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Criminal Justice and Policing

Former MPD Officer Faces Criminal Charge For Pepper-Spraying Mentally Ill Man In Handcuffs

William Skelton is the second law enforcement officer to be charged by a new prosecution unit that aims to curtail police brutality.

A freeze frame from police body camera footage shows Drew Thomas’ puffy face after a police officer sprayed him with a chemical irritant. One officer said Thomas’ face was bloody because he kept banging his head against the squad car door after he was sprayed.
A freeze frame from police body camera footage shows Drew Thomas’ puffy face after a police officer sprayed him with a chemical irritant. One officer said Thomas’ face was bloody because he kept banging his head against the squad car door after he was sprayed.

Prosecutors have filed criminal charges against a former Memphis police officer who sprayed gushes of a chemical agent into the face of a mentally disabled man as he was restrained in handcuffs.

William Skelton, 36, is charged with official oppression, a felony, for the January 2019 pepper spraying of Drew Thomas, an incident caught on body camera footage and featured last year in an  opens in a new windowinvestigation of excessive force by  opens in a new windowThe Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian.

Skelton has pleaded not guilty.

William Skelton

He is the second law enforcement officer to be charged by the Conduct Review Team, or CRT, a special unit formed last summer by District Attorney Amy Weirich to help rein in police brutality.

Formation of the CRT followed reports by The Institute and The Daily Memphian that found the Memphis Police Department routinely treated excessive force incidents as mere policy violations and didn’t refer numbers of cases to prosecutors – even severe ones involving abuse of handcuffed prisoners.

“If you are violating the laws of the state of Tennessee, it’s the responsibility of this office to do something about that … particularly when you’re talking about the profession of police officers (because) it gets back to the public trust,’’ Weirich said.

The CRT receives referrals from law enforcement but also can launch independent inquiries when it becomes aware of police misconduct. Under a new policy implemented March 11, MPD has been systematically referring all confirmed cases of excessive force to the CRT.

The DA’s Office has received referrals from MPD for years on a variety of corruption and misconduct matters, but those referrals have not been consistent, at least when it came to excessive force.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,’’ Weirich said.

Skelton was secretly indicted by a grand jury in November. Under Tennessee law, an indictment does not become public information until the person charged is in custody. Skelton was booked in mid-December, as the holiday season started, and the charge against him remained under the news media radar for months.

Skelton joins a former Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy as the second law enforcement officer to be charged by the CRT.

The five-member prosecution team brought charges shortly after its founding last August against former Deputy Justin Fitzgibbon, 40, who is accused of official oppression and misdemeanor assault. Fitzgibbon had arrested a motorist on a charge of assaulting an officer, but a review of body camera footage revealed no such assault. Rather, evidence shows Fitzgibbon assaulted the motorist, prosecutors allege.

Fitzgibbon has pleaded not guilty. He faces a May 19 hearing in Criminal Court.

The charge against Skelton stems from an incident on Jan. 10, 2019 when the patrolman responded to a call for assistance at a Whitehaven-area Shell station and convenience store. A store manager alleged Thomas, then 28, had vandalized store shelves.

A sometimes-homeless man with dozens of arrests and emergency commitments on his record, Thomas had been taken into custody by Skelton once before that night. The officer took Thomas to a mental health facility. But Thomas was released. Skelton was called out a second time that chilly night regarding Thomas. This time the officer was visibly angry, body camera footage shows.

“I will spray the [expletive] out of you! You worthless piece of incestuous [expletive],” Skelton yelled at Thomas before spraying the handcuffed arrestee for kicking the inside of his patrol car.

Bodycam footage also shows a circle of officers standing by and failing to intervene as Thomas yelled from a locked patrol car for water, fresh air and help after Skelton fired 62 grams of pepper spray foam in four separate shots at or directly into Thomas’ face.

At one point, Lt. Alexander McGowan pulled into the lot and rolled down the window for Thomas.

“Did you spray him?’’ McGowan asked.

“I foamed him!’’ Skelton exclaimed.

 “Good,’’ McGowan said.

“I foamed the [expletive] out of him!’’ Skelton crowed. Then, pulling his body camera off his chest, Skelton yelled directly into the lens.

“I’ll tell the camera I foamed the [expletive] out of him!’’

Tennessee law defines official oppression as an act by a “public servant acting under color of office or employment” who “intentionally subjects another to mistreatment” or “denies or impedes another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power or immunity, when the public servant knows the conduct is unlawful.’’

An investigation last July by The Institute and The Daily Memphian found Skelton’s case was among a series of incidents in which supervisors filed administrative charges alleging excessive force yet did not refer the matters to prosecutors to determine if criminal laws were violated.

Those cases include a  opens in a new window2015 incident in which three officers kicked, punched and humiliated a handcuffed prisoner; another in 2016 involving an officer who repeatedly  opens in a new windowelectro-stunned a handcuffed suspect with a Taser; and another incident that year involving a  opens in a new windowbaton beating.

Supervisors filed disciplinary charges against Skelton days after the incident, yet he remained on the force for another year before resigning on Feb. 1, 2020.

His attorney, Ted Hansom, said he and his client intend to fight the charge.

“Was he frustrated? Yes,” Hansom said of Skelton’s demeanor the night of the incident. But his client’s conduct didn’t rise to the level of a crime, Hansom said.

Contacted last July, Skelton declined an interview.

“I appreciate your interest, but I am no longer with the Memphis Police Department. I resigned in January and now (happily) work in the private sector,’’ Skelton said in an email. “Best of luck with your story.’’

Like Fitzgibbon, Skelton faces a May 19 hearing.

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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