This article was produced in partnership with The Daily Memphian.
It was a rough and wild fight.
Memphis Police Lt. Kam Wong struggled for five minutes inside a Memphis bar to gain control of a woman who repeatedly hit and kicked him. Along the way, he suffered three broken fingers on his left hand.
But according to written reports, video surveillance inside Neil’s Grille & Bar also captured Wong as he repeatedly placed his hands on or around the woman’s neck, including once after she was finally handcuffed, when he also slapped her across the face.
“Bar surveillance footage revealed after (the woman) was handcuffed and seated, Wong slapped (her) in the face using his right hand as if to get her attention. He then placed both of his hands around her neck above her shoulders and restrained her against the wall in what appeared to be choking position,’’ a case summary of the Oct. 15, 2017, incident says.
Internal investigators found Wong violated the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force policy. But the case is one of 10 examined by The Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian in which MPD commanders overturned investigators by dismissing or amending excessive force findings.
The 10 reversals comprise more than a third of 26 excessive force findings between 2015 and 2019 that MPD has released to the news organizations.
Just as criminal courts have layers of appeals when meting out justice, MPD maintains a tiered procedure when a citizen files a misconduct charge against an officer. Complaints are first investigated by MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau, which can rule an allegation unfounded or sustain it after evaluating the evidence. If sustained, an officer is presented with a statement of administrative charges spelling out alleged policy violations. The matter is then heard by a hearing officer, typically a ranking officer in MPD’s command structure.
Accused officers are allowed to enter hearings accompanied by representatives of their labor union, the Memphis Police Association.
“People see a (video) clip of an officer responding to something, and that clip may not be pretty because it’s never pretty when you have to take someone down with force,’’ said MPA president Essica Cage. “But they don’t know the entire story. And they don’t know the entire policy and why an officer had to respond the way they did.’’
Hearing officers often consider a range of factors, including MPD policy, an officer’s work record and whether an officer’s actions appear reasonable within the confines of accepted police practice.
In Wong’s case, the hearing officer identified several mitigating factors.
“The writer identifies that there were extenuating circumstances that must be examined,’’ Lt. Col. D. Jackson wrote in dismissing the excessive force charge against Wong. Those circumstances included the broken fingers Wong sustained, his reluctance to pepper-spray the suspect because of the presence of flammable alcohol and Jackson’s impression that Wong didn’t apply pressure when he put his hands on the woman’s neck.
According to a summary of the case:
The struggle started after the on-duty Wong arrived to check on the bar at 5727 Quince Road. Wong arrived as the woman, Cheri Maher, was asked by a bartender to leave for being disruptive. But when another employee feared Maher was too inebriated to drive, Wong convinced her to go back inside and call a cab.
When Maher, now 33, continued to “curse and argue’’ Wong told her to be quiet. When she responded by waving her cell phone in his face, Wong pushed her arm away and “a physical confrontation ensued.’’
Maher struck “Wong in his head and face several times’’ and injured his hand, the report said.
“Video footage revealed Wong then grabbed Maher by the front of her neck, below the chin and above the sternum with his left hand, in what appeared to be a choke-hold,’’ the report said. The struggle lasted five minute and continued after Maher was handcuffed.
Maher later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and served three months and 20 days in jail.
The Institute and The Daily Memphian have been trying for two months now to obtain the video evidence to evaluate the encounter. The news organizations filed a request under the Tennessee Public Records Act on Sept. 1. The city sent an update last month saying it needs until at least Nov. 23 “to make a determination of a proper response to your request.’’
Access to MPD’s excessive force records has been an ongoing concern. Since the news organizations first requested copies of MPD’s excessive force investigative reports on June 1, the city has released 130 of 213 reports.
Mayor Jim Strickland has said reasons for delays include time to make legally mandated redactions for privacy concerns and a dated paper records system.
“Our system is very antiquated. It was built in the 20th century and it stayed in the 20th century,’’ Strickland said on the WKNO-TV news program, “Behind The Headlines.”
Responding to pressure for transparency, the city plans to start posting some excessive force data on its website next year.
Other excessive force findings overturned by hearing officers include:
- Officer Michael Rogers was accused of grabbing a motorist by the neck in November 2017, forcing him to bend over and ordering him to spit out material Rogers believed was drugs. No drugs were found. The driver was later released and issued a traffic citation. Lt. Col. E.B. Bass later dismissed the excessive force charge, asserting that body camera footage offered no “concrete evidence’’ of a “direct violation’’ of policy. Rogers received a written reprimand for failing to complete official reports notifying supervisors of the incident.
- Responding to a shots-fired call in November 2018, officers Nicholas Rudd and Stedmon Dawson chased a juvenile suspect on foot. According to reports, Dawson tackled the youth after he’d raised his hands “to give himself up.’’ As the youth lay in a fetal position, bodycam footage shows Rudd and Dawson punching him, a case summary says. Rudd contended he did it because the suspect would not show his hands. “However, video footage showed the suspect giving his hands as ordered,’’ a statement of charges said. A union representative vigorously disagreed, but Deputy Chief Michael Hardy determined that footage showed the suspect complying. In an evident compromise, Hardy dismissed the excessive force allegation and amended it to failing to comply with MPD’s response to resistance continuum. Rudd and Dawson both received a two-day suspension.
- Following a foot chase of a motorist who fled a traffic stop, Officer Carrous Davis struck the suspect’s head after another officer had taken him to the ground. Davis later said at a disciplinary hearing that he struck the suspect on the back of the head with an open hand to aid in getting him handcuffed. Col. P. Burnett dismissed the excessive/unnecessary force charge but suspended Davis for six days for failing to notify his supervisor of the incident, failing to complete a response to resistance form and failing to activate his body camera.
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. All photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.