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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice

Fighting Decertification in Tenn., Ex-MPD Officer Faces New Claim in Miss.

Colin Berryhill is one of six former MPD officers facing decertification hearings today in Nashville

Police body camera footage shows officer Colin Berryhill taking Oliver Woods to the ground in September 2021. (Southaven Police Department footage)

As former Memphis police officer Colin Berryhill awaits a hearing today in Nashville to determine his fitness to serve in Tennessee, he faces a new misconduct claim in Mississippi.

A Corinth, Mississippi, man has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Berryhill and the Southaven Police Department. The patrolman has worked in Southaven the past three years since resigning from the Memphis Police Department in the middle of an internal investigation into his repeated use of force with a Taser.

The suit, filed last month by Oliver Woods in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Mississippi, contends that Berryhill used excessive force by pulling him off a bicycle during a 2021 arrest outside a Southaven grocery.

“He lacks the qualification to patrol on the streets,’’ Woods, 28, said in a telephone interview this week. “He doesn’t de-escalate situations. He escalates them.’’

Southaven Police Department Chief Brent Vickers declined to discuss Woods’s allegations, citing the ongoing legal action. The suit may face an uphill fight as Woods is representing himself without an attorney.

The dispute comes as Berryhill faces a decertification hearing at 1 p.m. today before the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, the state board that licenses police officers in the Volunteer State.

Authorities scheduled Berryhill’s hearing 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 10 involving former MPD officers. The POST Commission voted in December to decertify seven 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.

Colin Berryhill

Berryhill and a second former MPD officer told POST they intend to challenge the decertification actions. Consequently, they both face hearings today. The second officer, Demetrius Walker, resigned in 2020 amid an internal MPD investigation into an alleged relationship he had with a juvenile. Overall, six former MPD officers are on POST’s decertification agenda today.

MPD internal investigators had accused Berryhill of abusing citizens with his Taser. On three separate occasions, investigators charged, Berryhill used excessive force while making arrests, including once when he electroshocked a man who was restrained in handcuffs.

But the day before a scheduled October 2020 disciplinary hearing, when supervisors were to weigh the allegations against Berryhill and determine his future at MPD, he quit, taking a new job as a patrolman for the Southaven Police Department, where he’s still employed today.

MPD asked POST in December 2021 to decertify Berryhill in accordance with a state rule aimed at officers who resign “with disciplinary action pending that could have resulted in termination”. A hearing was never held, however, until after the news organizations’ investigation.

Should POST vote to decertify Berryhill, it appears there is no guarantee that Mississippi would honor that decision.

“Disciplinary decisions by one state’s certification authority are not binding on another,’’ said Brian Grisham, deputy director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, an Idaho-based professional organization for state standards-and-training managers.

“Some states specifically give full faith and credit to another jurisdiction’s decision, others would consider it on a case-by-case basis.” Grisham wrote in an email.

Grisham said he was unfamiliar with Mississippi’s procedure, and it was unclear Thursday how that state might handle a Tennessee decision to decertify an officer already working in Mississippi.

Mississippi Lawsuit

Officer Berryhill searches arrestee Oliver Woods in September 2021. (Southaven Police Department footage)

Records show an employee of a Kroger grocery store at the corner of Goodman and Getwell roads called Southaven police on Sept. 10, 2021 after Woods was seen riding his bicycle through the store’s parking lot.

“We have a guy, he rides around on a bicycle. He’s out here now,’’ the employee told police, according to an audio recording of the SPD dispatch tape obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting. The employee told a dispatcher that customers fueling up at the store’s service station had suffered a series of purse snatchings and that personnel suspected Woods, who’d been seen “lurking around”.

Among officers who responded was Berryhill, then nearing the end of his first year on the Southaven police force.

“Upon my arrival I observed the same male identified as Oliver Woods riding a bike down one of the parking rows,’’ Berryhill later wrote in a report. “I got on my vehicle’s PA system and ordered him several times to stop his bike, but he turned and looked at me and kept going.’’

Woods was known to Southaven police. He’d been arrested two months earlier for allegedly shooting a pistol out a car window. He later pleaded no contest to discharging a firearm within city limits, though he told a reporter this week his gun had accidentally discharged.

In his report, Berryhill said he attempted to stop Woods in the Kroger parking lot but he wouldn’t comply.

“I ordered Woods twice to get off the bike, but he began to argue with me and refused,’’ Berryhill wrote in his report.

“I grabbed Woods by the arm and began attempting to place one of his arms in handcuffs, but he pulled his arms away from me in an attempt from being handcuffed. I then pulled Woods off of the bike and he fell on the grass at which point l was able to place him into handcuffs without further incident.”

Police body camera footage that Woods obtained through his lawyer and released to a reporter appears inconclusive in resolving the dispute.

The footage released by Woods starts just seconds before Berryhill pulls him from his bike and shows nothing leading up to the incident.

On the video, Berryhill exits his squad car and approaches Woods, who is seen in a stationary, upright position on his bicycle facing the officer. The two appear to exchange words, though this portion of the video contains no audio. Woods moves offscreen and is seen again moments later on his bicycle, again upright and stationary. But this time he’s facing away from Berryhill.

Woods then appears to push his bicycle forward a step, away from the officer. Berryhill then grabs Woods’ right arm with both hands and pulls him forcefully off the bike and down onto a grass median before cuffing Woods.

Woods told a reporter that in that moment he was attempting to get off his bicycle, as Berryhill had requested.

“I did what he told me to. I stopped my bike,’’ said Woods, who maintains he was in the parking lot for several minutes mulling over a shopping list.

“The only thing he said was, ‘Get off the bike! Get off!’ He kept on giving me demands. I said, ‘What happened?’ That was my thought. I was like, what’s going on? What happened? What did I do?’’

Woods contends he suffered lingering injuries to his hand and knee.

Woods was charged in Southaven Municipal Court with resisting arrest, possession of paraphernalia and disorderly conduct/failure to comply with an officer. A judge dismissed the first two counts, finding Woods guilty last spring only of the final count. He was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation.

Uphill fight for lawsuit

Asked if Southaven police had any additional footage depicting events leading up to Berryhill cuffing Woods or if the department could provide other details, Chief Vickers released this statement via email:

“At this juncture, the City of Southaven (“City”) and/or Mr. Berryhill have not been served with the lawsuit in question. Upon service of process, the City will review and respond in a court of law, as the City does not litigate cases through the media. Mr. Berryhill is currently employed as a City Police Officer.  Pursuant to Mississippi law in the context of personnel file information, the City is not able to respond to any additional inquiries regarding Mr. Berryhill’s employment with the City.”

Former Southaven Police Chief Macon Moore said last fall that Berryhill has performed well for the department. The department named Berryhill as its officer of the month for October 2021. 

Woods’ lawsuit appears to face an uphill fight. Representing himself without an attorney, Woods filed his suit more than two years after his encounter with Berryhill. Attorneys consulted for this story offered differing opinions about whether a one-year or three-year statute-of-limitations would apply to the suit.

Even if Berryhill is guilty of what Woods alleges, it would be difficult to bring a successful civil rights lawsuit despite the officer’s checkered history at MPD, according to one police accountability expert.

“Unfortunately, police departments face very little risk for making bad hiring decisions,’’ Clark Neily said in an email. Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, said police departments are protected by a legal precedent known as the Monell Doctrine. 

“Because of a court-invented rule called the ‘Monell doctrine,’ police departments—unlike private employers—are generally not liable for the misconduct of their employees unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the misconduct was the foreseeable result of an improper ‘policy or practice’ of the employer-department,’’ Neily said.

“Making a single poor hiring decision by ignoring a given officer’s disciplinary history would not satisfy that requirement, and there is very little else that can be done besides civil liability to impose consequences on an entire police department. So bottom line, it certainly should be risky to hire substandard officers, but practically speaking it’s not.”

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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