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investigation suggests pattern of MPD misconduct cases not reaching DA

City officials limit access to police brutality files and sidestep requests for comment regarding excessive force

Memphis Police Department deputy director Mike Ryall closes his eyes in reflection during a moment of silence held for George Floyd at Civic Center Plaza in Downtown Memphis June 8, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

The police batons rained down — blow after blow — on the cowering man who curled into a ball to protect himself.

“…The suspect was on the ground in what appeared to be a fetal and defenseless position, (yet) you continued to strike him on his legs with your ASP Baton before placing him in handcuffs,’’ a supervisor wrote in charging officers Richard Granderson Jr. and Martin Brooks with violations of the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force policy.

An internal investigation led to Brooks’ resignation and a long suspension for Granderson, who is still on the force despite inflicting a facial injury to a second suspect whom he body slammed during the October 2016 incident.

Legal experts say the officers’ actions involve more than MPD policy violations — they may have violated criminal laws — yet an investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian raises questions about the handling of the case.

State prosecutors say they have no record that MPD ever referred the case to them to weigh possible criminal charges. Federal prosecutors say they didn’t receive a referral at the time of the incident but are ambiguous as to whether the case might have been referred at a later date.

Jim Strickland

Meanwhile, Director Michael Rallings and MPD commanders have not responded to requests for an interview or statement on whether the city sought prosecutorial review of this case and others — or even to discuss procedures governing such referrals.

It’s the third such case identified by the Institute and The Daily Memphian that prosecutors say they didn’t receive despite questions of possible criminal conduct. That includes a 2015 incident in which officers repeatedly hit, kicked and humiliated a prisoner who was handcuffed behind his back.

“These cases provide compelling examples of cases that should as a matter of course be referred for criminal investigation,’’ said University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman, director of the school’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.

“Repeated failures are potential evidence of a systemic problem, as opposed to individual errors of judgment.’’

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said both the baton beating case and the handcuffed prisoner case should have been sent to her office but weren’t.

“Why not send it to us? Just send it to us and let us look at it,’’ Weirich said.

Amy Weirich

“There may be situations where (an administrative) finding of excessive force does not rise to the level of a prosecutable criminal offense, because remember, my burden in court is the highest burden of proof. But, out of an abundance of caution, send it over to the D.A.’s office and let us look at them.’’

Concerns about the handling of the cases are gradually coming to light after weeks of inquiry.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Institute and Memphian filed a public records request on June 3 — nearly six weeks ago — seeking copies of records documenting internal excessive force investigations between 2015 and 2020. Mayor Jim Strickland’s Public Records Office initially said that would cost $6,000. The Institute and Daily Memphian opted instead to personally inspect investigative summary reports, which costs nothing.

However, unlike in the past, MPD will not allow a journalist to make his own copies during that inspection by shooting pictures of records using a smartphone or by using a scanner – it’s note-taking only.

So, now, the Institute-Memphian is again seeking photocopies. The team requested a first batch of copies involving 2015 and 2016 reports on Tuesday, July 7, but has not yet received any.

Among 61 reports eyeballed so far for records between 2015 and 2016, administrative charges were sustained in 13 of them — 21 percent. It’s still unknown how many of the sustained cases weren’t referred for criminal review, but three cases have been flagged so far through records and interviews.

Weirich couldn’t cite specific figures, but said MPD often refers cases involving excessive force and other matters when questions arise about possible criminal conduct by officers.

Some cases may not be getting referred because there simply isn’t the manpower to review them, said Ted Hansom, a longtime attorney representing the Memphis Police Association, the police labor union.

Since 2015, MPD and the Sheriff’s Office have been referring all fatal officer-involved shootings to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s Office for review, and there may not be the will or resources to refer the many lesser excessive force claims, Hansom said. 

“At some point, somebody has to make that call and that decision,’’ said Hansom, who said such referrals are discretionary. “There is no rule that I’m aware of that says if there’s an excessive force claim they all get reviewed.”

Kenneth B. Nunn said those decisions merit a close examination particularly following the death of Floyd, who was killed not in a police shooting but by physical restraint by an officer with a history of complaints involving misconduct and use of force.

“These systems function as if protection of the police is the primary goal, more so than protection of a citizen,’’ said Nunn, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.

Baton beating

It was clear and unseasonably warm that day — Oct. 29, 2016 — when a woman flagged down officers along an apartment complex on Jackson Avenue in Memphis’ Nutbush community. She complained her boyfriend had taken her car keys and wouldn’t give them back.

The boyfriend, a man identified in reports as Jeremiah Hall, allegedly became belligerent when officers confronted him. There was a struggle. At one point, officers struck Hall with a Taser. He continued to resist, a report said.

That’s when officers Granderson and Brooks began using their batons.

According to a statement of administrative charges later filed against them, they continued to administer blows with their batons even after Hall curled up on the ground “in a fetal and defenseless position.’’

The incident occurred shortly after MPD first issued body cameras to officers, and the investigative file says there is video footage of the incident. The Institute for Public Service Reporting/Daily Memphian team has asked for footage, but it has not yet been released.

A camera also captured Granderson physically detaining a second man at the scene — Anthony Whitt — Hall’s friend, who allegedly had been mouthing off to police and was ordered to leave.

“At this, suspect began to walk away, you grabbed him from behind and slammed him to the ground causing visible facial injury,’’ the statement of charges alleged. “An eyewitness to the incident and video confirm your actions and they are seen as excessive and unnecessary as the suspect was complying with orders given.’’ 

Defending himself in a statement to investigators, Granderson disputed his supervisors’ characterizations.

