The Investigators: Excessive force complaints lead to new police policy

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 10:49 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A former Memphis police officer is the first to be criminally charged in relation to excessive force in more than five years, according to a WMC Action News Five investigation.

The felony charge preceded a new policy that is now in place, which requires all findings of excessive force be sent to the district attorney general’s office.

William Skelton pepper-sprayed a handcuffed man in the back of his police vehicle four times, while the man posed no threat to the officer’s safety.

The handcuffed man is Drew Thomas, who had a history of mental illness and drug abuse.

“What do you think about the officer who pepper sprayed your son being criminally charged?” The Investigators asked Thomas’ dad.

“I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think that should send a message to other officers out there that when you use that excessive force, there’s going to be consequences you’re going to have to deal with.”

Thomas is legally blind, but what happened to his son on the morning of January 10, 2019 sounded illegal, he said.

He listened to his son’s cries for help as multiple officers on the scene stood by and did nothing.

“It was really heartbreaking and I’m like, man, they’re not showing any compassion,” he said.

Thomas says his son has struggled with bipolar disorder and drug abuse since he was a teen.

Drew Thomas had multiple run-ins with police over the years and the encounter between Skelton and Thomas that was caught on Skelton’s body camera was their second that morning.

The Memphis Police Department launched an excessive force investigation after reviewing the body cam video.

WMC Action News Five found it was one of 126 investigations into excessive force from 2015 to 2019 by the department’s Inspectional Services Bureau.

Of those 126 investigations, 11 excessive force charges were sustained by the department.

Six officers resigned, including Skelton, and one officer was terminated.

Only two of the cases were sent to District Attorney General Amy Weirich’s office for criminal review, and Skelton’s case wasn’t one of them.

“What did you think about that, that so few were actually sent to your office when it came to excessive force complaints?” Asked The Investigators.

“I think it’s important to remember that just because there’s been a finding of excessive force does not mean that criminal laws have been broken,” said Weirich.

“While the finding of excessive force does not mean that criminal laws had been broken, that opportunity wasn’t even given to you to make that determination,” said The Investigators.

“Sure,” said Weirich.

“Do you think that was ok?” Asked The Investigators.

“Well, in the almost 30 years I’ve been a prosecutor and worked in this office, law enforcement has regularly referred cases to us for review,” said Weirich. “What it boils down to is that we didn’t know what we didn’t know and if it wasn’t being sent to us, there was no way to review it.”

The new Memphis police policy, which was implemented March 11, now requires the department submit all sustained charges of excessive or unnecessary force to Weirich’s office.

Five prosecutors make up Weirich’s new conduct review team (CRT), which will determine if criminal charges are appropriate.

Every decision the team makes will be reviewed by Weirich.

“We needed some consistency and we needed to make the process smoother within our office,” she said. “They all come to me so that gives me the ability to see it all and sign off on it and say ‘I see the work the CRT has done and I agree with their decision.’”

However, it’s still up to the Memphis Police Department to decide if a charge is sustained in order for it to reach Weirich’s desk.

“Do you think that goes far enough?” The Investigators asked James Kirkwood.

Kirkwood was a Memphis police officer for more than 30 years and now serves as chairman of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board or CLERB, which is an independent agency with authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

“No, I think we’re moving in the right direction. Have we got there yet? No, but we are truly treading in the right direction,” he said. “Policing is not an easy job but it is a job that citizens look to you to have restraint.”

Kirkwood says transparency is a must because police officers have the power to restrict freedom and take life.

For those who file excessive force complaints against Memphis police officers and feel their case should’ve been investigated differently, they can send their cases to CLERB for review.

CLERB will then send their recommendations to the police chief.

“I want a police department that the community wants and I believe that the community has every right to oversee, question, raise a flag and say ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ and hold police, director accountable for bad police behavior.”

Not one Memphis police officer in the 126 excessive force cases we reviewed was criminally charged until a grand jury quietly indicted Skelton for Official Oppression, a felony, nearly two years after the incident with Drew Thomas.

“There’s no telling how many officers have done got away with this stuff but since they got the audio and video now and you still do this? That should let you know there’s more on the force,” said Jimmy Thomas.

The Investigators asked Weirich if her team would go back and look at the nine remaining excessive force violations that were sustained between 2015 and 2019 for possible prosecution.

Her office said yes, but only if they are sent by the police department.

The Investigators also reviewed the case of a former Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy who was criminally charged last year following a 2019 incident where he used excessive force.

Justin Fitzgibbon faces an oppression charge and was due in court Wednesday. However, his case was reset for next month.

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