On the night of March 14, 2008, Justin Smith and David Eagan complained to another customer at the Windjammer Restaurant that his car was parked too close to Smith's vehicle. Little did they know, that customer — off-duty Shelby County Sheriff's deputy Chris Jones — was packing a .45-caliber pistol. Witnesses at the scene say Jones grabbed Eagan by the shirt and pointed that gun to his head.
"I'm going to kill you. I've got nothing to lose," said Jones, according to testimony from Eagan.
That's when 45-year-old karaoke DJ Donald Munsey tackled Jones. In the struggle that ensued, Jones shot and killed Munsey and fired at Smith, wounding him as he ran out the door of the East Memphis karaoke bar. Last Friday, the former sheriff's deputy (also the son of former city councilman E.C. Jones) was sentenced to 23 years for second-degree murder.
Jones is one of at least 69 Shelby County Sheriff's deputies and Memphis Police officers who have been arrested, indicted, and/or found guilty of crimes since 2003, according to a list obtained by the Flyer.
Those officers have committed crimes ranging from driving while intoxicated and tampering with traffic tickets to aggravated kidnapping, rape, and, in Jones' case, homicide. Some were nabbed by the Tarnished Blue Task Force, an interagency unit involving the FBI's Memphis Division, the Memphis Police Department (MPD), and the Shelby County Sheriff's Office (SCSO). Others were busted by fellow officers, and some were caught after citizens made complaints.
MPD director Larry Godwin and Sheriff Mark Luttrell say they attempt to weed out the bad guys upon hiring, but inevitably some slip into the ranks.
"I don't think good cops go bad. I think bad people are hired as cops," Godwin says. "If you look at the number of officers we have, those [bad cops] represent less than one-half percent. That's a small number, and I've made a pledge to rid this department of bad officers."
Yet local civil rights attorney Andy Clarke, who sits on the advisory board of the National Police Accountability Project, says the Memphis Police Department has gained a reputation as one of the dirtiest police departments in the country.
"I've handled cases from Atlanta to Tulsa, and I've never seen this many indictments," Clarke says. "The only two departments that may have had more are New Orleans, before the Department of Justice took over, and Miami in the 1980s."
When Memphis' Finest Aren't So Fine
Godwin certainly made good on his pledge to root out corruption with the firing of Arthur Sease IV in 2005. In July of this year, the former MPD officer was sentenced to life plus 255 years for his role in orchestrating a conspiracy ring in which he and several other MPD officers used their authority to rob drug dealers of cash, cocaine, and marijuana.
Sease and the others — officers Andrew Hunt, Antoine Owens, Alexander Johnson, and Harold McCall — were reselling the stolen drugs for profit. Sease was involved in 15 such robberies.
In one robbery, outlined in the statement of charges from Sease's personnel file, two male victims said Sease stopped them on James Road near Austin Peay. He searched the men and their 1999 Chevy Astro, and both men allege that Sease took a box containing almost $32,000 from their van.
The other officers involved in the crimes cooperated with investigators and pleaded guilty. They received sentences ranging from probation to 10 years in prison for federal civil rights violations. But Sease demanded a trial, and he received one of the heftiest sentences ever imposed for a civil rights violation that didn't involve a victim's death.
"I look at [Sease] and what he did to these individuals, and it makes me sick," Godwin says. "You can say, well he just robbed drug dealers. But you're supposed to arrest drug dealers, not rob them."
Sease's personnel file didn't indicate many disciplinary problems before he became involved in robbing drug dealers. But the MPD could have easily seen problems by looking at ex-officer Daniel Wallace's file.
In April, Wallace was one of four officers charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated rape, official misconduct, official oppression, and sexual battery by an authority figure.
Wallace, a Mt. Moriah precinct officer who'd been with the department since 2003, was identified in a photo lineup by a 15-year-old girl as one of the officers who forcibly engaged in a sex act with her in September of last year. Wallace later admitted to having sex with her while on duty.
But it wasn't the first time Wallace had been in trouble for sexual misconduct. A disciplinary report in Wallace's file shows that he was reprimanded in 2004 for allegedly making sexual remarks to a female inmate while he transported her to jail. That inmate also complained that Wallace made several unsolicited phone calls to her home after her release. Wallace later denied making the sexual remarks but admitted to making the calls after obtaining her phone number from the arrest ticket. He's set to appear in criminal court in September.
Clarke believes the MPD needs a better early-warning system to catch such instances before the officer commits a more egregious crime.
"There's got to be an effective and consistent early-warning system, internal affairs procedure, and disciplinary system. Officers need to know they'll be held accountable," Clarke says.
Godwin says the department has an early-intervention system in place that identifies trends of officer behavior problems, but he says the MPD's legal department currently is working to revamp the system.
According to expert witness testimony from Bland vs. The City of Memphis — one of Clarke's cases involving use of excessive force by several Memphis police officers against an 81-year-old blind man — University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey P. Alpert found that the MPD's early-warning system does not require that an officer be notified when he or she has been flagged as a potential problem.
