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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

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MPD Officer Avoids Discipline By Taking New Job in Mississippi

Tennessee’s police accountability systems are struggling amid a backlog of requests for regulatory action against officers

Officer Colin Berryhill’s hands are seen as he uses a Taser to electroshock handcuffed motorist Owen Buzzard in this 2019 encounter. (Memphis Police Department body camera footage)

Colin Berryhill faced serious job trouble as he began his final day as a Memphis police officer.

Internal investigators had accused the veteran patrolman of abusing citizens with his Taser. On three separate occasions, investigators charged, Berryhill used excessive force while making arrests, including once when he electroshocked a man who was restrained in handcuffs.

But the day before a scheduled October 2020 disciplinary hearing, when supervisors were to weigh the allegations against Berryhill and determine his future at the Memphis Police Department, he quit.

He re-emerged a month later in Mississippi wearing a new badge and uniform working as a patrolman for the Southaven Police Department, where he was still employed this fall and where he recently was honored as the department’s officer of the month.

“He’s not police material,’’ said Owen Buzzard, a motorist electroshocked in 2019 by Berryhill in an incident that led fellow officers to give the patrolman a nickname: Taserface.

A network of safeguards is designed to prevent officers like Berryhill from escaping unresolved misconduct allegations in one jurisdiction and finding new police work in another in Tennessee or across state lines.

But an investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting and Action News 5 found those systems often are sluggish and inefficient. Among concerns, the agency responsible for certifying police officers in Tennessee and disqualifying those deemed unfit is backlogged by requests to decertify officers.

The Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission’s backlog includes nearly 40 decertification requests stretching back as far as 2019 that remain unresolved while POST staff attempts to locate officers to serve notifications needed to schedule hearings.

“In an effort to create greater efficiencies, POST added staff members since last year to assist with decertifications while the Commission streamlined its procedure,’’ spokesman Kevin Walters wrote in an email explaining how the agency is working to speed up the process.

POST received a request from MPD to decertify Berryhill on grounds he quit before his misconduct charges could be resolved, yet records show the state agency still has not held a hearing three years after Berryhill left to find new police work in Mississippi.

Berryhill shares blame for the delays by failing to update his mailing address as required by state law, Walters said.

Colin Berryhill

But records suggest MPD may hold an even greater share of blame than POST or Berryhill.

MPD waited 21 months after Berryhill’s October 2020 resignation to request his decertification. MPD filled out a form to decertify Berryhill in December 2021 – more than a year after his resignation – but didn’t file the request with POST until July 2022, Walters said. MPD filed the decertification request in accordance with a state rule aimed at officers who resign “with disciplinary action pending that could have resulted in termination”.

By the time MPD filed the request, Berryhill had been working as an officer in Southaven for more than a year-and-a-half.

POST finally notified Berryhill of the request to decertify him earlier this fall after receiving inquiries from The Institute and Action News 5. A hearing now has been set for Dec. 14.

‘Appearance of accountability’

Police reform advocate Clark Neily believes the decertification delays in Tennessee may involve more than inadequate resources. He contends law enforcement often engages in “a variety of schemes’’ to frustrate accountability measures.

“They want the appearance of accountability, but not the substance. They want accountability to essentially be something that exists on paper so they can assert that there is accountability,’’ said Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank. “But they want to make sure that that’s where it ends.”

How often officers like Berryhill slip through the cracks is uncertain.

“I can’t explain it,’’ said Brian Grisham, deputy director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, which oversees the National Decertification Index, a nationwide database designed to alert police agencies about recruits who have been disqualified by state certification boards.

Officers who are decertified in Tennessee and most other states typically are entered into the National Decertification Index, a nationwide registry of more than 52,000 certificate- or license-revocation actions involving officer misconduct.

Grisham said statistics are unavailable on the annual number of police certificate revocations nationally or the average amount of time that police agencies generally take to file a decertification request. He said he had no way to know why MPD waited more than a year to request Berryhill’s decertification:

“You’d have to ask Memphis as to why it took so long.”

MPD did not offer any explanation about its handling of Berryhill’s case despite four separate requests for comment.

Berryhill, 35, could not be reached for comment despite a series of phone and email messages.

Colin Berryhill found a new job with the Southaven Police Department shortly after walking away from disciplinary charges in Memphis. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

Southaven Police Chief Macon Moore said last month that Berryhill is performing well. He didn’t provide details. Later, via email, Moore said he “will not comment on any questions regarding” Berryhill or any other former MPD officers who might be working in Southaven. The news organizations could not access Berryhill’s Southaven personnel files because they are confidential under Mississippi law.

The development comes as Southaven leaders are stepping up measures to fight crime in the city of 56,000 people that shares a seven-mile border with Memphis along the Tennessee-Mississippi line.

In August, Mayor Darren Musselwhite announced “Operation: Close the Door”, a policing initiative aimed at curbing “spillover crime” from Memphis.

