“Taser Face” is one of dozens of police officers who’ve been waiting for years to see if they’ll keep their law enforcement certifications

Published: Oct. 19, 2023 at 11:18 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) -It was a crisp spring night in 2019 when members of the Memphis Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team responded to 20-year-old Joshua Cortez’s home in Southeast Memphis. His mother had called officers because her son had been drinking and told her he felt like dying.

One of the officers on the scene had been specially trained to respond to those experiencing mental crises. His name is Colin Berryhill, a 10-year police veteran whose body camera video captured the scene.

“I’m not feeling well, man,” Cortez told Berryhill when the officer arrived.

Berryhill persuaded Cortez to speak with him outside but Cortez was on high alert. He didn’t want to be detained. Berryhill told Cortez several times that he wouldn’t be, but that’s not how the night ended.

When Berryhill and at least four other officers took Cortez into custody Berryhill used his Taser on Cortez as a “pain compliance” tool, which is against MPD policy.

“You can’t use a taser as a form of punishment,” said Clark Neily, Senior Vice President of Legal Studies for the CATO Institute in Washington, D.C. Neily works with the Libertarian think tank to advocate against police officers who violate the Constitutional rights of citizens. “We all have a Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable force. You’re not supposed to use a weapon unless the situation really calls for it because otherwise, that’s an unreasonable use of force.”

An Action News 5 Investigation, in partnership with the Institute for Public Service Reporting, found Memphis Police internal investigators found Berryhill violated the department’s excessive force and weapons policies three times in less than a year.

The first was in 2018 when Berryhill tased a juvenile in the back when he did not pose a threat. The second was when he tased Cortez.

The third time was on Owen Buzzard, a non-violent man who was handcuffed when Berryhill tased him. The night of the incident with Buzzard, an MPD supervisor told Officer Berryhill had earned a new nickname.

“It’s Taser Face,” the officer said through laughter.

MPD completed their investigation into Berryhill’s use of excessive force in October 2019, but waited an entire year to schedule his disciplinary hearing. Berryhill “abruptly resigned” the night before that hearing, and took a job with the Southaven Police Department the following month, in November 2020.

Two years later, in July 2022, the Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis asked the state to take Berryhill’s law enforcement certification so he wouldn’t be able to police in Tennessee.

The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, or POST, is responsible for certifying and decertifying police officers in Tennessee. Before it can decertify officers, it must notify the officer and then schedule a hearing.

A spokesperson for the agency that oversees POST, Kevin Walters with the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, wrote in an email that Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis signed a decertification request in December 2021, but didn’t send it until July 2022.

Then POST didn’t send Berryhill his notification letter until the following year, in June 2023, but it couldn’t reach him because he moved without telling POST, as required.

After we started asking questions in late September, POST notified Berryhill of his pending decertification via email and he’s now on the agenda for December 14th.

But Berryhill isn’t the only officer waiting for years for their decertification hearings. According to Walters, nearly 40 other officers waiting for decertification letters but POST can’t find them. 14 of the officers are from MPD.

Walters said POST only has one staff member who is responsible for notifying officers that their police departments believe they should be decertified, and that staff member has other responsibilities, too.

“There’s no question that MPD and the state of Tennessee have structures in place to catch this sort of thing,” said Marc Perrusquia with the Institute for Public Service Reporting. He is working in partnership with Action News 5 to continue digging into this issue. “But it doesn’t seem like they’re working efficiently.”

While the Memphis Police Department said it would answer a list of questions via email, it did not answer them and then stopped responding to us. We are currently looking into that list of officers waiting to be decertified.

We have tried to talk to Officer Colin Berryhill but he has not answered our requests.

In a statement, Walters said that in 2023 “POST Commission staff greatly increased the number of notifications and hearings. POST is continually seeking better and more efficient methods to serve the people of Tennessee.”

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