MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A 91-year-old man was handcuffed, tossed against a squad car and cited for asking why officers were in his Memphis neighborhood.
Officers say he was aggressively waving a walking stick at them — but WREG uncovered body cam footage of the incident.
In August of 2017, Memphis Police were called to a possible assault on Swift Street in South Memphis. Officer David Scheffer was posted on the street that day and was greeted by 91-year-old Otha Thurmond.
Footage from Scheffer’s body cam shows what happened when Thurmond asked why officers were in his neighborhood.
Thurmond: “What’s going on?”
Scheffer: “Don’t worry about it.”
Thurmond: “I’m asking you a question.”
Scheffer: “I’m telling you an answer. Do you live here? Then it doesn’t concern you, sir.”
Scheffer: “Sir, I don’t like you walking around with this stick right here.”
Thurmond: (Raises stick)
In the video, Scheffer grabs the stick. His partner Michael Jeffers walks over and grabs Thurmond, presses him on the squad car and handcuffs him.
Scheffer later told internal investigators he didn’t know “what (Thurmond’s) intentions were or whether he was going to swing the stick.”
Jeffers, who detained Thurmond, added he was “completely under the impression Thurmond was going to hit Scheffer with it.”
WREG also obtained Jeffers’s body camera. It shows Thurmond raise the stick, Scheffer yanked it from his arms, and then, Jeffers jumps in and grabbs Thurmond. It knocks off his body camera.
“They treated him like a thug on the street,” said Lillie Wilborn, Thurmond’s daughter. “He had macular degeneration of his eyes. He had three pacemakers, and he was about 90 pounds at the time.”
Wilborn said her dad used the stick during his daily walks to ward off stray dogs. Neighbors tried to tell the officers that at the time, she said. They told WREG the same thing.
It was neighbors who called WREG that day. We were at the scene to investigate as officers put Thurmond in the squad car.
Thurmond was cited for disorderly conduct.
Jeffers told internal investigators it was “because he interfered with their ability to assist the other officers on the scene of a disturbance” and to him “the actions of Thurmond fit the definition of assault giving him cause to react as he did.” He said, “If the same situation were to occur again, he would not change a thing.”
Wilborn said her father was well respected. He was from a small town in Mississippi, and he worked hard as a mechanic.
“He had never been arrested. He’s never gotten a speeding ticket,” she said. “He was a very proud man. Proud of his kids. Proud of his family. He loved walking and exercising.”
Thurmond and his son filed a complaint with MPD’s internal affairs days later, and then to the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.
Ricky Floyd was the interim president of CLERB at the time and had pushed for strong corrective action. He said the officer’s actions were “out of order.”
Scheffer was given a one-day suspension and ordered to take diversity and sensitivity training.
Jeffers was also ordered to take the training, given a two-day suspension and was reassigned to MPD’s Community Outreach Program, a unit dedicated to community policing and reducing juvenile violence.
“We wanted to re-orient that officer and show him and give him an opportunity to show us a different capacity,” former Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said. “It has been so successful.”
Rallings said Jeffers has chosen to remain in the Community Policing unit. According to his files we pulled, he hasn’t been back to Internal Affairs.
A need for community policing
“You know, when I saw that incident, I thought about if my grandfather lived to be 90 or 91 years old, would I want my grandfather to have had the interaction with Memphis police to have gone the way it went?” Rallings said.
Wilborn said had those officers known the neighborhood, things may have gone differently. They might have known that for years, Thurmond took countless walks with his stick.
“That’s why it’s so important for these officers to get out and be among the people in the neighborhood,” Wilborn said.
Family friend and former police officer Ulysses Toney agreed more community policing will build bridges in neighborhoods. He said it worked when he was on the force.
“You can do a lot better keeping order in the city if you understand the city and its people,” Toney said. “We had midnight basketball, we had COACT units, we had take-home cars for officers. All of this was to put us closer to the people, and it did.”
The Memphis city council is also calling for more community policing, requesting three Community Action Units manned by 26 officers and three supervisors.
But at the start of the year, WREG obtained an email Mayor Jim Strickland sent to the council stating their request can’t happen any time soon. COVID impacted MPD’s staff, as officers work vaccination, testing and food distribution sites.
Strickland said when the pandemic is over, MPD may be able to staff two Community Action Units, but with just 10 officers and one supervisor.
We asked Cerelyn Davis, Strickland’s new pick for police chief, where community policing falls on her priority list and what is her plan of action.
“Community policing is a main priority,” Davis said. “In Durham, we created performance indicators, community policing performance indicators in each officer’s performance evaluation.”
Wilborn said her father was destroyed after that day. She said Rallings reached out to her father, and they formed a close relationship until he died in 2019.
“I think about him all the time,” said Rallings.
He even spoke at Thurmond’s funeral.
“I’ve got to give it to him. He was there for my father,” Wilborn said of the former police director.
She wonders, what if everyone had a relationship like that with an officer?