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‘chokehold’ finding reversed by MPD commanders despite video

1 in 3 cases overturned by department brass, The Institute finds

In this freeze frame from police body camera footage, Memphis Police officer Enis Jackson’s elbow is seen in the foreground as he slips his left arm under a teenage girl’s chin. Police censors obscured the girl’s face. (Submitted)
In this freeze frame from police body camera footage, Memphis Police officer Enis Jackson’s elbow is seen in the foreground as he slips his left arm under a teenage girl’s chin. Police censors obscured the girl’s face. (Submitted)

This article was produced in partnership with The Daily Memphian and WREG-TV News Channel 3

As police body cameras roll, a girl screams, “I can’t breathe!’’

The newly released footage shows a Memphis patrolman placing an arm around the neck of the 15-year-old before he whisks her across a street, her feet dangling at times off the pavement.

As the Memphis Police Department weighs a request by District Attorney General Amy Weirich to start sending all confirmed cases of excessive force to her office for criminal review, this hotly disputed September 2016 incident illustrates how thorny Weirich’s proposal may be.

Records obtained by  opens in a new windowThe Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian in partnership with  opens in a new windowWREG-TV News Channel 3 show MPD’s internal investigators determined patrolman Enis Jackson violated use-of-force regulations only to have their finding overturned by commanders – one in a series of reversals that have  opens in a new windownegated a third of recent excessive force findings at MPD.

Investigators with MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau concluded Jackson had put the girl in a “chokehold,’’ but a deputy chief reversed them. Even when the girl’s family convinced the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) to ask MPD to reconsider, Police Director Michael Rallings refused.

“While the video depicts Officer Jackson’s arm around the neck of (the girl), it is apparent to me that he did not apply pressure,’’ Rallings wrote in a 2019 reply to the board.

But a medical expert specializing in police use of force who reviewed the bodycam footage for the news organizations said Rallings and his commanders couldn’t be more wrong in their analysis.

“That is deadly force,’’ said Bill Smock, a medical doctor on staff with the Louisville Metro Police Department and an adviser to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a nonprofit that educates police, legal, and health professionals on the dangers of applying pressure to the neck.

“There is pressure on the airway. It’s not completely obstructive, but there is pressure on the airway,’’ said Smock, who said the dangers of lifting a person under the chin as Officer Jackson appears to do in the video include not just obstructing air passageways but possibly stretching and tearing arteries.

“I think you have a problem in Memphis,’’ Smock said. “And clearly, if this is how the use of deadly force is investigated, I think the Memphis Police Department needs to reevaluate their process.’’

“I think you have a problem in Memphis. And clearly, if this is how the use of deadly force is investigated, I think the Memphis Police Department needs to reevaluate their process.’’

Dr. Bill Smock
adviser to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention

Jackson remains on the force.

The case is one of several severe use-of-force incidents identified by The Institute and The Daily Memphian that MPD did not send to prosecutors to weigh possible criminal charges. Those cases include a 2015  opens in a new windowincident in which three officers kicked, punched and humiliated a handcuffed prisoner; another in 2019 when an officer  opens in a new windowsprayed a chemical irritant into the face of mentally ill man as he was restrained in handcuffs; and a 2016 case involving an officer who repeatedly  opens in a new windowelectro-stunned a handcuffed suspect with a Taser.

Those news reports led Weirich to  opens in a new windowask MPD earlier this fall to begin referring all confirmed findings of excessive force to her office to determine if criminal charges should be filed against officers.

But an analysis by the news organizations of 26 findings of excessive force by MPD internal investigators between 2015 and 2019 shows 10 – more than 38% – were later reversed or amended by commanders at disciplinary hearings. How those decisions might affect the referral system Weirich proposes is unclear.

In a pattern they’ve followed for months now in answer to excessive force inquiries, neither Rallings nor Mayor Jim Strickland would agree to an interview. Additionally, MPD’s communication office did not respond to written questions.

Strickland said in an Oct. 23 broadcast of the WKNO-TV news program “Behind The Headlines” that the city is weighing Weirich’s proposal.

“We’re looking at that right now. We’re trying to find what the best practices are in the country,’’ Strickland said. “Apparently, our initial research shows very few cities do that. But that didn’t mean we shouldn’t.’’

As Strickland’s Advisory Council on Reimagining Policing explores reform options following the May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one critic said MPD’s tolerance of Officer Jackson’s rough handling of the teenage girl illustrates the gamesmanship city officials often engage in when confronted with police accountability concerns.

“They (MPD) had dismissed the charge on a technicality, on some kind of legal definition of what they believed a chokehold to be,’’ said former CLERB board member Casey Bryant, who resigned earlier this year after complaining the mayor’s office had “thwarted’’ attempts to give the oversight board any real power.

