By Michael Goldberg | The Associated Press
BRANDON, Miss. (AP) — Several deputies from a Mississippi sheriff’s department being investigated by the Justice Department for possible civil rights violations have been involved in at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries, an Associated Press investigation found.
Two of the men allege that Rankin County sheriff’s deputies shoved guns into their mouths during separate encounters. In one case, the deputy pulled the trigger, leaving the man with wounds that required parts of his tongue to be sewn back together. In one of the two fatal confrontations, the man’s mother said a deputy kneeled on her son’s neck while he told them he couldn’t breathe.
Police and court records obtained by the AP show that several deputies who were accepted to the sheriff’s office’s Special Response Team — a tactical unit whose members receive advanced training — were involved in each of the four encounters. In three of them, the heavily redacted documents don’t indicate if they were serving in their normal capacity as deputies or as members of the unit.
Such units have drawn scrutiny since the January killing of Tyre Nichols, a Black father who died days after being severely beaten by Black members of a special police team in Memphis, Tennessee. Nichols’ death led to a Justice Department probe of similar squads around the country that comes amid the broader public reckoning over race and policing sparked by the 2020 police murder 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 home where he was visiting a friend, and one 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 broken jaw.
Deputies said Jenkins was shot after he pointed a gun at them; department officials have not answered multiple inquiries from the AP asking whether a weapon was found at the scene. Jenkins’ attorney, Malik Shabazz, said his client didn’t have a gun.
“They had complete control of him the entire time. Six officers had full and complete control of Michael the entire time,” Shabazz said. “So that’s just a fabrication.”
Rankin County, which has about 120 sheriff’s deputies serving its roughly 160,000 people, is predominantly white and just east of the state capital, Jackson, home to one of the highest percentages of Black residents of any major U.S. city. In the county seat of Brandon, a towering granite-and-marble monument topped by a statue of a Confederate soldier stands across the street from the sheriff’s office.
In a notice of an upcoming lawsuit, attorneys for Jenkins and his friend Eddie Terrell Parker said on the night of Jan. 24 the deputies suddenly came into the home and proceeded to handcuff and beat them. They said the deputies stunned them with Tasers repeatedly over roughly 90 minutes and, at one point, forced them to lie on their backs as the deputies poured milk over their faces. The men restated the allegations in separate interviews with the AP.
When a Taser is used, it’s automatically logged into the device’s memory. The AP obtained the automated Taser records from the evening of Jan. 24. They show that 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, those unredacted records might not paint a complete picture, as redacted records show that Tasers were turned on, turned off or used dozens more times during that period.
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was brought in to investigate the encounter. Its summary says a deputy shot Jenkins at approximately 11:45 p.m., or about 90 minutes after a Taser was first used, which matches the timeframe given by Parker and Jenkins. The deputy’s name was not disclosed by the bureau.
Police say the raid was prompted by a report of drug activity at the home. Jenkins was charged with possessing 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 difficulty speaking and eating.
Another Black man, Carvis Johnson, alleged in a federal lawsuit filed in 2020 that a Rankin County deputy placed a gun into his mouth during a 2019 drug bust. Johnson was not shot.
There is no reason for an officer to place a gun in a suspect’s mouth, and to have allegations of two such incidents is telling, said Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska.
“If there are incidents with the same kind of pattern of behavior, they have their own set of rules,” he said. “So these are 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 don’t say who shot Jenkins, only that he was taken to a 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 refused repeated interview requests and denied access to any of the deputies who were involved in the violent confrontations. The department has not said whether deputies presented a search warrant, and it’s unclear if any have been disciplined or are still members of the special unit.
The news outlet Insider has been investigating 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 had refused to make the documents public.
“(The) day that our law enforcement officers start shielding this information from the public, all the while repeating, ‘Trust us. We’re from the government,’ is the day that should startle all Americans,” Odom wrote.
The AP requested body camera or dashcam footage from the night of the Jenkins raid. Jason Dare, an attorney for the sheriff’s department, said there was no record of either.
Mississippi doesn’t require police officers to wear body cameras. Incident reports and court records tie deputies from the raid to three other violent encounters with Black men.
During a 2019 standoff, Elward said Pierre Woods pointed a gun at him while running at deputies. Deputies then shot and killed him. In a statement to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation obtained by the AP, Elward said he fired at Woods eight times. Police say they recovered a handgun at the scene of the Woods shooting.
Court records place Christian Dedmon, another deputy who shot at Woods, at the Jenkins raid.
Dedmon was also among 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 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 standoff. A grand jury declined to bring charges in the case last October.
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 after getting Cameron to his squad car, he again stunned him to get him to pull his legs into the vehicle.
After going back inside to retrieve his Taser, deputies returned to find Cameron unresponsive. Elward wrote that he pulled Cameron from the car and performed CPR, but Cameron was later declared dead at a hospital.
Lee, who witnessed the confrontation, told the AP that after subduing her son, Elward kneeled on his back for several minutes. She said when Stickman arrived, he kneeled on her son’s neck while handcuffing him, and that her son complained he couldn’t breathe.
Lee said she later went outside, hoping to talk to her son before the deputies drove him away.
“I walked outside to tell him goodbye 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 ground screaming and hollering.”
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikergoldberg.