As Jefferson tells it, he never knew Armour was a cop. The officer had followed him for several blocks in an unmarked car. When Armour bounded from his car with a gun — dressed in a T-shirt and camouflage pants, Jefferson says — panic ensued.
“He jumped straight out with his gun,” said Jefferson, who says he’s been shot before and suffers from PTSD. “Who’s gonna let you run up on them like that?”
Jefferson admits he’s been no saint. A high school dropout, he’s found work as a barber. But with limited options, he accumulated a long string of marijuana-related arrests.
“I was around the wrong people at the wrong time,” he explains.
After the shooting, Jefferson was arrested without incident. But the situation grew tense after he was taken into custody.
Across 58 pages in the summary report of ISB case I2015-013, MPD internal investigators recount how officers allegedly kicked, punched, body-slammed and humiliated Jefferson as he was restrained by handcuffs fastened behind his back.
It started, according to police records, when Officer David Rowsey picked up Jefferson by his pants and punched him in the stomach as he carried the suspect to a squad car to transport him to the Raines Precinct station at 791 E. Raines Road in Whitehaven. The serious blows came inside the station.
“Mr. Jefferson advised as soon as he got to the door, officers started hitting him in his ribs and back,’’ says the ISB report. “A white male wearing a suit and necktie said, ‘Go take him to the bathroom, don’t do it out here.’ ’’
In response, Jefferson alleged, officers took him to a recreation room where Officer Jeremy Mackey joined in.
“Once in the room, Officer Mackey pulled Mr. Jefferson’s shirt over his head and started hitting him in the ribs. Officer Mackey then leaned over the table and started hitting him with a ping pong paddle,’’ says the report, recounting Jefferson’s statement.
The report is a summary of facts and allegations collected by internal investigators. Such reports are used by supervisors in deciding whether to pursue administrative charges against officers.
“Afterwards, officers picked him up by the handcuffs and slammed him to the ground. During this time an officer kept saying, ‘Take the handcuffs off so we can kill him,’ ’’ the report alleges.
The precise sequence of events in Jefferson’s account seems unclear, but at one point Rowsey “kicked the handcuffed prisoner in the back’’ knocking him to the floor.
The report lays out Jefferson’s allegations like this:
“Mr. Jefferson balled up on the floor and Officer Rowsey stated, ‘It’s time to get some WCW (World Championship Wrestling) s–t going on.’ Officer Rowsey hit him with a chair and kicked him in the buttocks and groin three or four times. Another officer entered the room and hit him in the side of the head with some kind of food container that he described as a ‘little plastic bucket.’
“At that point someone whom Mr. Jefferson believed to be a lieutenant entered the room. Mr. Jefferson started yelling for help and the ‘lieutenant’ told officers to ‘cut it out.’ Officers immediately stopped striking Mr. Jefferson. One of the officers pulled out his baton and put it in Mr. Jefferson’s ribs and stated, ‘I’m gonna break yo ribs if you don’t shut up’ and another officer wearing a suit stated, ‘I’m mace you myself.’ Mr. Jefferson stopped talking to avoid being struck again.’’
Caught in Deceit
But the officers weren’t done yet, Jefferson alleged:
“Mr. Jefferson advised officers then said it was ‘time for round two.’ They walked him toward the suspect bench and officer Rowsey kicked him in his back. Officer Rowsey continued punching him as he was being handcuffed to the bench.’’
Asked about the incident this week, Jefferson contended the officers “stomped’’ his private parts, beat him with a ping pong paddle and performed other acts of abuse.
“I did what I did out of self defense. They did what they did out of retaliation,” said Jefferson, contending officers began beating him when he tried to explain he’d shot their colleague not knowing he was a cop.
“Every action deserves a reaction. True enough. But if you’re dealing with law enforcement, this is your lifestyle. This is how you make your way of living. You got to have some type of self control about yourself.”
The officers denied Jefferson’s allegations. There was no video.
