This article was produced in partnership with The Daily Memphian.
The Memphis Police Department has revealed new procedures for filing excessive force complaints against officers following a joint investigation by The Daily Memphian and opens in a new windowThe Institute for Public Service Reporting into the agency’s reluctance to refer brutality cases to prosecutors.
MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau (ISB) is now issuing a “Complainant Rights Form’’ advising citizens who allege brutality that they have a “right to have a criminal report taken in addition to (any) complaint of excessive force.’’
News of the procedure follows a series of stories that identify seven severe use-of-force cases in recent years that MPD declined to send to prosecutors to weigh possible criminal charges.
Those cases include a 2015 opens in a new windowincident in which three officers beat a handcuffed prisoner; another in 2019 when an officer repeatedly opens in a new windowsprayed a handcuffed suspect in the face with a chemical agent; and a 2016 opens in a new windowcase involving an officer who repeatedly electro-stunned a handcuffed suspect with a Taser.
“The complainant’s rights form is a new document that is being implemented by ISB,’’ MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said in an email Tuesday. “Although complainants have always been verbally advised that pursuing a criminal offense report is an option, the written form was created so that it can be documented.’’
Rudolph would not say specifically why MPD developed the Complainant Rights Form, but said it’s “been in place for about a month,” which would put its start sometime in August. The Institute and Daily Memphian began publishing investigative reports about MPD’s failure to seek prosecutorial review on July 2.
Reviewing 90 of MPD’s internal investigations of excessive force between 2015 and 2020, the news organizations found that many cases involve less-serious and at times bogus allegations, yet records also reveal a pattern that legal experts have called troubling: Actions that raise questions of possible assault or other criminal conduct are often treated as mere violations of policy.
Critics interviewed about the new complaint process said it won’t cure MPD’s failure to properly treat such brutality cases – some that seem to amount to torture – as severe crimes.
“We often get this response from our city mayor and from our district attorney: we already do these things,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization.
“But what we need is actual accountability, actual transparency. And until we get those things, this window dressing that we continually are showed, it’s not doing anything to restore trust.”
Rudolph confirmed the existence of the new form after a journalist sent a copy of it to MPD inquiring into its origin.
The form was obtained earlier this month by activist Chelsea Glass, who recently filed a misconduct complaint against an MPD officer who allegedly posted inflammatory memes on Facebook. When the officer later sent direct messages to Glass that she interpreted as harassment and intimidation, she asked to file a criminal complaint against the officer.
That’s when ISB investigators handed her the Complainant Rights Form.
But Glass said officers then proceeded to give her a runaround, steering her first to a precinct station where a detective took and then deleted a report and then to police in Collierville, where she lives.
“They’re not going to do anything with it,’’ said Glass, 32.
Her attorney, Scott Kramer, expressed greater pessimism.
“They don’t want complaints,’’ said Kramer, a Memphis civil rights attorney.
“This proves they are not only not reforming, they are trying to maintain the way they’ve got it. They’ve got power. They’re not going to give it up.’’
Discovery of the new form
The story of how the new Complainant Rights Form came to light starts on Sept. 3. That’s when Glass was on Facebook, and an item caught her eye.
While commenting on a friend’s post about Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager charged with the rifle slayings of two Black Lives Matter supporters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Glass said she observed inflammatory memes posted by Memphis Police officer Matthew Dyess.
One depicts Rittenhouse carrying a rifle alongside a crude rhyme:
“Blame It All on My Roots
I Showed Up in Boots
And Ruined Their Black Lives Affair.”
Another depicts a wolf with a massive gun wound and a third says “Damnit That Kid Can Shoot’’ overtop a picture of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is holding a can of beer and a cigarette in one hand and pointing a finger with the other.
The posts led Glass to file an internal affairs complaint.
At first, she said, she had no idea Dyess was a police officer.
“I start going through his profile. And I mean like two swipes over I see him clearly in a Memphis police officer’s uniform with a cigar in his mouth. And I was like, this cannot be real. There’s no way that this is actually a police officer,’’ she said.
“Even knowing everything that I know, it was still shocking to see that sort of brazen, you know, this like untouchable sort of attitude.’’
When Glass challenged Dyess about his posts, he began insulting her, she said.