"If you have an early-warning system and you don't show that people are flagged, what's the benefit of it?" Clarke asks. "The deterrence factor involved in early warning is talking to them and letting them know they have a behavior problem. If you don't, it becomes ingrained in an officer's psyche that certain behaviors are acceptable."
The personnel files of some officers, however, contain commendatory reports, or no evidence that could lead administrators to suspect future malfeasance. Former MPD officer Thomas Woods was also nabbed in the April round-up for aggravated kidnapping, rape, and official misconduct. On several occasions in 2008 and 2009, Woods engaged in sex with prostitutes in the Lamar and Winchester area while on duty and off duty. One prostitute said Woods threatened her with arrest if she didn't comply with his demands. Woods is set to report to criminal court in September.
Woods was commended in August of 2005 for increasing his patrol of Lamar Avenue and working with area businesses to decrease prostitution. In September of 2002, he was lauded for his work on a prostitution decoy operation that netted numerous felony arrests.
"Sometimes the officers who are doing the wrong things will stand out in the number of arrests they've made," Godwin says. "They're going to shine in their supervisor's eyes, because the supervisors wouldn't know if we were investigating an officer. Only a handful of us know when we're investigating."
There was, perhaps, one small red flag in Woods' history. When he was commissioned as an MPD officer in 1998, Woods received a waiver for driving without a license, a charge that was later dismissed. Such waivers excusing past criminal activity are given by the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) commission.
"The waivers are given on a case-by-case basis, and POST does not grant waivers for felony convictions or guilty pleas," says Brian Grisham, executive secretary of the POST commission. "They do not give waivers for domestic violence, and they tend not to give them for crimes of dishonesty like theft, burglary, and fraud. They will waive alcohol-related offenses, if it was from a youthful indiscretion a long time ago."
Since Godwin took over as director in 2004, he's only allowed 11 waivers for offenses ranging from underage drinking to possession of a controlled substance. But former directors Walter Crews and Walter Winfrey were far more lax. Crews issued 33 waivers during his tenure from 2000 to 2003. Winfrey issued 71 between 1996 and 1999, with a whopping 28 waivers given in 1998 alone. Many of those officers are still employed with the MPD.
"A lot of the officers we've seen doing bad things came out of the '96, '97, and '98 classes," Godwin says. "I don't think there's been many arrests of individuals who have come on since 2004 when I became director.
"I'm not saying everything's been great since I've been director or that I've never hired a bad officer. We've had incidents down at the jail, like the [Bridges] McRae case," Godwin continues, referring to the 2008 jailhouse beating of transgender inmate Duanna Johnson. McRae is set to appear in federal court later this month for civil rights violations stemming from that incident.
Of the nearly 70 officers charged with crimes since 2003, the majority have been MPD officers. While that may be partly due to the larger size of the city police department, former SCSO deputy Chris Jones hasn't been the sheriff's only problem officer in recent years. At least 12 SCSO officers have been busted since 2003 for crimes ranging from DUI to homicide.
In May, a SCSO sting operation netted deputy Jeff McCall for stealing money seized in a phony traffic stop. After receiving tips that the narcotics unit officer may have been pocketing drug money, the SCSO and the FBI worked together to set up a sting operation in which an informant posed as a drug dealer.
McCall confiscated $4,200 in cash and some marijuana from the phony dealer. He was supposed to inventory the money, but when investigators counted the cash, $400 was missing. It was discovered that McCall took the $400 to a Best Buy and purchased a PlayStation.
"The first indication we get that there may be a problem with an officer usually comes from their colleagues," Luttrell says. "Officers will come forward and say, we've observed such-and-such and it's just not right. Once we have suspicion that some indiscretion is taking place, we'll move forward with a sting operation."
In September of 2007, SCSO deputy Adam Pretti and another officer (for whom charges were later dismissed) were indicted for civil rights violations for their alleged role in the separate beatings of Clarence Brown and Brian Pilcher. Both men allegedly were pulled out of houses and beaten. Pretti pled guilty to one count of the seven-count indictment, and he's set to be sentenced next month.
But that wasn't the first time Pretti had been in trouble for violent behavior. In March of 2007, Pretti and his girlfriend were arrested on assault charges after a domestic dispute escalated into a physical altercation.
"When you're looking for a law enforcement officer, you're looking for someone with self-confidence, a Type-A personality. They should be aggressive in exerting themselves when they need to," Luttrell says. "Being aggressive is good when trying to control a situation, but it can work against you if the person becomes involved in domestic violence, assault, or taking advantage of someone."
SCSO deputy Alvin Dortch is an example of an aggressive personality gone bad. In June of last year, Dortch was terminated from the department after the dashboard video camera in his squad car showed him firing shots at a pickup truck driven by 23-year-old Ignacio Arcos. Arcos was pulling away from the scene of a traffic stop on I-40 near the Austin Peay exit when Dortch fired the shots, causing his truck to crash and flip upside down less than a mile away. Arcos was killed.
