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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice

Critics Howl As State Declines to Decertify “Taserface” Patrolman

MPD withdraws its request to decertify Colin Berryhill despite outstanding allegations of Taser abuse

Former MPD officer Colin Berryhill and his father, former MPD Sgt. Thomas Dale Berryhill, at last week’s Tennessee Peace Officer Standards & Training Commission hearing. (Action News 5)

Mired in inefficiencies, Tennessee’s police licensing board took years to finally review unresolved excessive force allegations against former Memphis police officer Colin Berryhill.

But that same board took just seconds last week to clear Berryhill, a patrolman nicknamed “Taserface’’ for his aggressive use of his Taser.

Without discussion and without calling a single witness, the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission agreed by unanimous voice vote to take no action against Berryhill.

The Memphis Police Department had asked POST to decertify Berryhill following his resignation in October 2020. The patrolman escaped misconduct charges that month by quitting amid an internal investigation to take a new policing job across state lines in Southaven, Mississippi, where he still works.

But in a surprise move last Thursday, MPD withdrew its longstanding request to decertify the officer who had been accused by internal investigators of using his Taser in 2018 and 2019 to abuse a series of citizens, including one who was restrained in handcuffs.

Officer Colin Berryhill’s hands are seen as he uses a Taser to electroshock handcuffed motorist Owen Buzzard in this 2019 encounter. (Memphis Police Department body camera footage)

MPD’s sudden, last-second pivot – and POST’s subsequent decision to take no action against Berryhill – stirred a chorus of criticism from reform advocates who say authorities are not taking police brutality seriously.

“…It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a deliberate and cynical effort to whitewash the investigation and give (Berryhill) what amounts to a free pass to restart his career fresh in another jurisdiction,’’ Clark Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, said in an email.

“The handling of Officer Berryhill’s case sends a clear message to other officers that they can reasonably hope and expect the department to help shield them from meaningful accountability and to ensure that the POST process remains as toothless as it proved to be in Officer Berryhill’s case.’’

Berryhill, meantime, maintained that the excessive force allegations against him are bogus.

“They’re not legit,’’ he told a reporter as he left a hearing Thursday in Nashville.

Watch officer Colin Berryhill’s 2019 encounter with a motorist Owen Buzzard, who was electroshocked with a Taser while restrained in handcuffs. (MPD body camera footage)

POST finally scheduled a hearing in Berryhill’s now five-year-old case following an investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting and Action News 5 last fall that revealed a statewide backlog of unresolved requests to decertify police officers accused of misconduct or rules violations.

The news organizations uncovered as many as 38 unresolved decertification requests stretching back to 2019, including 14 involving former MPD officers.

The POST Commission has since voted to decertify 10 of those former MPD officers, including Eric Kelly, a homicide detective who retired in 2019 amid an internal investigation into a sexual relationship he admitted having with a murder suspect. Kelly was decertified in December along with six other former MPD officers, all of whom failed to show up for scheduled hearings to challenge the actions against them.

Last week, POST decertified three other former MPD officers on the backlog list. One, Demetrius Walker, was a probationary officer who resigned in 2020 amid an internal MPD investigation into an alleged relationship he had with a juvenile. Unlike the Berryhill matter, MPD would not agree to withdraw its decertification request against Walker. He showed up at the POST meeting last week to challenge the case against him, but in the end the POST board voted unanimously to decertify him.

COLIN BERRYHILL TIMELINE
April 10, 2019: Memphis Police Department patrolman Colin Berryhill stops motorist Owen Buzzard and puts him in handcuffs after discovering Buzzard has a suspended driver’s license. Following a brief struggle, Berryhill pushes Buzzard to the ground and electroshocks him in the abdomen with his Taser.
April 10, 2019: The Inspectional Services Bureau – MPD’s internal affairs unit – opens an investigation. ISB eventually identifies two other incidents in which Officer Berryhill allegedly misused his Taser on citizens – a juvenile and a man arrested following a domestic incident.
Oct. 17, 2019: MPD supervisors file an administrative Statement of Charges accusing Berryhill of six policy violations connected to three separate incidents of misusing his Taser. The alleged violations include three counts of excessive force.
Oct. 13, 2020: Supervisors hold a disciplinary hearing for Berryhill nearly a year after filing the Statement of Charges against him. Asked at the hearing if he knew that MPD policy prohibits the use of a Taser for “pain compliance,’’ Berryhill answers, “Yes sir, but I knew using the Taser was the use of force I needed to accomplish the arrest.’’
Oct. 29, 2020: Berryhill resigns the day before a final disciplinary hearing was to be held. “My family and I will be moving out of state and I plan to start a new career in the near future,’’ he said in his resignation letter.
November 2020: Berryhill takes a new job working as a patrolman for the Southaven Police Department. Nearly a year later, in October 2021, he was selected as the department’s officer of the month.
Dec. 17, 2021: MPD Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis signs a request form asking the Tennessee Peace Officer Training and Standards (POST) Commission to decertify Berryhill. In the request, Davis checked a box indicating that Berryhill should be decertified because he had resigned “with disciplinary action pending that could have resulted in termination.’’
July 29, 2022: POST receives MPD’s request to decertify Berryhill. Although MPD chief Davis had signed a form six months earlier requesting Berryhill’s decertification, the department didn’t submit the request until now, according to POST spokesman Kevin Walters.
June 29, 2023: Nearly a year after receiving MPD’s request to decertify Berryhill, POST attempts to notify the officer to schedule a hearing. According to POST spokesman Walters, the notification “was returned undelivered in August”.
Sept. 22, 2023: In response to a news reporter’s questions, Walters confirms that a hearing has never been held regarding MPD’s request to decertify Berryhill.
Oct. 5, 2023: Walters tells a reporter that Berryhill has been notified of MPD’s pending decertification request and that a hearing has been set for Dec. 14 in Nashville. The hearing was later rescheduled for Feb. 15.
Oct. 19, 2023: The Institute for Public Service Reporting publishes its investigation into delays in the Berryhill case.
Feb. 15, 2023: MPD withdraws its request to decertify Berryhill citing the passage of time and unspecified “due process concerns”. The POST board concurs, voting without discussion to take no action against Berryhill.

