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Stop and Frisk incident leads to suspension of MPD officers

Arrestee alleges sexual assault in federal lawsuit

A client of lawyer Jacob Webster Brown looks out his attorney’s office window on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. The client contends in a federal lawsuit that a Memphis Police Department officer sexually assaulted him during a stop-and-frisk operation last year. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

This article was produced in partnership with The Daily Memphian.

Seven Memphis police officers have received suspensions ranging from four to nine days in connection with a Black man’s allegation that he was sexually assaulted during a stop-and-frisk operation last year.

Disciplinary reports obtained by  opens in a new windowThe Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian contain evidence that may alternatively help or hurt a 45-year-old man’s allegations in a federal lawsuit that an officer stuck a finger in his rectum during the July 2019 incident in Binghampton.

According to a Memphis Police Department case summary, body camera footage shows one officer asking another during the incident, “Did you check his ass crack yet?’’

The second officer then responds: “Yes.’’

When a second suspect tells an officer he’s done nothing wrong and asks why he’s being searched, the officer responds, “I can make this look like whatever I want it to look like.”

At the same time, however, the report says still-unreleased body camera footage shows the officers conducted nothing more than “routine pat-downs.’’

The incident poses fresh questions about MPD’s use of controversial stop-and-frisk tactics in which individuals are stopped on the street and searched for weapons and drugs. The tactic often targets persons of color and has come under intense criticism nationally. MPD Director Michael Rallings said in answer to critics in 2016 that he was not exploring its use here.

Among 80 pages of records released in connection with the recently completed internal investigation, detectives often appear more focused on technical infractions surrounding the search rather than the search itself.

“There’s not reasonable suspicion to initiate a stop,’’ said civil rights attorney Jacob Webster Brown, who filed suit in U.S. District Court in August on behalf of the man.

Christopher Tracy

The suit alleges that patrolman Christopher Tracy inserted a finger or fingers in a gloved hand into the man’s rectum to search for drugs while he was handcuffed. The lawsuit contends the assault was part of a “custom, pattern and practice’’ of abuse at MPD that includes a failure to adequately investigate misconduct by officers or seek prosecutorial review of their actions.

The Institute and The Daily Memphian are not naming Brown’s client, who contends he’s the victim of sexual assault.

Tracy, who received a five-day suspension in connection with the incident, told a journalist he will not comment outside court. Tracy’s suspension did not involve the alleged search or assault – the internal investigation cleared him of that – but involved collateral issues.

News of the suspensions comes as the city filed a motion Wednesday in federal court to dismiss the suit, arguing the plaintiff failed to file within a one-year statute of limitations, among other reasons.

A 14-page case summary by MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau obtained under the Tennessee Public Records Act indicates the matter was investigated as a violation of departmental policy and not as a criminal matter. “This file will not be submitted to the (District Attorney’s) office,’’ the report states.

Brown says that’s a continuing problem.

His suit cites a series of news stories by The Institute and The Daily Memphian 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.

“It’s more than just these officers,’’ said Brown, pointing to a larger pattern.

MPD did not respond to a request to interview Rallings or provide a statement.

The incident

According to the case summary, the encounter happened about 2:30 p.m. on July 31, 2019 as officer Tracy and his squad car partner Justin Vazeii participated in a “zero tolerance’’ saturation detail involving officers from MPD’s Tillman Station, its Organized Crime Unit and agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Justin Vazeii

That’s when Tracy and Vazeii spotted Brown’s client and an associate standing on the corner of Red Oak Street and Mimosa Avenue.

“The officers approached the two men, and explained to them that this is a high-crime and known-drug area. The officers detained the two men, and handcuffed them. The officers checked the men’s clothing and patted them down,’’ the report says.

Tracy told internal investigators the detail he worked that day was “aimed at any and all violations of the law’’ and included “traffic stops, warrant checks, and suspicious activity checks,’’ the report said. The officers said they found it suspicious when the two men on the street began to walk away.

In an interview, Brown’s client said he was enraged when Tracy reached into his rectum and that he phoned MPD’s Inspectional Services office immediately afterward to complain. He gave a formal, audio-recorded statement the following day at ISB offices.

The case summary states that body camera footage shows the officers conducting routine pat-downs, and that seemed to resolve for internal investigators the central question of whether Tracy had assaulted Brown’s client.