“When the incident first started, I thought that we could handle it, but when we got him on the ground (and) we were trying to get him handcuffed he continued to resist,’’ said Granderson, now 45, a 23-year veteran of the force.

“…He continued to resist and I did not want to give him time to reposition and get up where he could hurt the other officers or me.’’

Granderson said he felt he had no recourse in also arresting Hall’s friend, Whitt.

“The other guy was told to leave but refused. He was making the situation worse. I advised him to leave and when he did not, I advised him that he was under arrest. He then said that he was going but I already told him that he was under arrest. I took him down and placed him under arrest.’’

But the hearing officer, Deputy Chief Terry Landrum, wasn’t buying it.

“Viewing the video raises the question on why physical force was necessary at the time you jumped and grabbed’’ Whitt, Landrum wrote, saying the man “was engaged in a normal conversation with the victim and did not appear to pose an immediate threat.’’ An arrest affidavit describes Whitt’s injuries as “minor cuts and bruises on the face.’’

Whitt was charged with three misdemeanors — disorderly conduct, resisting official detention and interfering with a police officer — all later dropped by prosecutors. Records related to Hall’s arrest could not be located.

Efforts to reach Hall and Whitt were unsuccessful.

Granderson was suspended without pay for 25 days — five each for the two excessive force charges against him and 15 days for violating MPD’s personal conduct rules. He was also ordered to undergo eight hours of training in use of force and de-escalation techniques. As Landrum wrote, the entire confrontation could have been de-escalated and avoided if the officers had simply given the complainant a ride to a safe location at the onset.

Records show Brooks resigned about 13 months after the incident, before disciplinary proceedings were complete.

“I have enjoyed my time working as a Memphis Police Officer and the lifelong friendships I have made,’’ he wrote in a Dec. 7, 2017 resignation letter.

Analysis

Director Rallings and MPD commanders have not responded to four requests for an interview or a statement to clarify whether the case was sent to prosecutors. Two requests sent to Mayor Strickland over the weekend also were not answered.

Michael Rallings

District Attorney Weirich said her office has no record of such a referral. U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant gave a more qualified response.

In a statement released through a spokeswoman, Dunavant said federal investigators “did not receive a referral’’ on this incident in 2016, 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.”

Weirich and Dunavant gave similar responses earlier this month when the Institute and Memphian reported an April 2015 incident in which three officers repeatedly hit, kicked and humiliated prisoner Daniel Jefferson as he wore handcuffs fastened behind his back. The officers were suspended for 15-20 days each, but the case weren’t referred for criminal review, Weirich said. A notation in the investigative file also said the matter was not referred to the District Attorney.

Police labor union President Mike Williams said MPD refers some excessive force cases to the District Attorney’s Office but doesn’t have a list of those that are sent and is unsure of the specific criteria used.

Michael Williams

The University of Chicago’s Futterman said the baton and prisoner beating cases definitely should have been referred.

“When there is evidence that an officer committed a crime, the police department has a duty to refer the case for prosecutorial review,’’ Futterman said in an email. “The unjustified beating with a weapon of a person while he was lying on the ground (in a fetal position no less) would in most jurisdictions constitute the felony crime of aggravated battery.’’

Futterman said Justice Department consent decrees aimed at correcting police misconduct in Baltimore, Chicago and Newark require referrals of certain criminal and administrative misconduct investigations to outside agencies. The decree in Baltimore, for example, requires federal officials to be notified when a case involving possible criminal conduct is closed without referring it to a prosecuting agency.

Prosecutorial referral should be standard for all police agencies, Futterman said.

“Best practice requires police departments to refer an investigation of police misconduct to the appropriate state and federal prosecuting agency promptly upon finding evidence of apparent criminal conduct,’’ he said.

The University of Florida’s Nunn concurred; he, too, believes the cases should have been referred to prosecutors.

“The district attorney should have the option of determining whether or not there is a crime,’’ he said.

Nunn and Futterman said a referral also should have been made in the case of an excessive force investigation from 2016 involving officer Charles Morrow.

That Nov. 21, 2016 incident involved “an incoherent victim’’ injured in a two-car crash who was “bleeding from his mouth and screaming in agony from injuries’’ that included broken ribs and head trauma. As paramedics struggled to strap the writhing victim into a flat, gurney-like spine board, Morrow stepped on him.

“You placed your right foot on the chest of a critically injured traffic crash victim who was neither under arrest nor resisting arrest,’’ supervisors charged.

Morrow kept his foot on the victim’s chest for 31 seconds, according to reports that say the incident captured on video.

“Bystanders gathered in concern of the victim’s condition,’’ the investigative file says.

The excessive force charge was dismissed, but Morrow was suspended for five days for violating MPD’s personal conduct rules.

The file says the case wasn’t referred to prosecutors.

Police union attorney Hansom said there’s nothing stopping an individual from filing a complaint directly with the District Attorney, making it “incumbent on the D.A.’s office then to investigate it.’’ But he said many reports are not well founded.

“A lot of them are B.S. And you’re seeing this now with these protesters and stuff. Some of these things are contrived,’’ Hansom said.

But for law professor Nunn, integrity requires honest considerations of criminal charges when officers’ actions appear to stretch legal limits.

“Do we really believe that in order to maintain safety and order in our communities, that we need to use violence?’’ Nunn asked.

“And that using that violence is justified far more times it’s not justified? And if it turns out that somebody does use violence and goes over the line, that we need to be more protective of the police officer in their career than we need to be protective of the rights of the victims of the violence?’’

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. 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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