Newly released body camera footage shows a Memphis police officer electroshocking citizens with his Taser in three controversial incidents over the course of a year before supervisors finally took action.
“You’re hurting the (expletive) out of me, man!” a motorist yells in one video clip moments after he was tased while lying on the ground in handcuffs.
The videos from the body camera of former patrolman Colin Berryhill – nicknamed “Taserface” by fellow officers – were among the first reviewed by a new Shelby County District Attorney unit that aims to curtail police brutality.
The Conduct Review Team, or CRT, was quietly organized last August following an investigation by The Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian that found the Memphis Police Department routinely treated excessive force incidents as simple violations of policy and did not send them to prosecutors – even severe cases involving abuse of handcuffed prisoners.
So far, the CRT has brought criminal charges against two law enforcement officers – one MPD patrolman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy.
The CRT declined to file criminal charges against Berryhill, yet the now-closed case offers a look inside the new system and its increased scrutiny of police misconduct. Receiving cases under a new MPD policy that requires all internal excessive force findings to be sent to the DA, the five-member CRT analyzes bodycam video, records, and other evidence to weigh officer actions against applicable criminal laws such as assault and official oppression.
“… The state could not prove criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt,” the CRT concluded in its report on Berryhill.
Yet questions remain.
Bodycam videos in the Berryhill file were obtained by The Institute for Public Service Reporting following a public records lawsuit, yet police still are withholding some sensitive details.
Meanwhile, the long, 23-month investigation is triggering fresh accusations of a lack of transparency.
Supervisors filed disciplinary charges against Berryhill in October 2019 accusing him of violating MPD’s Taser and use-of-force policies. That was six months after the internal investigation had opened. But MPD then continued the case for another year before Berryhill suddenly resigned on Oct. 29, 2020, a day before a scheduled administrative hearing. All the while Berryhill remained on the force – still on patrol – while his case file remained closed to public scrutiny.
MPD eventually referred the case to prosecutors in February, two days after a journalist filed suit against the police agency in Chancery Court seeking access to Berryhill’s bodycam footage.
Memphis civil rights attorney Jacob Webster Brown said he believes the handling of Berryhill’s case is part of a larger pattern in which MPD “slow walks’’ internal investigations in order to drag misconduct cases out past the one-year statute of limitations for filing suit in court.
“I think it’s absolutely by design,’’ said Brown, who has a lawsuit pending against the city in federal court that hinges on allegations MPD stonewalled the release of information in a separate internal investigation.
Interim Memphis Police Director Mike Ryall wouldn’t agree to an interview, but MPD said in a written statement that the pandemic created a backlog in the handling of Berryhill’s case and other internal investigations.
“No, cases are not slow walked,’’ the agency said in an emailed statement released through spokesman Louis Brownlee.
As for Berryhill, 32, who worked 11 years at MPD before his sudden departure, he maintains his actions were justified.
“I apologize for anything I might have done to embarrass the department,’’ he told supervisors, contending “I felt I needed to take the actions at that time.’’
Traffic stop encounter
Electroshocked by Berryhill during a traffic stop two years ago, Owen Buzzard remains troubled by the encounter.
“I still today believe that the man in that video with the Taser in his hand is a criminal and not an officer,’’ said Buzzard, 41, who watched the bodycam footage of his arrest with a reporter. “That was excessive – very excessive – force. For no reason at all.’’
It was warm that April night in 2019 when Buzzard backed his pickup truck out of his driveway. He was pulling a long, flatbed trailer scattered with scrap pieces of wood, metal, and surplus mechanical parts. He swung wide into the opposing lane of the quiet, two-lane street near Memphis’ Oakville community.
As he lurched forward, then lingered, a police patrol car pulled up.
“How you doing?’’ Berryhill yelled as he walked toward Buzzard’s truck.
When Buzzard explained why he was in the wrong lane, Berryhill asked for Buzzard’s driver’s license, which the motorist said he’d left back at his house.
“I live back there,’’ Buzzard said, pointing down the street, “three doors down.’’
Berryhill asked Buzzard for his name and date of birth and retreated to his squad car to run a check. Detecting a problem, he returned to Buzzard’s open truck window, his body camera recording the interaction.