“… Our Police have been successfully controlling crime for decades within spitting distance to one of the most dangerous cities in America,’’ Musselwhite wrote in a Facebook post that said Southaven is meeting growing public safety challenges through increased police spending and “Police Officer growth (of) 36% in just the last four years.’’

Checkered history

Berryhill’s arrival in Southaven three years ago followed a checkered, 11-year stint as an officer in Memphis.

He faced a series of disciplinary actions after joining MPD in 2009, receiving reprimands for three minor traffic accidents. Investigators found he justifiably fired his service pistol at charging dogs in 2015 and 2019. He missed both times.

Reports like one in 2017 portray Berryhill as energetic and assertive. Supervisors admonished him that December for leaving his work post without permission and crossing precinct lines to respond to a shooting at Wolfchase Mall.

“I went to the location without being dispatched,’’ Berry wrote in a memo explaining he was motivated by “the nature of the incident.’’

Berryhill came under investigation again in 2019 following a minor traffic stop that turned ugly.

Motorist Owen Buzzard as he is pulled over by officer Berryhill in April 2019. (Memphis Police Department body camera footage)

It happened that April as motorist Owen Buzzard backed his pickup out of his driveway and momentarily pulled into an opposing lane of traffic. When Berryhill found that Buzzard had a suspended license, he placed him in handcuffs.

“You’re not going to jail. I’m detaining you,’’ Berryhill said as his body camera rolled.

“You got any weapons or anything on you?’’ Berryhill asked.

“No, man,’’ Buzzard replied.

A struggle ensued as the officer began walking the cuffed Buzzard to a patrol car. Berryhill would later say he began struggling with Buzzard, believing he was “reaching’’ into the back of his pants for something.

“Hey, I don’t know what you’re doing,’’ Berryhill says on the video, “but cut it – get your hands …’’ The officer’s voice trails off as he begins tugging at Buzzard’s cuffed hands.

Buzzard was silent during the initial struggle. But he would contend immediately afterward that he was merely trying to pull up his pants. Berryhill’s bodycam footage shows that six seconds after he began tugging at Buzzard, he pulled the handcuffed motorist to the pavement.

Then, as Buzzard laid on his back on the pavement and began to rise to a sitting position, Berryhill pulled out his Taser and fired two electrical darts into the motorist’s abdomen.

“I didn’t know if he had a weapon or not,’’ Berryhill told a lieutenant later that night. “And the only thing available to me was my Taser because I was down on this side,’’ he said, pointing to his right torso.

“So, I popped him.’’

Series of delays

Body camera footage of officer Berryhill’s encounter with motorist Owen Buzzard

Police found no weapons on Buzzard.

Concerned by what the video showed, internal investigators searched Berryhill’s Response to Resistance forms – reports that document incidents in which officers use any level of force on a citizen. Investigators then flagged two other Taser incidents that posed troubling questions.

One involved a domestic incident days earlier in which Berryhill fired a jolt of electricity into the leg of an uncompliant 21-year-old man as he was being held by four other officers.

Berryhill later told investigators he electroshocked the man for “pain compliance”, a technique forbidden by MPD policy.

Internal investigators uncovered a third case in 2018 when Berryhill used his Taser to fire jolts of electricity into the back of a juvenile.

On Oct. 17, 2019 – six months after the investigation started – supervisors filed a statement of charges against Berryhill, alleging a total of six policy violations connected to the three incidents, including three separate counts of excessive force.

But nearly a year would pass before supervisors would issue Berryhill a summons calling the officer to an initial administrative hearing held Oct. 13, 2020, when the officer defended his actions.

“I apologize for anything I might have done to embarrass the department,’’ Berryhill told a hearing officer. “However, I felt I needed to take the actions at that time…

“I have no desires to hurt anyone just to use force. I always tried to use the minimum amount of force.’’

Supervisors scheduled a final hearing for Oct. 30, 2020, but it was never held – Berryhill had resigned a day earlier.

“My family and I will be moving out of state and I plan to start a new career in the near future,’’ he wrote in his Oct. 29, 2020 resignation letter.

Prosecutors later reviewed the matter and found insufficient grounds for any criminal charges.

Days after his resignation, Berryhill was working for the Southaven Police Department.

The department honored him for outstanding police work the following autumn.

“He is always willing to assist fellow officers with transports, reporting and paperwork,’’ the department said in a release naming Berryhill as its officer of the month for October 2021 when he made 13 arrests and 17 traffic stops and issued 26 citations while responding to 173 calls for service.