“And we’re sitting there watching (the bodycam footage) going like, ‘That’s a chokehold. Anyone can see that.’ And so that’s the thing that the police department does with these recommendations.’’

(Editor’s note: The Memphis Police Department removed the sound from this portion of Jason Matthews’ bodycam footage.)

The incident

The afternoon of Sept. 21, 2016, arrived bright and sunny. But it soon spilled into chaos in the Hyde Park neighborhood in North Memphis.

Patrolman Jason Matthews tailed a 1995 Chevrolet Camaro loaded with occupants. According to police reports, the car had an expired license plate that was registered to another Camaro. When Matthews caught up with the car in the private driveway of a home near Hollywood Street and Staten Avenue, he encountered resistance.

Body camera footage shows the driver of the car took off running. Matthews briefly gives chase, following the younger man on foot through a cluttered backyard before giving up. Family members begin to question the officer’s authority to stop and detain them on private property. Matthews calls for backup.

Among several officers who responded was Enis Jackson, then 53, who quickly took charge of the situation.

“What do you want to do, man?’’ Jackson asks Matthews as body cameras roll.

Already, Jackson had directed officers to escort one of the Camaro passengers into the back of a patrol car. The situation seemed potentially dangerous. Records show two of the Camaro passengers have felony assault convictions.

Now, Jackson’s question prompts Matthews.

Arms folded as he leans against a patrol car, Matthews casually looks over his shoulder at the now calm scene. He sees the teenage girl and her father standing about fifteen feet away in the driveway.

“How old are you?” Matthews says to the girl. Her answer isn’t audible in the footage. But Matthews turns to Jackson and says, “She says she’s 10 years old.’’ The girl is clearly older but Jackson seems unconcerned.

“I ain’t even going to worry about her,’’ Jackson says, dismissing the girl with a wave of his hand.

But then he reconsiders.

“Was she a passenger in the car?’’ Jackson asks Matthews.

When Matthews says she was, Jackson begins walking toward her.

“We can check her,’’ he says.

“You got some ID?’’ Jackson asks as he approaches the girl. “You was in the car, right?’’

When the girl doesn’t answer, Jackson reaches his right hand to grab her by the back of the neck.

“OK. Come on,’’ he says.

She stiffens and spins away.

MPD removed the sound from this portion of Matthews’ bodycam footage but left it intact in Jackson’s footage. Though the police agency left the girl’s name in written reports it released, it placed a translucent screen over her image in both videos, presumably to protect her identity.

The screen partially obscures the action in the video. But it’s still visible.

“Don’t do that! Don’t do that!’’ Jackson says in a loud voice.

When he seizes the back of her neck with his right hand she screams.

“Get up off me!’’ or “Get him off me!’’ she appears to yell.

Then, 12 seconds after he’d first asked the girl for ID, Jackson throws his left arm around the girl’s neck and then whisks her away.

Enis Jackson
Enis Jackson

A former football player who played wide receiver and defensive back for then-Memphis State University from 1982 to 1985 and who later played in the NFL and the Canadian Football League, Jackson then guides her across the street.

Footage from Matthews’ bodycam shot from behind Jackson is obscured. The position of Jackson’s arms isn’t entirely clear as he walks across the street. But at points, the girl’s right foot can be seen dangling off the pavement.

The girl is heard screaming and crying. Just before they reach the patrol car she yells, “I can’t breathe!’’

“I’m not choking her!’’ Jackson yells back toward her family across the street.

“He ain’t choking nobody!’’ another officer yells.

The squad car door is finally opened and Jackson lowers the girl down into the back seat.

“Get in there!’’ he yells before closing the door.

A disputed allegation

“I thought he was going to kill her,’’ one of the girl’s brothers told The Institute last month after viewing the video.

The girl’s family remains concerned about her treatment by police though the girl’s mother said they did not want to do a sit-down interview because their earlier complaints went nowhere.

I thought he was going to kill her.

Brother of teenage girl

“They didn’t do anything,’’ she said.

Records show internal investigators originally planned to take action against Jackson after the girl’s family complained.

She told investigators that Jackson placed his arm “around her neck’’ and “lifted her from the ground.’’

“She further stated that she was not able to breathe after the officer grabbed her neck,’’ according to a case summary by MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau.

Investigators had to consider the statements of officers on the scene.

Officer Eldon Martin said he only saw Jackson place “his arm across her sternum.’’

“Officer Jackson had one of the juvenile’s arms pinned behind her back while he escorted her to his squad car,’’ Martin said, according to the case summary. “The juvenile was calm as she walked to Officer Jackson’s squad car.’’

Memphis Police officer Enis Jackson is seen carrying a teenage girl to a patrol car in the background of this freeze frame from bodycam footage. The girl’s right foot is seen dangling above the pavement as her left arm dangles below Jackson’s arm. (Submitted)
Memphis Police officer Enis Jackson is seen carrying a teenage girl to a patrol car in the background of this freeze frame from bodycam footage. The girl’s right foot is seen dangling above the pavement as her left arm dangles below Jackson’s arm. (Submitted)

Officer Matthews said he saw Jackson place “one of his arms across her chest as she kicked and screamed.”

“He did not observe Officer Jackson’s arm underneath (the girl’s) chin or around her neck,’’ the case summary says.

Jackson himself said “he wrapped his left arm around her chest area and grabbed her right arm with his right hand.’’

He said “his arms were wrapped around her chest and there was space between his arm and her head and chin,’’ according to the case summary. “He felt (the girl) posed a deadly threat because she was kicking her legs and screaming, which was non-compliant.’’

Then investigators turned to the video.

“Based on the body worn camera footage, Officer Jackson used what appeared to be a chokehold to restrain a non-compliant (juvenile) during a field investigation for approximately twenty seconds,’’ the case summary says. “Still frames were taken from the body camera footage of the restraint hold and added to the casefile.’’

Current MPD policy prohibits chokeholds “of any kind’’ including “the use of hands, arms, knees, feet or one’s body weight to restrict a subject’s ability to breathe.’’

Internal investigators cited regulations prohibiting neck restraints, but the decision to find Jackson in violation hinged on the level of force he used for the situation. The juvenile was not suspected of a crime, was stopped for identification purposes and posed no immediate threat to officers, investigators determined.

According to the case summary:

“… Initially, Officer Jackson attempted to grab (the girl); however, she jerked away. He then attempted to detain her by grabbing her arm, and she jerked away. At that point, Officer Jackson grabbed the back of (the girl’s) neck with his right hand. (She) stiffened her body and continued to scream.

“Officer Jackson then placed his left arm around (the girl’s) neck resting his forearm under her chin. He lifted her from the ground and walked to his squad car while holding her in the aforementioned position. Based on the recorded evidence, (the girl’s) level of resistance did not pose an imminent deadly threat to Officer Jackson.’’

Finding is reversed

But in an April 4, 2017, disciplinary hearing, then-Deputy Chief Terry Landrum dismissed the administrative charge against Jackson.

“If (the juvenile) was being choked she would not have been able to talk much less scream,’’ Landrum wrote in his decision, contending that on the footage Jackson “slides an arm … under her arm and on top of her (opposite) shoulder as he lifts her from the ground and carries her’’ to the patrol car.

“In the charging document investigators state that the hold that Officer Jackson had on (the girl) is ‘Prohibited’ and alludes to a choke hold,’’ Landrum wrote. “I was trained by the Memphis Police Department in choke holds when they were approved and the choke hold operates on the principal of cutting the blood flow to the brain by bringing pressure on the arteries in both sides of the neck and looks nothing like the restraint move used by Officer Jackson.’’

Smock, the police medical expert who reviewed the footage for The Institute and The Daily Memphian, said the video does not show what Landrum says it does.

“He put his left arm around her neck. When you slow the video down, it’s obvious that his left arm is around her neck. It’s not underneath her left arm. It’s around her neck. That is deadly force,’’ Smock said.

“What I saw that was particularly disturbing was lifting her up. He was a very muscular officer. And the force of lifting her up by her head, pressure underneath her jaw lifting up, can create tears of the carotid artery. And she could have a tear in the carotid artery and then stroke and potentially die. So that is disturbing.

“I mean, you can’t lift a human being up by their neck without risking possible internal injuries.’’

One risk of applying pressure to the neck involves possibly dislodging plaque in an artery that then migrates to the brain causing a stroke or even death.

“I have personally taken care of three police officers who have stroked during training,’’ said Smock, a medical doctor on the faculty at the University of Louisville who also serves as police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department. As police surgeon, Smock determines officer fitness for duty, reconstructs officer-involved shootings and conducts “living autopsies’’ to interpret crime-related injuries.

The type of chokehold Landrum described in his hearing summary technically is known as a lateral vascular neck restraint, Smock said. It involves approaching a subject from behind and slipping elbow under the chin to pinch off blood flow in both arteries leading to the brain. The technique kills brain cells and can render an average adult male unconscious in about 7 seconds.

But there are more varieties of chokeholds.

“It depends on your definition,’’ Smock said. Police in Syracuse, New York, define it as any pressure to the neck. Smock said a physiological definition involves any pressure to the neck that restricts airflow, blood flow or both.

“You are committing strangulation,’’ he said.

Tennessee’s criminal code defines strangulation as “intentionally impeding normal breathing or circulation of the blood by applying pressure to the throat or neck.’’ It is a felony aggravated assault.