But why would MPD supervisors accept the word of Jefferson, a felon, over the that of their own officers?
The answer appears to involve “deceit’’ internal investigators detected in the officers’ accounts.
“Officers Rowsey and Mackey initially gave deceitful information in regards to (Jefferson) being struck by officers,’’ the report said, relating how both officers had submitted memos stating Jefferson “flopped to the ground and claimed he had AIDS.’’
In their accounts, the officers contended Jefferson became combative as they removed his handcuffs while trying to shackle his leg to a detention bench.
“They maintained that version of events even when speaking to ISB Investigators. However, they were inconsistent as to who actually removed Mr. Jefferson’s handcuffs, each stating that the other officer performed that action. Ultimately, when pressed on the details of what occurred, Officer Rowsey finally admitted using force against Mr. Jefferson,’’ the report said.
In his new account, Rowsey admitted kicking Jefferson in the back after Jefferson bragged about shooting Detective Armour.
“At that point officer Rowsey kicked Mr. Jefferson in the back causing him to stumble forward. He remained on his feet for a moment, but then suddenly flopped down on the floor, still handcuffed behind his back. Officer Rowsey and Officer Mackey then began punching him as he lay handcuffed on the floor. Officer Mackey punched Mr. Jefferson twice in the stomach area as (Rowsey) punched Mr. Jefferson in the back and in the stomach,’’ the report said, summarizing Rowsey’s statement.
Rowsey said that’s when a third officer, Armond Fairley, came into the room:
“Officer Fairley stated something to the effect of ‘Is this the guy that shot the officer?’ and proceeded to punch Mr. Jefferson in the stomach area. Mr. Jefferson was laying on the floor handcuffed behind his back as Officer Fairley punched him. Mr. Jefferson began screaming for help and Officer Rowsey noticed additional officers in the room watching.’’
The additional eyeballs in the room may have played a role in uncovering the beating.
Another reason the officers apparently got caught was that Jefferson later complained of pain and was taken to The Regional Medical Center where “medical personnel observed him to have bruising to his face, back, and chest area,’’ the report said.
Statements of administrative charges were filed against Rowsey, Mackey and Fairley. Following hearings, Rowsey and Mackey each were suspended for 15 days for violating MPD’s use of force and personal conduct policies.
Fairley received a 20-day suspension for violations of use of force, personal conduct and truthfulness policies. Mackey and Rowsey originally had been charged, too, with fabricating false cover stories, but supervisors dropped truthfulness charges after they recanted. Col. J. E. Kirkwood upheld Fairley’s truthfulness charge because he didn’t recant until his administrative hearing in September 2015.
That violation led District Attorney Weirch’s office to place Fairley on a do-not-call list, meaning he would not be called as a witness in any criminal cases — a virtual death blow to a police officer. Fairley has since left the force, said MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph.
The report is unequivocal about what internal investigators believed had happened.
“The suspect, Daniel Jefferson, did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others because his hands were cuffed behind his back throughout his contact with officers,” investigators concluded.
Despite the apparent seriousness of the matter, page 37 of the 58-page ISB summary states, “This case file was not submitted to the Attorney General’s Office for Review.’’
Ron Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi who has taught criminal law, said this is the sort of matter that typically should be reviewed by prosecutors to determine any possible criminal law violations.
“If, in fact, a prisoner was beaten, and beaten in different locations, and beaten — apparently with cooperation from officers or others in the vicinity — you’ve got a crime,’’ Rychlak said.
Depending on the facts, the potential crime could range from simple assault — a misdemeanor — to felony aggravated assault, he said.
“Criminal law is you can’t touch someone in an offensive manner. And you can’t try to inflict harm on somebody. And that’s where assault and battery (come in). I mean, there’s a law, whether you’re a police officer or not,’’ Rychlak said.
Futterman, the University of Chicago law professor, agreed.