Despite video evidence, Dortch denied discharging his weapon. He claimed he witnessed Arcos' truck weaving on the interstate while on another traffic stop. He said he attempted to chase the truck down, but didn't see it until he noticed the crash.
Dortch is scheduled to appear in court in September on a reckless homicide charge. A deputy since 1982, Dortch's personnel file contains numerous minor violations, including chasing a vehicle outside his jurisdiction, reporting late for duty four times in a one-month period, and not showing up for in-service firearms training after posting failing scores two years in a row.
He also was investigated for administering a DUI urine test to a female without a female officer present and writing an unauthorized letter excusing a woman from work at Dillard's so she could participate in a DUI sting operation.
"I see too many disciplinary files where people have repeatedly gotten in trouble or had problems over the years," Luttrell says. "They'll get a three-day suspension here, five days there, 10 days here. But I've emphasized that we need to start looking at progressive discipline. When a person shows a trend over a period of time, we need to take that as an indication that they're in the wrong business."
About three years ago, Luttrell implemented an "integrity interview" process to ferret out bad officers upon hiring. During these interviews, the interviewer analyzes potential deputies' responses about past behavior and decision-making. Luttrell says he's cut back on allowing criminal waivers, and he takes his time hiring deputies, even when the office is experiencing a manpower shortage.
"Oftentimes in law enforcement, when you hit times of critical need for staff, you go out and recruit people without really looking at the people you're recruiting," Luttrell says. "When you rush to add bodies, as opposed to looking at their quality and background, you run the risk of bringing bad citizens in."
It's a problem the MPD has faced as well, though Godwin claims he's also hiring with more scrutiny than past directors. Earlier this month, the MPD was awarded $6.3 million in stimulus funds to hire 37 more officers.
Both Godwin and Luttrell think they've done a good job weeding out the bad guys. But Clarke isn't so sure, at least when it comes to the MPD.
"I think we've had a long time of lax oversight of officers, and that's hard to get rid of," Clarke says. "Once a negative culture gets embedded in a department — maybe because the officers don't trust leadership — we always have the issue of the code of silence. Corruption is a slippery slope."
The code of silence is an unwritten rule in police culture that prevents officers from ratting on their colleagues' wrongdoings. Godwin contends that such a culture doesn't exist within the MPD and says officers regularly report problems with their fellow officers.
Code or no code, Godwin and Luttrell both say they are aggressively pushing to rid their departments of corruption.
"If you're a bad police officer, we're going to get you. It's a matter of time, but you will go down," Godwin says. "It turns my stomach to know a police officer would do the things that we've seen some of these individuals do. I have no feelings for them. They're just another criminal, no different from the other individuals that we lock up on the street."
Since 2003, nearly 70 Memphis Police officers and Shelby County Sheriff's deputies have been arrested, indicted, and/or found guilty of crimes. Here's a sample from the past four years:
Billy Smallwood (MPD officer assigned to auto theft) was indicted by a federal grand jury for accessing law enforcement databases and selling information to a third party.
Ronald Marshall (MPD DUI officer) was charged with DUI and domestic violence in Tunica County.
Thomas Turner (MPD officer, also served as president of the Memphis Police Association) was charged with stealing money from the Memphis Police Association.
James George (MPD uniform patrol) was charged with aggravated kidnapping, rape, and official misconduct.
Larry Orange (MPD uniform patrol/DUI unit) was charged with sexual battery by an authority figure, aggravated statutory rape, and official misconduct.
Chancy K. Jones (MPD officer) was charged with second-degree murder in the killing of his mistress Phyllis Malone.
Robert Burch (MPD officer) was charged with aggravated assault against his wife.
Joshua Graham (MPD officer) was indicted in federal court for making a false statement to the FBI regarding stolen property.
Orlando Hebron (MPD officer) was indicted in federal court for theft of government funds and lying to federal agents. He was nabbed in a sting operation for conspiring to steal from drug dealers and launder money.
Roy Shotwell (MPD officer) was charged with rape of a 15-year-old girl.
Trennis Swims (MPD officer) pled guilty to civil rights charges after stealing from drivers during traffic stops.
Dennis Clark (SCSO deputy) was charged with DUI when he was passed out in his vehicle at a stop light.
Thomas Braswell (SCSO deputy) pled guilty to bribery charges and civil rights violations. Braswell received $500 from an undercover informant posing as a drug dealer in exchange for the address, Social Security number, and other information of another SCSO informant.
Melvin Flemming (MPD officer) pled guilty to sexually molesting two girls, one of whom was a 12-year-old runaway, while on duty in 2004.
Miguel Aguila (MPD detective) was charged with DUI and refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test in Tunica County. Aguila was driving south in a northbound lane on US 61 when he struck two vehicles.