In the wake of high-profile incidents like the 2014 death of Eric Garner by New York police, many police departments have banned chokeholds. Smock said he believes the maneuver should only be used as a last resort in life-and-death struggles. Any use of such a maneuver should be reviewed by prosecutors to determine if criminal laws were broken, he said.

But police officials took a completely different view at Jackson’s disciplinary hearing.

Arguing for leniency, Lt. Col. Dana Sampietro said Jackson simply had “bear hugged’’ the girl “to keep her from hurting him, herself or getting away.’’

Union representative Essica Cage concurred.

“Officer Jackson did what he was supposed to do and could have hurt her if he wanted to but instead carried her to the car while she resisted,’’ a hearing summary reports Cage as saying. “I would ask that these charges be dismissed.’’

Officers at the hearing referenced a high volume of “guns, gangs and drugs and shootings’’ in and around the home where Jackson encountered the girl, noting it influenced how he reacted.

Cage, who just replaced the retiring Mike Williams as president of the Memphis Police Association, the police union, said in an interview this week she didn’t recall the Jackson decision. But she said often there is context behind an officer’s actions that aren’t necessarily clear on bodycam footage.

“A lot of times the public isn’t aware of what all that officer knows going into that situation and what the training is and what the policies are,’’ Cage said.

Reversals like that in the Jackson case are relatively common at MPD, records show.

Among 130 misconduct cases between 2015 to 2019 reviewed by The Institute and The Daily Memphian, internal investigators sustained excessive force allegations in 26 of them, or 20 percent.

But hearing officers later  opens in a new windowdismissed or amended 10 of those 26 findings – more than a third. Four of those reversals involved choking allegations.

For Jackson, it was at least the second time he was accused in recent years of choking a citizen.

A 26-year-old man alleged that Jackson choked him and slammed him into a car during a September 2017 incident in which police stopped and questioned him in a Hickory Hill apartment complex because he fit the description of a robbery he didn’t commit. Internal investigators did not sustain the allegation, in part, because there was no video evidence. Jackson had not activated his body camera.

The man later appealed to CLERB and the board voted 7-2 to uphold the charge. It is unclear if the board followed up and pressed Rallings for a response, said CLERB administrator Virginia Wilson.

More resources needed

But records are clear regarding the case of the 15-year-old girl: After hearing the evidence and reviewing the video the CLERB board voted without dissent to sustain the charge.

“The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) is not a board of lawyers, but just as its name reveals, a board of civilians who are reviewing the plain meaning of policies and the apparent application of those policies to actual situations,’’ board member Bryant, who is a lawyer, wrote in May 10, 2018 letter to Rallings on behalf of the board. “The dismissal of the charges hinges on a technical definition of ‘chokehold’, a nuance that we, as a civilian board, do not find to be a reasonable distinction. …

“The situation did not warrant the extreme force that Officer Jackson applied, whether it could be defined as a ‘chokehold’ or not.’’

The board asked Rallings to find Jackson in violation of MPD’s use-of-force policy and, at a minimum, to require him to undergo anger management training.

Rallings refused.

“… He did not restrict her ability to breathe,’’ Rallings replied in a Feb. 20, 2019, letter. “I reach this conclusion by noting that (the juvenile) continued to yell and scream continuously as he walked her to the vehicle and placed her in custody.’’

But Smock, the Louisville police surgeon, said a careful review of the bodycam audio reveals at least some obstruction.

“She has pressure on her airway, obstructing her ability to breathe. Her voice trails off. The intensity of her voice trails off,’’ he said.

Bryant noted in the letter to Rallings that Jackson was “in no danger of bodily harm.’’

“In fact,’’ Bryant wrote, “(the juvenile) had been on the scene for at least 10 minutes before anyone even addressed her directly.’’

Smock agreed: There was no imminent danger.

“What was interesting is when his body camera is on and you’ve got an officer leaning up against his car just sitting back, arms crossed,’’ he said. “Where is the urgency?’’

CLERB could benefit from greater resources to hire additional staff and experts like Smock when weighing complaints, Bryant said, contending that Strickland’s staff rebuffed efforts to beef up the agency. Bryant and former CLERB board member John Marek said Rallings never once heeded their recommendations to discipline officers.

“We were sick of being ignored and volunteering our hours for nothing,’’ said Marek, who concurred that appeals to Strickland and his staff were fruitless.

Speaking on “Behind The Headlines,” Strickland said he and his team are considering a variety of police reforms, including Weirich’s proposal and the addition of mental health professionals to assist police on crisis calls. He expects to oversee intensive implicit bias training within MPD and all of city government.

He said he will continue efforts to add more officers to the force.

“Public safety is the number one priority of government,’’ he said.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. All photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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