The Investigators: Excessive force complaint leads to body cam review, officer resignation

Updated: Sep. 9, 2020 at 10:14 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Cries for help go ignored by those trusted to protect and serve.

Disturbing police body camera video shows an encounter between a former Memphis Police officer and a man he was arresting.

On January 10, 2019, MPD Officer William Skelton pulled into the Shell gas station on Airways Boulevard.

“You’re under arrest,” said Skelton to 30-year-old Drew Thomas.

It was Officer Skelton’s second encounter with Thomas that night.

“I said you’re under arrest ****** ******. Get the **** over here,” Skelton said.

Thomas had just been accused by the gas station clerk of vandalizing the store, breaking shelves, and throwing items.

He’d already been barred from the property following a previous incident.

“Hands on the car ****,” he said.

Thomas complied as Officer Skelton searched him.

“I didn’t do nothing, man. I’m just trying to go to work,” Thomas said, which is captured on Skelton’s body camera.

“Have you ever even had a real job,” asked Skelton.

Thomas is handcuffed and placed in the back of Skelton’s police car.

“Eat a ****, ****** ******,” Skelton tells Thomas.

Thomas apparently begins kicking the car window and Skelton threatens to pepper spray him.

“You understand me, ****head? I will spray the **** out of you! You worthless piece of incestuous ****.”

Less than two minutes later, Skelton used his radio.

“Suspect’s kicking my car door. I am deploying my pepper foam."

Skelton sprays Thomas a total of four times.

Shortly thereafter, as Officer Skelton uses straps to further restrain Thomas, Thomas has a request.

“Will you let the window down?”

“For you? Hell no," Skelton said.

After the officers congratulate Skelton on a job well done, Thomas begins audibly coughing.

The supervising lieutenant on duty, Alexander McGowan, then pulls up.

Skelton tells the lieutenant the same thing he yells into his own body camera: “I foamed the **** out of him. I’ll tell the camera, I foamed the **** out of him.”

Lt. McGowan rolls down the window for Thomas nearly six minutes after he’s been pepper sprayed.

The Lieutenant walks inside the store, and the officers stand by while Thomas’s coughs turn to cries for help.

He cries for help or water at least nine times.

“Help! Help,” screamed Thomas. “Water!”

An investigation into this incident was launched by the Memphis Police Inspectional Services Bureau.

Officer Skelton was later charged with violating the Department’s Excessive Force policy because, as Thomas was handcuffed and seated in the back of a car posing no threat, Skelton sprayed him.

Skelton was also charged with violating MPD’s pepper spray policy, which cannot be used to “prevent the destruction of property,” and because Skelton did not help Thomas.

“He wanted me to roll the window down,” Skelton told his fellow officers. “I probably should.”

Finally, Skelton was charged with violating the Department’s Personal Conduct policy.

“I believe I’m on camera calling him a worthless piece of incestuous ****,” Skelton told his fellow officers.

But the eight-year veteran resigned before his formal hearing.

We confirmed Skelton had remained on duty for more than a year before his resignation.

Two officers, Jonathan Sharman and Jonathan Halteman, were charged with violating MPD policy but the charges were later dismissed.

Both men remain on the force today.

Officer Adam Bittick was suspended for three days without pay because, although though his police report stated Thomas caused over $2,000 in damage between the store and police car, that wasn’t true.

“Charge him with felony vandalism because we don’t know what he did to that door,” said Lt. McGowan.

Lt. McGowan was also suspended for three days without pay because he signed off on that report, even though there were errors.

The ISB report says the footage shows many policy violations, but the case was not sent to the Attorney General’s office for review.

The Investigators had previously asked Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich how excessive force complaints are reviewed by her office.

“We are completely dependent upon law enforcement sending those cases to us. We’ve never refused to review a case they’ve sent to us,” said Weirich.

She says police departments should send her any situations or cases that seem questionable.

“Err on the side of caution and send it to us. It may be that there is no violation of criminal law, which is going to be the only thing I’m looking at," she said.

We reached back out to General Weirich’s office to see if the officers may have violated criminal law in this case but didn’t hear back before our deadline.

The Investigators sent multiple interview requests to MPD but didn’t hear back.

Thomas later pleaded guilty to vandalism and trespassing charges.

We reached out to both Thomas and Skelton but had no luck.

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