“Do you know you’ve got a suspended license?’’ Berryhill asks as the video rolls. He orders Buzzard to step out of his vehicle.
“You’re not going to jail. I’m detaining you,’’ the officer says before placing Buzzard in handcuffs.
“You got any weapons or anything on you?’’ Berryhill asks.
“No, man,’’ Buzzard replies.
But as the officer begins walking the motorist back to the squad car, a struggle ensues. Berryhill would later say he believed Buzzard 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.
The video’s dark scene on dimly lit Cochese Road offers nothing definitive to resolve their contentions. But video shows six seconds after the officer began tugging at Buzzard, he pulls the handcuffed motorist to the pavement.
“Hold the (expletive) up, man,’’ Buzzard says as falls to the ground.
Then, as Buzzard lays on his back on the pavement and begins to rise to a sitting position, Berryhill pulls out his Taser and fires two electrical darts into the motorist’s abdomen.
“What the (expletive)?’’ Buzzard yells as he squirms on the pavement. Berryhill fires an electrical shock that appears to last about five to six seconds.
As Buzzard howls, Berryhill rolls him onto his stomach and hovers over top him.
“What were you reaching for?’’ the officer demands.
“I wasn’t reaching for nothing!’’ Buzzard replies.
“What were you reaching for?’’ the officer demands again.
“Nothing, dammit!’’ Buzzard yells. “I ain’t got nothing …
“I didn’t reach for nothing. I tried to pull my (expletive) pants up. And you stunned the (expletive) out of me. For what?’’
As Berryhill waits for backup to arrive, he holds his Taser on Buzzard’s lower back.
“Man, I am not a threat to anybody,’’ says Buzzard, who cut his right hand during his fall and later received three stitches to close the wound. “Why are you holding that in the center of my back?’’
“Because if you move again, I’m going to pop you again!” Berryhill tells him.
Investigators search for more incidents
“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.’’
Though Berryhill said he fell to the ground along with Buzzard, bodycam footage indicates the officer never left his feet.
Police didn’t find any weapons on Buzzard. They searched his truck, but didn’t find any there, either. They did find a butane lighter on the motorist.
Buzzard pleaded guilty to resisting arrest two days after his encounter with Berryhill. He said he did it because he needed to get out of jail to make a court hearing on another case in Mississippi. “I had no choice,’’ he said.
MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau opened an internal investigation. ISB investigators determined Berryhill violated MPD’s policy on use of force as well as regulations governing the use of conducted electrical weapons. Investigators cited MPD regulations prohibiting the use a Taser on a handcuffed individual “absent an overly combative behavior that may cause harm to the officer or others.’’
Investigators also 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.
The first involved a domestic disturbance days earlier.
In that incident, the parents of a 21-year-old man complained he’d been drinking and had damaged their front door. There had been other incidents; his family told police he’d been depressed and had threatened to hurt himself. A decision was made to make an emergency commitment for an evaluation.
“Stand up, put your hands behind your back,’’ Berryhill tells the young man as body cameras roll.
The man protests, but complies: He turns around and puts his hands behind his back to be cuffed.
But then he starts to struggle. Four officers are holding him. Still, they are having a hard time fitting the cuffs on him. Part of the difficulty involves the bulky sleeves of a sweatshirt covering the man’s wrists.
“Please! Please!’’ he pleads, saying he doesn’t want to go to the hospital.
“Stop it or you’re going to get Tased,’’ Berryhill tells him.
“Please!’’ the man says again.
“You’re going to get tased if you don’t stop! You understand?’’ Berryhill yells.
When the man continues to struggle, Berryhill fires a jolt of electricity into his thigh that buckles the young man’s knees; he collapses to the floor where officers finish cuffing him.
“Oh, that Taser!’’ the man cries in pain. “Oh, my God!’’
A Taser can be used in one of two ways. One involves firing two small darts that can strike a subject from a distance of up to 25 feet or more. The darts hook under the subject’s skin and an electric current then is discharged through wires running back to the stun gun.
The other method, the one Berryhill used on the young man, is known as drive stun mode. It involves simply pressing the Taser up against a subject and discharging its current.
“I felt that a simple pain compliance for a second would get him to comply long enough to where we could get him into cuffs,’’ Berryhill later told investigators. “I drive stunned him for about two seconds, which it immediately worked.”
The problem is MPD policy explicitly forbids the use of a drive stun “for pain compliance to prod or escort persons’’ or “solely as a compliance technique to overcome passive resistance.’’
“Officer Berryhill’s actions were unnecessary and needless,’’ internal investigators later concluded, finding the officer in violation of regulations governing use of force and conducted electrical weapons.
Yet none of Berryhill’s colleagues objected that night, either when he first warned the man he would electroshock him, or when he actually pulled out his Taser and used it.
A Crisis Intervention Team officer trained and certified in the proper use of a Taser, Berryhill told his lieutenant that night why he did it.
“We had him on the ground, and we couldn’t get his hands in control, so I hit him for two seconds in the thigh…’’ Berryhill tells Lt. Byron Johnson as body cameras roll.
“That’s fine,’’ Johnson replies.
“… with the drive stun just like this,’’ Berryhill continues, demonstrating by pointing his Taser to his own thigh.
“OK,’’ Johnson says.
“Very minimal contact,’’ says Berryhill.
“We’re good,’’ Johnson concludes. “We’re good. OK.’’
A lengthy review
Internal investigators uncovered a third case in 2018 when Berryhill used his Taser on a juvenile. Again, investigators determined the officer had violated MPD’s use of force and conducted electrical weapons regulations.
Supervisors filed a statement of charges against Berryhill on Oct. 17, 2019, alleging a total of six policy violations over the three incidents. But nearly a year would pass before supervisors would issue Berryhill a summons calling the officer to an initial administrative hearing scheduled for Oct. 5, 2020. The day before a final hearing on Oct. 30, Berryhill resigned.
Civil rights attorney Brown said he’s seen other cases handled in similar, slow-moving fashion.
“I think the city, as a matter of policy, intentionally slow walks internal affairs investigations until a year has passed or it’s about to pass,’’ Brown said. Under Tennessee law, a claimant faces a one-year statute of limitations to file suit alleging police brutality.
A lawsuit Brown filed last August in U.S. District Court in Memphis alleges MPD stonewalled the release of records in another internal investigation that caused his client to miss the one-year limit. Brown represents a man in that case who contends a patrolman sexually assaulted him by inserting a finger in his rectum during a stop and frisk operation. Brown is asking a judge to waive the one-year limit to let the case proceed.
In its written statement, MPD denied such a practice, attributing some of the delay in the Berryhill case to the coronavirus crisis.
“… The impact of the pandemic was felt department wide and as a result many internal matters were delayed or backlogged,’’ the statement said.
MPD’s statement says the case also was delayed by the involvement of a second officer, Lt. Johnson, who faced an administrative charge accusing him of failing to seek medical attention for a youth Berryhill electroshocked in May 2018. A 24-year veteran, Johnson took a long-term absence then retired on Feb. 3, a day before his administrative hearing.
“… Subsequently the file was completed,’’ MPD’s statement said.
Four months after Berryhill’s resignation, on Feb. 25, MPD sent the case to the District Attorney’s Office, where it was assigned case number CRT-0007 – the Conduct Review Team’s seventh case.
The team’s two-page report dated March 4 says evidence was insufficient to overcome the high standard of reasonable doubt needed to carry a criminal conviction.
“The team did not find Berryhill’s actions were excessive in light of all the circumstances,’’ the CRT found after examining each of the three instances flagged by MPD investigators.
A key concern in the case of Buzzard involved the motorist’s initial silence when Berryhill asked what he was doing with his hands.
“… When the scuffle began Berryhill asked Buzzard what was he doing and Buzzard never stated out loud that he was pulling his pants up,’’ the report said.
Though Berryhill didn’t electroshock Buzzard until the motorist was on his back in handcuffs, prosecutors determined that the totality of the circumstances raised reasonable doubt.
“You can’t parcel out that one segment to the exclusion of all of the other things that happened before and after,’’ District Attorney Amy Weirich said in an interview. “You can’t just look at the case through a straw.’’
The CRT report also notes Berryhill was on patrol alone – without a partner – as a factor in its decision.
“Officers are put in danger every day by virtue of what it is that we as a public and as a community ask them to do,’’ Weirich said in the interview. “And so, yes, their reactions and the situations they find themselves in are different from any other profession in the world.’’