Background checks essential

COLIN BERRYHILL TIMELINE
April 10, 2019: Memphis Police Department patrolman Colin Berryhill stops motorist Owen Buzzard and puts him in handcuffs after discovering Buzzard has a suspended driver’s license. Following a brief struggle, Berryhill pushes Buzzard to the ground and electroshocks him in the abdomen with his Taser.
April 10, 2019: The Inspectional Services Bureau – MPD’s internal affairs unit – opens an investigation. ISB eventually identifies two other incidents in which Officer Berryhill allegedly misused his Taser on citizens – a juvenile and a man arrested following a domestic incident.
Oct. 17, 2019: MPD supervisors file an administrative Statement of Charges accusing Berryhill of six policy violations connected to three separate incidents of misusing his Taser. The alleged violations include three counts of excessive force.
Oct. 13, 2020: Supervisors hold a disciplinary hearing for Berryhill nearly a year after filing the Statement of Charges against him. Asked at the hearing if he knew that MPD policy prohibits the use of a Taser for “pain compliance,’’ Berry answers, “Yes sir, but I knew using the Taser was the use of force I needed to accomplish the arrest.’’
Oct. 29, 2020: Berryhill resigns the day before a final disciplinary hearing was to be held. “My family and I will be moving out of state and I plan to start a new career in the near future,’’ he said in his resignation letter.
November 2020: Berryhill takes a new job working as a patrolman for the Southaven Police Department. Nearly a year later, in October 2021, he was selected as the department’s officer of the month.
Dec. 17, 2021: MPD Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis signs a request form asking the Tennessee Peace Officer Training and Standards (POST) Commission to decertify Berryhill. In the request, Davis checked a box indicating that Berryhill should be decertified because he had resigned “with disciplinary action pending that could have resulted in termination.’’
July 29, 2022: POST receives MPD’s request to decertify Berryhill. Although MPD chief Davis had signed a form six months earlier requesting Berryhill’s decertification, the department didn’t submit the request until now, according to POST spokesman Kevin Walters.
June 29, 2023: Nearly a year after receiving MPD’s request to decertify Berryhill, POST attempts to notify the officer to schedule a hearing. According to POST spokesman Walters, the notification “was returned undelivered in August”.
Sept. 22, 2023: In response to a news reporter’s questions, Walters confirms that a hearing has never been held regarding MPD’s request to decertify Berryhill.
Oct. 5, 2023: Walters tells a reporter that Berryhill has been notified of MPD’s pending decertification request and that a hearing has been set for Dec. 14 in Nashville.

It’s unclear how Berryhill moved so seamlessly from his troubled status at MPD to a new job in Southaven.

“It’s a departmental responsibility to do an adequate background check,’’ said Grisham, the deputy director at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

Still, getting accurate information can be difficult because police departments often are reluctant to provide negative details about officers for fear of getting sued.

“It’s a very, very common issue nationwide in agencies being less than willing to give full disclosure,’’ Grisham said.

Moore, the Southaven Police Chief, said in a brief interview last month that he knew about Berryhill’s history at MPD, but said it didn’t trouble him. The scope and focus of his department’s background check of Berryhill remains unclear.

Asked for further details this month, Moore said in an email, “The Southaven Police Department will not comment on any questions regarding this matter.”

Also unclear is why MPD took so long to ask state officials to decertify Berryhill following his October 2020 resignation.

Records show Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis signed a decertification request on Dec. 17, 2021 – fourteen months after Berryhill quit – checking a box in the form letter that shows he had resigned with disciplinary action pending. Under rules passed in 2010, POST can suspend or revoke the certification of an officer who “resigned with disciplinary action pending that could have resulted in termination.”

But POST did not receive the request until six months later, according to POST spokesman Walters.

“On July 29, 2022, MPD submitted their decertification form to POST to initiate a decertification hearing,’’ Walters said in an email.

MPD said in a written statement in 2021 after The Institute first wrote about Berryhill’s Taser use that the coronavirus crisis played a role in delays in concluding its review of the officer’s actions.

“… The pandemic was felt department wide and as a result many internal matters were delayed or backlogged,’’ said the statement from spokesman Louis Brownlee.

Walters said POST staff finally sent a letter to Berryhill this June attempting to notify him of the decertification request against him.

“It was returned undelivered in August,’’ Walters said.

Later, on Oct. 5, Walters said a notice of the pending decertification action had been served on Berryhill and that a hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 14 in Nashville.

POST has just one employee tasked to notify officers, Walters said. That employee has a number of other duties, including playing roles in audits, academy inspections, teaching and investigations, he said.

Walters indicated that Berryhill shares blame for the delays, too.

“All certified Tennessee law enforcement officers are required per state statute to update POST whenever they have a change of address. Officer Berryhill did not provide POST staff with an updated address and moved out of state,’’ he said.

In addition to adding staff, POST has “streamlined’’ its procedure at monthly meetings to reduce its backlog and create efficiencies, Walters said.

“In the past, agencies made presentations about the officers even if the officers had defaulted and did not appear. Now, the agencies do not give presentations, freeing up the agenda for more officers to appear,’’ he said. 

Jessica Jaglois
Contributing Author

Jessica Jaglois is a Murrow-award winning, Emmy-nominated investigative journalist with more than fourteen years of local TV news experience. She has been covering quality-of-life issues in Tennessee for more than seven years.

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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