“What you described are not just administrative violations, but criminal batteries committed by the police officers. The investigations should have been referred to the local prosecutor’s office for criminal prosecution,’’ Futterman said in an email.
“They also should have been referred to the US Attorney’s Office, because, according to your description, the officers committed willful civil rights violations, which may be subject to prosecution under federal criminal statutes. It should be deeply disconcerting that the police did not refer this matter to the District Attorney & US Attorney for criminal investigation. National best practice would require notification & referral.’’
District Attorney Weirich said police advised her office about the the truthfulness finding against Officer Fairley, but didn’t refer the excessive-force case to her office for review.
“Why this case was not referred to me I have no idea. And maybe there is some explanation somewhere in the mind of some officer,” she said. “… For the most part, they do a very good job of sending us cases that they’ve got questions about, concerns about.”
Jefferson also alleged he was roughed up a second time that night by a detective in MPD’s investigative offices.
Osgood, the former federal prosecutor, said the incident reminds him of “the old third degree’’ often seen in crime Noir films when police work over a suspect “with the phonebook’’ or use other forms of abuse.
He also expressed surprise at the apparent leniency in Jefferson’s sentence, which he said smacks of a “sweetheart deal.’’ Originally charged with attempted murder, Jefferson received a six-year sentence in a November 2016 deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
“You shoot a cop in Kansas City, you’re going to get a 20- or 25-year sentence,” said Osgood, who maintains a law office in suburban Kansas City.
Jefferson’s attorney, Patience Branham, said she discussed her client’s beating while negotiating with prosecutors but believes a greater factor involved Jefferson’s mis-identification of the plainclothes officer he shot.
“He was afraid this person was going to rob him or kill him,’’ Branham said. “When he finally pulled up right on him he freaked out.’’
Among other ISB cases:
* Internal investigators found sufficient evidence to bring neglect of duty charges against Lt. Brockton Owens for failing to report a teenager’s allegation he was beaten by an officer outside a roller skating rink in February 2015. Though investigators found insufficient evidence to support the teen’s allegation, they concluded that Owens should have reported the matter to commanders. Available records show an administrative charge of neglect of duty was dismissed but Owens received a two-day suspension for failing to comply with rules and regulations.
* Officer Antwaun Cooper received a 12-day suspension for hitting a suspect with his car in June 2015 as the suspect fled on foot across a playground. According to a report, the man became trapped under the squad car suffering abrasions, burns and “disfigurement to his face.”
Internal investigators found insufficient evidence to sustain excessive force charges against two officers who pursued an African-American teenager in January 2015 into a private apartment where he and his mother allege police beat him.
Officers had seen Jervon Caery, then 18, about 8 p.m. the night of Jan. 24, 2015 walking across the grounds of the Cedar Woods Apartments, a privately owned complex in Raleigh designated as a “Safeways’’ project. Safeways is a public-private anti-crime program that includes participation in the District Attorney’s Anti-Trespass Program that seeks to limit undesirable influences in housing developments. Individuals who have committed crimes or caused trouble can be placed on “ban lists’’.
According to reports, Caery had been placed on Cedar Woods’ ban list two months earlier, though it’s not clear if officers knew that when they stopped him that night. The stop happened as Officer Aron Giannini worked a Blue Crush detail focused on reducing robberies.
Giannini later said he “observed a black male walking alone at night through the complex’’ and approached him “to determine if he was a resident or in violation of the anti-criminal trespass ban.’’
When Giannini approached Caery, he raised his hands and then fled on foot. Giannini and a second officer, Andrew Hammond, chased him. He ran to his mother’s apartment, slammed the door behind him, then ran into his mother’s bedroom. He and his mother contend he has PTSD and has a fear of police.
According to Caery’s aunt, the police kicked the door in. The officers reportedly followed him into the apartment with guns drawn and found him in the back bedroom. Accounts differ, but officers agree some force was used — mainly punches — to control Caery, who’d allegedly swung at an officer. Caery and his mother contend he got on his knees and exclaimed he’d done nothing wrong, but was beaten anyway.
“Mr. Caery advised that he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is fearful of the police and therefore did not resist in any way, shape or form,’’ the internal report says. Caery said just prior to the incident he’d got off work and had bought some marijuana.
Carey was charged with several misdemeanors — no felonies — including disorderly conduct, resisting, possession of marijuana and criminal trespass. He later pleaded guilty to resisting and was sentenced to a day in jail. He has since been convicted of two burglaries.
“It’s difficult to see how Mr. Caery’s flight alone from the project could create the kind of exigent circumstances to permit the police to enter his home without a warrant,’’ said the University of Chicago’s Futterman, who said the incident raises concerns about racial profiling as well as possible violations of the Fourth Amendment that bans unreasonable searches and seizures.
However, the University of Mississippi’s Rychlak said the pursuit of Caery appears to be legally defensible.
“Those would be acceptable police practices,’’ Rychlak said, citing a controversial 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Illinois vs. Wardlow, that allows police to chase and detain individuals in “high-crime areas’’ who create “reasonable suspicion’’ through “nervous, evasive behavior’’ such as running from officers.
The entry into the home also appears defensible in light of a 1976 Supreme Court decision, United States vs. Santana, which allowed officers in “hot pursuit’’ of a narcotics suspect to enter a home without a warrant.
Nonetheless, such practices help create much of the distrust of police that now exists among many people of color, said Kenneth B. Nunn.
“There’s all kinds of shenanigans about how something gets designated as a high crime area,’’ said Nunn, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
“Even if the only thing they have is a black male running in a high crime neighborhood and adjacent to this particular apartment, that does not provide probable cause of anything that is reasonable suspicion. And reasonable suspicion of what? It’s reasonable suspicion he might be in a place he’s not supposed to be? Or he might be in possession of some contraband or something like that? But they would need more to be able to show that he was a felon — a dangerous felon fleeing from the police.’’
A neck hold
At the same time, records show police often find themselves in difficult spots seemingly ruled by stress, adrenalin and split-second decisions.
Such a moment seemed to come on the night of Oct. 13, 2015, when officers responded to a domestic violence call in the Country Squire Apartments in Cordova. The suspect, Antonio Wooten, 20, ran from officers as they attempted to handcuff him. Officer Jeffrey Creighton later caught up with Wooten on foot.
He subdued the resisting suspect with “strikes’’ from his feet and an ASP baton — both deemed appropriate by internal investigators. But investigators took issue when he finally handcuffed Wooten and tried to pick him up by the cuffs.
“When this proved insufficient to get him to his feet you placed your right arm around his neck and lifted him to a standing position,’’ says a statement of charges that accused Creighton of violating MPD’s excessive force policy.
Crieighton countered that he’d attempted to pick up Wooten by his chest but his arm “unintentionally’’ slipped up around his neck “due to the suspect being sweaty.’’
The whole thing was captured on video by a TV news crew that had responded to the police radio traffic.
That video touched off a debate at Creighton’s disciplinary hearing when his Memphis Police Association union representative Gregory Patrick objected.
“Officer Patrick advised that this hearing would not even had been called if it were not for the video footage obtained by ABC News 24, because the suspect never lodged a complaint and refused to cooperate with the ISB investigation,’’ a hearing summary states.
“He explained how it is impossible to function effectively, given the increased amount of anti-police rhetoric and attitudes of the general public. He stated that officers are expected to combat violent crime and attempt to apprehend violent offenders, but would get hurt it we ‘go in soft.’’’
But the hearing officer — Col. Michael R. Williams — took issue with Creighton’s actions, handing out a four-day suspension.
“After viewing the video several times during this hearing and listening intently to what each person present had to say, I explained that it was my opinion that some of the actions by Officer Creighton during this incident were definitely unnecessary and contrary to the training regimen that he had received at the academy,‘’ Williams said.