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Criminal Justice and Policing

Journalist sues city for access to police files on troubled officers

City of Memphis withholds records nearly two-and-a-half years after request filed

A lawsuit seeks access to audit reports tracking the Memphis Police Department’s early intervention program for troubled officers. (Marc Perrusquia)

A local journalist is suing the City of Memphis for access to audit reports chronicling the Memphis Police Department’s early intervention system that identifies and manages troubled officers.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Shelby County Chancery Court by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) on behalf of Marc Perrusquia.

Perrusquia, a longtime Memphis journalist, has been seeking access to audits of MPD’s Performance Enhancement Program since December 2020. The program is an early intervention system designed to identify and retrain troubled officers before their conduct leads to more serious trouble.

Perrusquia has requested “a copy of all Performance Enhancement Program (PEP) audits and evaluations of the system from Jan. 1 2016 to the present.”

The City initially responded to the request on December 26, 2020, confirming receipt and stating it would respond “as soon as possible or within 5 business days . . . [though] certain requests may take longer to process due to the size of the records requested or current request volumes.”

Since then, the City has “extended the time reasonably necessary to produce responsive records” more than 40 times, most recently on May 30, according to the lawsuit.

“The public has a right under Tennessee’s public records law to prompt access to public records, and any delay must be limited to the time reasonably necessary to produce the requested records,” said Paul McAdoo, a Nashville attorney for the RCFP. “It should not take the City of Memphis more than two and half years to produce any public records. Such an extensive delay is contrary to the Tennessee Public Records Act.”

The performance enhancement program records have become especially relevant since January, when Tyre Nichols was fatally beaten by five Memphis police officers after a traffic stop.

The five officers were fired and charged with second-degree murder. They were affiliated with a special unit called SCORPION, a data-driven initiative that identifies crime hotspots and attempts to suppress them with saturation patrols, according to an investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

Perrusquia, director of The Institute, is filing the lawsuit as a citizen journalist. The University of Memphis is not party to the suit.

The RCFP filed a similar lawsuit on Perrusquia’s behalf in April 2022. That suit seeks access to MPD’s Performance Improvement Plan reports for former homicide detective Eric Kelly, former officer Colin Berryhill, and officer Justin Vazeii. That lawsuit is pending.

Perrusquia also sued the city in 2021 seeking the release of bodycam footage of three “excessive force” incidents involving patrolman Berryhill, who resigned the previous October.

Perrusquia agreed to dismiss the suit after the city produced the requested public records at no cost, and issued a new policy referring all “excessive force” cases to the district attorney.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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