MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis police have used force against African American men seven times more frequently than white men. That’s according to information it took the city more than a year to turn over after WREG started pushing for it.
Every time an officer uses force, grapples with a citizen, uses a stun gun or pepper spray, the officer has to fill out a “Response to Resistance” form. It details information like what kind of force was used, the officer’s reasoning and the people involved.
Each report is a public record, and we asked to see them.
MPD responds to 900,000 calls a year. In 2019, the department reported less than 1% of those calls resulted in force, about 870 cases.
To help the community better understand how your police department uses force and on whom, WREG submitted an open records request on January 15, 2020. We asked for all Response to Resistance forms filed by officers between 2015 through 2019.
MPD wanted to charge us more than $7,000 dollars, so we compromised. We agreed to look at six months of records. The city took 14 months to let us see them.
Here’s what we found
We examined 349 forms filled out by officers between June and mid-December 2019. MPD withheld records for incidents still under investigation.
- In 10 cases, an officer used a baton.
- 19 times they fired a stun gun and
- 28 times they deployed pepper spray.
- A majority was physical force.
We also uncovered this: Officers used force against African Americans in 174 cases — against whites, 23 times.
You can see the disparity when you look at the overall population in Memphis. Black people make up 64% of the population, but 84% of those cases. White people are 29% of the population but 11% of the incidents.
“I didn’t know it was that drastic,” said Van Turner, a Shelby County commissioner and the president of the local NAACP chapter. “This is not something that we should hide from the community.”
Last summer, after George Floyd’s killing sparked protests, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland asked Turner and other community stakeholders to be on his Reimaging Policing Advisory Council. Their goal was to create a plan to improve police and community relations and enhance accountability.
The advisory council spoke to dozens in the community and addressed excessive force. It recently published what came from those community talks and it will use them to come up with recommendations for the mayor.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said he’s keeping the city’s new police chief, Cerelyn Davis, up to date.
“I think it’s going to be perfect timing with our new police chief,” he said.
The new chief vowed to build on work that MPD says it’s already started.
Earlier this year, the department released an online portal detailing excessive force cases where officers were found at fault. While it didn’t publish any Response to Resistance forms, it gives a breakdown of forms submitted between 2016 and 2020.
There’s no major gap in the demographics of officers involved, but there is a stark disparity amongst the people they use force against.
Officers say they used some kind of force against a total of 2,139 black people, compared to just 294 white people.
Strickland said he wants to know more about the data.
“Obviously what you’re looking for are there any biases, explicit or implicit, going on with police work. Obviously want to root those out,” he said.
Strickland said they’ve added more training to help officers recognize their own prejudices and stereotypes.
Duane Loynes, a Rhodes College assistant professor of urban studies and African studies, said he wasn’t surprised by the racial disparity.
“None of this is news to the black community. This is the way it’s always been,” Loynes said. “For me, it really explains why so many police officers can say in their heart they don’t have any racial intent, but the outcome clearly falls on racial lines.”
Likisha Clark says she’s one of the people behind those MPD stats. She was the subject of a Response to Resistance form from June, 2016.
Clark said she was cited for loud music, and when she refused to sign the citation, officers put her in handcuffs. She admits she was afraid and resisted.
“They forced me into the car. They grabbed me by my neck. I have bruises on my neck,” she said.
MPD said the officer was justified in using force but gave him a written reprimand for not filling out the Response to Resistance form by the end of his shift.
“There’s a fear thing there, like we say, that goes on so much in our community,” said Clark. “They don’t care if you are innocent or guilty. They just feel like you are another person of color.”
Turner said more audits must happen to analyze every part of the equation, including which officers use force and how often.
Those are patterns we couldn’t collect from the few forms we inspected.
“One may say, ‘Is the African-American community is being over policed?’” Turner said. “But the counterpart to that is, that’s where we’re getting calls. That’s where we’re getting the calls for crime.”
Davis, the new police chief, said she supports more audits for excessive force cases and traffic stops that answer questions like whether the same officer is involved in complaints and whether it is racially motivated.
As we read through every Response to Resistance form, many cases stemmed from the same thing.
- In 36 cases, the officer said the person was drunk or was on or had drugs.
- In 40 cases, it stemmed from domestic incidents where the person they tried to detain was already worked up.
- In 47 cases, officers say the person had mental health issues.
Loynes believes officers should have less responsibility for areas such as mental health.
Others believe the problem is that officers are underpaid and over-worked as violent crime continues to rise in the city.
However, most agree that police reform is just one part of a complex solution.
“We need to re-focus on education, we need to refocus on job opportunities and we need to refocus on mental health issues,” Turner said.