Brandon, Miss. (AP) – Several deputies from a Mississippi sheriff’s department being investigated by the Justice Department for possible civil rights abuses have been involved in at least four violent encounters with black men since 2019 which left two dead and another with lasting injuries, an Associated Press investigation found.
Two of the men allege Rankin County sheriff’s deputies put guns in their mouths during separate encounters. In one case, the deputy pulled the trigger, leaving the man with injuries that required parts of his tongue to be sewn up. In one of the two fatal confrontations, the man’s mother said a deputy knelt on her son’s neck as he told them he couldn’t breathe.
Police and court records obtained by the AP show that several deputies who were accepted into the sheriff’s office’s special response team – a tactical unit whose members receive advanced training – were involved in each of the four meetings. In three of them, the heavily redacted documents do not indicate whether they were serving in their normal capacity as deputies or members of the unit.
These units have come under scrutiny since the January murder of Tire Nichols, a black father who died days after being severely beaten by black members of a special police team in Memphis, Tennessee. Nichols’ death has led to a Justice Department investigation into similar squads across the country that comes amid mainstream race and policing considerations sparked by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In Mississippi, the police shooting of Michael Corey Jenkins led the Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation into the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department. Jenkins said six white deputies burst into a house where he was visiting a friend, and one of them put a gun in his mouth and fired. Jenkins’ hospital records, parts of which he shared with AP, show he had a lacerated tongue and a broken jaw.
Deputies said Jenkins was shot after pointing a gun at them; department officials did not respond to multiple inquiries from the AP asking if a weapon was found at the scene. Jenkins’ attorney, Malik Shabazz, said his client did not have a weapon.
“They had total control over him the whole time. Six officers had full and complete control of Michael the entire time,” Shabazz said. “So it’s just a fabrication.”
Rankin County, which has about 120 sheriff’s deputies serving its roughly 160,000 residents, is majority white and just east of the state capital, Jackson, home to one of the highest percentages of black residents of all major American cities. In the county seat of Brandon, a massive granite and marble monument topped with the statue of a Confederate soldier stands across from the sheriff’s office.
In an upcoming lawsuit notice, lawyers for Jenkins and his friend Eddie Terrell Parker said on the night of January 24 that deputies suddenly entered the house and began handcuffing and beating them. They said the deputies stunned them with Tasers repeatedly for about 90 minutes and at one point forced them to lie on their backs as the deputies poured milk on their faces. The men reiterated the allegations in separate interviews with the AP.
When a Taser is used, it is automatically saved in the device’s memory. The AP obtained the automated Taser recordings of the evening of January 24. They show the deputies first fired one of the stun guns at 10:04 p.m. and fired one at least three more times over the next 65 minutes. However, these unredacted recordings might not paint a complete picture, as the redacted recordings show that Tasers were activated, deactivated or used dozens more times during this period.
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was brought in to investigate the encounter. His summary indicates that a deputy shot Jenkins around 11:45 p.m., about 90 minutes after the first use of a Taser, which matches the time frame given by Parker and Jenkins. The MP’s name was not released by the office.
Police say the raid was sparked by a report of drug activity at the home. Jenkins was charged with possession between 2 and 10 grams of methamphetamine and aggravated assault on a police officer. Parker was charged with two misdemeanors – possession of paraphernalia and disorderly conduct. Jenkins and Parker say the raid came to a head when the deputy shot Jenkins through the mouth. He still has trouble speaking and eating.
Another black man, Carvis Johnson, alleged in a federal lawsuit filed in 2020 that a Rankin County deputy placed a gun in his mouth during a 2019 drug bust. was not shot.
There’s no reason for an officer to put a gun in a suspect’s mouth, and to have allegations of two such incidents is telling, said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the ‘University of Nebraska.
“If there are incidents with the same type of behavior, they have their own set of rules,” he said. “So it’s not just chance experiences. It looks like a very clear pattern.
Jenkins doesn’t know the name of the deputy who shot him. In the heavily redacted incident report, an unidentified deputy wrote, “I noticed a gun. The unredacted sections do not say who shot Jenkins, only that he was taken to the hospital. Deputy Hunter Elward swore in a separate court document that Jenkins pointed the gun at him.
Elward’s name also appears in police reports and court records from the two incidents in which suspects were killed.
The sheriff’s department declined repeated interview requests and denied access to any of the deputies who were involved in the violent clashes. The department did not say whether the deputies presented a search warrant, and it is unclear whether any have been disciplined or are still members of the special unit.
Insider media investigated the sheriff’s department and persuaded a county judge to order the sheriff to turn over documents related to the deaths of four men in 2021. Chancery judge Troy Farrell Odom expressed bewilderment that the department refused to make the documents public. .
“(The) day when our law enforcement officers start hiding this information from the public, while saying, ‘Trust us. We are government,” is the day that should surprise all Americans,” Odom wrote.
The AP requested body camera or dash cam footage from the night of the Jenkins raid. Jason Dare, an attorney with the sheriff’s department, said there was no record of either.
Mississippi does not require police officers to wear body cameras. Incident reports and court records link the deputies of the raid to three other violent encounters with black men.
During a standoff in 2019, Elward said Pierre Woods pointed a gun at him as he presented himself to MPs. The deputies then shot and killed him. In a statement to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation obtained by the AP, Elward said he shot Woods eight times. Police said they recovered a handgun from the scene of Woods’ shooting.
Court records place Christian Dedmon, another MP who shot Woods, in the Jenkins raid.
Dedmon was also among the deputies involved in a 2019 arrest of Johnson, according to the lawsuit Johnson filed alleging that one of the deputies put a gun in his mouth as they searched for him for drugs . Johnson is currently imprisoned for selling methamphetamine.
Other documents obtained by the AP detail another violent confrontation between Elward and Damien Cameron, a 29-year-old man with a history of mental illness. He died in July 2021 after being arrested by Elward and deputy Luke Stickman, who also opened fire on Woods during the 2019 confrontation. A grand jury declined to bring charges in the case in October last.
In an incident report, Elward wrote that while responding to a vandalism call, he repeatedly shocked Cameron with a Taser, punched and grappled with Cameron at the home of his mother, Monica Lee. He said that after getting Cameron to his squad car, he knocked him down again to pull his legs into the vehicle.
After returning inside to retrieve his Taser, deputies returned to find Cameron unresponsive. Elward wrote that he pulled Cameron out of the car and performed CPR, but Cameron was later pronounced dead in a hospital.
Lee, who witnessed the confrontation, told the AP that after subduing his son, Elward knelt on his back for several minutes. She said that when Stickman arrived he knelt on her son’s neck while handcuffing him and her son complained that he couldn’t breathe.
Lee said she went out later, hoping to speak to her son before the deputies chased him away.
“I came out to say goodbye to him and that I loved him, and that I would try to see him the next day. That’s when I noticed they were on the driver’s side of the car doing CPR on him,” Lee said. “I fell to the floor screaming and screaming.”
Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikergoldberg.