Civil rights attorney and activists question MPD’s use of excessive force

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — FOX13 Investigates examined the use of excessive force by the Memphis Police Department. New data shows the number of cases of excessive force has remained about the same over the past three years. The reporting of those cases is being questioned by a civil rights attorney and activists involved in recent protests.

According to Memphis Police, the number of complaints about excessive force peaked at 55 in 2016 and have dropped to 36 in 2017, 37 in 2018, and 39 in 2019.

The number of complaints by citizens has dropped as well. According to Memphis Police, there were 622 complaints to internal affairs. The number of complaints jumped to 751 in 2018 and then dropped to 656 in 2019, according to data provided by Memphis Police.

Critics say both are hard to believe. They say the numbers don’t tell the entire story and may be misleading.

The Memphis Police Department admits force is used in cases when officers have to make an arrest and the suspect resists. Most of the suspects are accused of a misdemeanor.

One protester told FOX13 that is what happened to him. Darin Abston, Jr. claims he was peacefully protesting. He alleges officers used excessive force to arrest him on June 4, 2020. The 31-year old said he confronted an officer who used excessive force to arrest him a week before. “After they grabbed me, they slammed me to the ground. They were kicking me and had my arms behind my back,” said Abston, Jr. “They were saying also ‘stop resisting arrest.' I said ‘I am not resisting.‘”

RELATED: Should the public see records of MPD use of excessive force?

Abston, Jr. is one of the thousands of Memphis protesters who took to the streets after the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Officer. Abston, Jr. told FOX13 that Memphis Police use excess force routinely, especially during recent protests. Data FOX13 obtained from MPD over a four year period shows a different story.

According to MPD, complaints of excessive force have been dropping almost in half from a high of 55 in 2016 and to 39 last year. The reason officers used force, according to MPD, is suspects resisted or tried to escape an arrest. “In 62% of reported response to resistance ... suspects were charged with resisting and or evading an arrest,” wrote Lt. Colonel Jasper Clay, a bureau commander.

The data is being questioned by one Memphis civil rights attorney. “In college, I took a statistics class. The very first thing my professor told me is that I can make statistics say anything you want them to say,” said Howard Manis, managing partner of The Cochran Firm of the Mid-South.

FOX13 gave Attorney Manis the same 39-page document we obtained through an open records request.

Manis said the number of reported cases of excessive force would be higher if MPD didn’t dismiss so many citizen complaints. In 2019, Memphis Police received 553 external complaints from citizens. Only 71, less than 13%, were either sustained or sent to internal affairs. Attorney Manis argues it’s little wonder people have lost faith in the system.

“553 people took the time out of their life to pick up the phone or go to the precinct, and to file a complaint against a police officer. Well, that to me says we got a problem,” Manis told FOX13.

FOX13 asked for an on-camera interview with Police Director Mike Rallings about those claims. We requested the interview on June 18, 2020, nearly a week before our report was set to air. A Memphis Police spokeswoman said Director Rallings was unavailable but would answer specific questions in writing if provided in writing. FOX13 emailed to ask why so many external complaints were rejected and whether Director Rallings thinks that’s a problem.

Director Rallings responded by email and wrote “the majority (366) are classified as ‘no policy violation,’ meaning that a complaint was made and it was found that no policy was actually violated.” Rallings also added the complaints are investigated by internal affairs investigators who are “seasoned officers and do not take complaints of officer misconduct lightly.”

In the end, Memphis Police don’t see the use of force numbers as an issue. In that 39 page document, under recommendations, it reads “there are no recommendations to policy changes.”

“They think everything is OK. Everything is not OK” said Manis. “They are deaf to what’s going on outside on the streets. They are deaf to these marches. They are deaf to these protesters,” he added.

Darin Abston, Jr. told FOX 13 he and other protesters who were arrested and are claiming excessive force used will file a complaint with internal affairs. In his particular case, he said he plans to file a lawsuit.

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