“Officer Tracy stated that his pat-down of (Brown’s client) included a thorough check of the man’s groin area, using a (gloved) hand to check the area. He stated that he did not reach into (the man’s) underwear. Officer Tracy stated that he did not locate any contraband on’’ Brown’s client, the report said.

But the summary also provides what might be conflicting information. In describing a snippet of Vazeii’s body camera footage, the report says Vazeii had control of the second suspect who was handcuffed in the back of the squad car as Tracy controlled Brown’s client, who was handcuffed and seated outside on the street curb.

Vazeii then asks Tracy:

“Did you check his ass crack yet?’’

 “Yes,’’ Tracy responds.

The report says both officers had their body cameras on during the incident.

At one point, the suspect seated in the squad car asked Officer Vazeii “why he was checking them since they had not done anything wrong.’’

“Officer Vazeii was heard on BWC (body-worn camera) saying ‘I can make this look like whatever I want it to look like,’’’ the report said. “… When the suspect again questioned the probable cause for being checked, Officer Vazeii said, ‘In this area, I can put it however I want.’’’

Sorting out the allegations

The report says footage on both officers’ body cameras depicts “routine pat-downs” but it doesn’t appear to dissect the statements of the complainants.

The second suspect also told investigators that officers had “checked his anus,’’ the report says.

Vazeii admitted patting down the second suspect, but said “he only used the back of his hands’’ to search the man’s “outer clothing, up to and including the buttocks area,’’ according to the summary.

“He stated that he did not go into the interior of (the man’s) clothing until he felt what appeared to be contraband. The extent of him going into the interior of (the man’s) clothing was the removal of a small bag of marijuana from one of his pockets. He stated that he did not penetrate (the man’s) rectal area at any point,’’ the report said.

Tennessee law does not allow body cavity searches without a search warrant or a written waiver signed by the subject.

MPD policy allows officers to conduct pat-down searches of a suspect’s outer garments when checking for weapons when “the suspect is legitimately stopped, AND The officer(s) has a reasonable and articulated fear for his/her own or another person’s safety.’’

Officers aren’t allowed to place their hands in a suspect’s pockets unless “they reasonably suspect that weapons are concealed in them.’’ If during a frisk an officer “feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity as contraband immediately apparent, it may be withdrawn and examined.’’

State law allows restricted strip searches when “there is reasonable belief that the individual is concealing a weapon, a controlled substance, or other contraband.’’

Despite statements on the body camera footage, ISB did not find that either Vazeii or Tracy had violated MPD’s search and seizure regulations.

“I don’t understand how they reached that conclusion,’’ said Brown, the civil rights attorney.

“They don’t have even reasonable suspicion to stop and talk to them from what I’ve read. And there’s nothing in these (officer) statements that indicates any reasonable concern for the officers’ safety. That is the threshold requirement to be able to pat someone down. And there needs to be an articulable basis to do it.’’

Vazeii received an 8-day suspension for neglect of duty. According to reports, the officer released the second suspect with the marijuana to OCU officers who “asked if they could have the arrest to boost their stats.” Vazeii and the OCU officers then released the suspect without charge and gave him back the marijuana because it involved a small amount.

Tracy received a 5-day suspension for failing to report Vazeii’s actions.

In addition, five OCU officers received suspensions ranging from four to nine days for failing to activate their body cameras and for neglect of duty.

Brown’s suit names Tracy and Vazeii as defendants along with the city, Tillman Station commander Prentiss Jolly and MPD Director  opens in a new windowMichael Rallings. It seeks $850,000 in damages.

The city filed a motion Wednesday, September 30, to dismiss the suit, arguing in part that the plaintiff failed to meet a one-year statute of limitations. The suit was filed on Aug. 5, five days after the statute expired. 

Brown has argued that he could have discovered the correct date of the incident and met the one-year limit had the city honored a public records request he filed seeking records on the internal investigation. The city denied that request on July 10 when its Public Records Office told Brown in an email, “The City has reviewed its files and determined there are no existing responsive records to your request. Per the custodian, the case file is not closed. This is still an open investigation.”

But in the motion to dismiss filed by attorneys Bruce McMullen, Jennie Vee Silk and Lan Chen, the city argues the plaintiff had ample time and could have learned the date of the incident from other sources.

“It was Plaintiff’s indolence that put him in this situation,’’ the motion says.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
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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