“This is what happens when a miserable person feels the need to control the free speech of others,’’ Dyess said, according to a screenshot Glass saved. The taunts in the comment thread on a mutual friend’s Facebook page continued. “Everybody except you and a few miserable cows realize it’s funny, and can enjoy the irony,’’ Dyess said in another comment, according to Glass’ saved screenshots.
Glass then reported Dyess.
MPD spokeswoman Rudolph confirmed Tuesday an internal investigation is underway. Dyess, 39, a 10-year MPD veteran, has been “relieved of duty due to pending line of duty retirement proceedings,’’ Rudolph said.
Dyess could not be reached for comment.
After Glass filed her complaint, Dyess reached out to her again – this time in a direct message, she said.
“Have we gone far enough sis?’’ Dyess wrote, according to a screenshot.
Kramer, Glass’ attorney, said his client took that as a threat.
“That’s the kind of threat you see from powerful entities. They don’t specifically say, ‘Hey, I’m going to come over to your house and beat you up.’ They just let you know they don’t like the route you’re taking and that there will be consequences,’’ Kramer said.
“I definitely felt threatened by it,’’ said Glass, who is a Black Lives Matter supporter and is active in efforts to remove a Confederate monument from Collierville’s Town Square Park.
Glass said she became particularly concerned when she learned about Dyess’ past.
He was involved in the 2013 shooting death of a Black man, Steven Askew, who’d been sleeping in an automobile when Dyess and another officer chanced upon him and opened fire. Dyess maintained Askew had pointed a gun at him. The District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute, though the city later paid Askew’s family nearly $600,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit.
“Now that he has shown his willingness to publicly make racist and inappropriate statements, can you really leave him on the force in a city that is two-thirds black?’’ asked Kramer, Glass’ attorney. Dyess’ comments in the direct message to Glass amounted to harassment, intimidation and possibly cyber-bullying, Kramer said.
Criminal case is tough to make
But when Glass and Kramer attempted to file criminal charges they ran into difficulties.
“There just seemed to be a lot of resistance even to take your report,’’ Glass said, describing how she was routed from office to office.
MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau maintains two primary units for investigating officer misconduct: Internal Affairs, which investigates violations of administrative policy, and the Security Squad, which, according to policy, explores potential criminal allegations “which may be reviewed by the Shelby County (District) Attorney General’s Office that may or may not result in the case being presented to a Grand Jury.’’
Though MPD policy requires criminal complaints against officers to be routed to the Security Squad, Kramer and Glass said investigators directed them instead to one of the precinct stations. That’s when one investigator handed them the Complainant Rights Form. Because Glass feared reporting the incident to Dyess’ home precinct, one of the investigators wrote the name of that precinct – Appling Farms Station – on the top of the form to warn her from filing there. Kramer and Glass then went to the Mount Moriah station.
There a detective took a statement, only to call Glass later and say he’d deleted the report, she said. Supervisors at Mount Moriah then said Glass should report the incident to the Collierville Police Department, which she did so on Tuesday.
The Complainant Rights Form consists of a few lines to record the date, time and location where a citizen is advised of their rights. It states: “I, (name here), have been advised of my right to have a criminal report taken in addition to my complaint of excessive force made in the Inspectional Services Office.’’ That’s followed by a space for the complainant’s signature.
Just City’s Spickler said he doubts the new form will bring about true reform or force authorities to treat brutality seriously.
“I have a problem with turning to prosecution to resolve so many of our problems as a community. And so it pains me to say that part of the solution to an abusive police encounter is a prosecution,’’ he said. “But we do have laws protecting us against assault, torture, abuse from other people in our community, and that does not exclude police officers.’’
MPD spokeswoman Rudolph said in an email in July in response to stories by The Institute and Daily Memphian that MPD has “no formal process in place for submitting use of force complaints to the District Attorney.’’
Since 2015, MPD and the Shelby County 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.
But records suggest cases that don’t involve firearms or fatalities are seldom referred.
Among 90 MPD use-of-force investigations between 2015 and 2020 reviewed so far, 89 weren’t referred to prosecutors, records show. Available records don’t make it clear whether the other case had been referred or not.
Scores other case files have not been released more than three months after the news organizations first asked for them.
MPD has not responded to repeated requests to interview Director Michael Rallings about that practice and whether he might consider reforming it.
Rudolph said no one was available for an interview Wednesday.
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.