The Berryhill decision began unfolding Thursday when, in a surprise development, MPD chief legal adviser James Thomas told the POST board that MPD wished to withdraw its request to decertify the former patrolman.

“I have been in contact over the last few months with our ISB (internal affairs) division as well as Mr. (Timothy) Taylor, Mr. Berryhill’s attorney in this matter,’’ said Thomas, who spoke for about 25 seconds before the POST board.

“And after further review of this incident and the time that has passed, because (of) a number of due process concerns, we respectfully request that the commission allow us to withdraw this request.’’

Receiving no questions from the board, Thomas watched as POST Commissioner Brian Wright moved to take no action against Berryhill in accordance with MPD’s request. Commissioner Brent Cherry seconded the motion, and it passed by unanimous voice vote.

The entire process took about 80 seconds.

The POST board took the action Thursday while sitting as a committee hearing decertification requests. The full board reconvened on Friday and ratified the committee’s earlier recommendations, again without discussion.

“The public should absolutely be concerned with how MPD continues to push serious incidents of police brutality to the side and uses excuses such as an expiration date to back up their behavior,’’ said Memphis social justice organizer Amber Sherman.

The development is particularly troubling given Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’s “multiple statements about transparency and holding officers accountable for their behavior,’’ Sherman said.

POST spokesperson Kevin Walters rebutted critics’s assertions that the board had “whitewashed’’ or rigged the Berryhill case on MPD’s behalf.

“That is an unfounded allegation with no merit in fact,’’ Walters said in an email Friday, emphasizing that POST relies heavily on the judgment of individual police departments when weighing decertification requests.

“…The POST Commission relies on each employing agency to ensure that its police officers meet and maintain pre-employment standards adopted in POST rules. When the officer does not, or when the officer violates department standards, it is incumbent upon that employing agency to determine what discipline the officer should face and whether the officer should be referred to the POST Commission for action on the officer’s certification.  Each case is presented on its own merits based on information provided by the employing agency,” Walters said.

“The board has the discretion to discuss the cases presented to them as they deem necessary. The POST Commission took no action after MPD rescinded their decertification request.” 

Repeating an account he first gave last fall, Walters said POST was handcuffed in its ability to hold a timely hearing for Berryhill because of failures by the officer and MPD.

“Berryhill quit MPD in (2020) and moved to Mississippi and did not leave a forwarding address. MPD did not notify POST about the decertification request until 2022. We did not locate him until 2023,’’ Walters said in his email.

Days after quitting MPD, Berryhill, a 11-year-veteran, began working as a patrolman in Southaven, a city of 56,000 people that shares a seven-mile border with Memphis. The Southaven Police Department named Berryhill its officer of the month for October 2021, publicizing the achievement on its Facebook site.

Walters has said POST has since added extra staff and has “streamlined’’ its procedures to reduce its backlog and create efficiencies.

“As we have explained, you should direct your questions to MPD,’’ Walters said in his email Friday.

MPD, in turn, declined comment.

“We do not comment on unresolved personnel matters regarding existing or former employees,’’ spokeswoman Teresa Carlson said in a one-sentence email statement sent in response to questions about MPD’s nearly two-year delay in requesting to decertify Berryhill, its sudden reversal Thursday, and unspecified “due process concerns’’ raised by legal adviser Thomas at the hearing. 

Berryhill’s lawyer said in a separate email that he could provide no additional information.

“I don’t think I can add anything significant to Mr. Thomas’ statement and POST Commission file regarding the City’s request to withdraw,’’ said Taylor, who represents the Memphis Police Association, the labor union representing MPD officers.

Berryhill told a reporter as he left the hearing last week that he’s satisfied with the decision.

“It’s the right outcome,’’ he said, indicating that he was unconcerned that MPD’s Thomas withdrew the decertification request based on the passage of time and not the merits of the allegations against him.

“That’s between MPD and their attorneys,’’ said Berryhill, who sat through Thursday’s hearing with his father, former MPD Sgt. Thomas Dale Berryhill, at his side. “I don’t have anything to do with that.’’

Asked if he believed he had used his Taser excessively, Berryhill said he used it “only when I had to.’’

“And again, no more comment on the issue,’’ he said.

Jessica Jaglois contributed to this story.

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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