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Activists Demonstrate In Pittsburgh After Unarmed Black Teen Was Fatally Shot In Back By Police While Fleeing A Traffic Stop

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Brian Howey and Nate Rosenfield are examining the power of sheriffs’ offices in Mississippi as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship.

More than two months after deputies were sentenced for torturing two Black men in central Mississippi, federal prosecutors have widened their investigation and may sue the Rankin County sheriff’s department for civil rights violations, a serious escalation that could lead to federal monitoring.

Todd Gee, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, talked about the possibility at a meeting last month, where he urged local residents who attended to come forward if they had experienced violence or discrimination at the hands of deputies.

More than 50 people, including defense attorneys and civil rights advocates, packed into a library outside Jackson, Miss. Some shared stories of being harassed or falsely accused of crimes by deputies, according to several people who attended the meeting, which was closed to the press.

“Information from people like you can make a difference,” Mr. Gee told the crowd, according to video of the meeting obtained by reporters.

He explained that if deputies’ misconduct had been going on for years it could be evidence of a pattern of civil rights violations that could lead to a case against the department.

Rather than focusing on individual acts of misconduct, “pattern or practice” investigations determine whether civil rights violations have become part of an agency’s overall culture. Prosecutors can sue a department and seek a consent decree, a legally binding agreement that would force the department to implement reforms.

Todd W. Gee, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Rankin County came to national attention last year after deputies, some from a unit that called itself the Goon Squad, tortured two Black men in their home and shot one of them in the face, nearly killing him. Six officers pleaded guilty and were sentenced to federal prison in March.

An investigation by the New York Times and Mississippi Today last fall revealed that nearly two dozen residents experienced similar brutality when Rankin deputies burst into their homes looking for illegal drugs.

Sheriff Bryan Bailey of Rankin County, who has led the department since 2012, has vowed to remain in office despite calls for his resignation from the local chapter of the NAACP and others in the community.

Department officials did not respond to requests for comment on the federal investigation. Sheriff Bailey has denied knowledge of his deputies’ decades-long reputation for violence.

At the community meeting, some residents expressed concern that the sheriff had not been held accountable.

“You could sense the frustration,” said Dr. Ava Harvey, a local pastor who attended the meeting. “Something needs to be done because the trust is broken.”

Federal prosecutors held meetings like these in other cities across the nation as they were preparing lawsuits against police departments for civil rights violations — in Minneapolis after a police officer killed George Floyd and in Ferguson, Mo., after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager.

The consent decree in Minneapolis requires officers to use de-escalation tactics whenever possible, limits the use of tear gas during protests and prohibits officers from stopping drivers for broken taillights. In Ferguson, the police department is now required to limit when officers use force and end discriminatory policing.

Representatives from the Justice Department declined to comment on their investigation in Mississippi or on the community meeting.

Angela English, the president of the Rankin County chapter of the NAACP, who helped coordinate the meeting, said prosecutors asked people who did not want to detail their stories publicly to speak privately with investigators. The U.S. attorney’s office plans to host more meetings, she said, noting that the prosecutors are still in the process of gaining the trust of the community.

The Rankin County Detention Center. Rory Doyle for The New York Times RANKIN-SCENE

“A lot of people are still afraid of what may happen to their families as a result of them talking,” she said. “As long as people like Bryan Bailey are still in charge — and this happened on his watch — then there’s still going to be that level of mistrust.”

In a statement to the Times and Mississippi Today two weeks ago, the Rankin County sheriff’s department said it had conducted an internal review of its deputies.

The review came after the news organizations reported that, for a generation, Rankin County deputies had terrorized local residents accused of drug possession. More than 20 people said deputies had beaten, strangled, waterboarded or burned them during home raids and traffic stops.

In multiple cases, people said they had filed complaints about their experiences — or told Sheriff Bailey personally about the abuse — only to be ignored.

Beyond the deputies who were sentenced, at least four others who were present when someone was allegedly tortured by officers have left the department in recent months. Three were fired for refusing to cooperate with an internal investigation, and another resigned in good standing, according to Mississippi Department of Public Safety records. In December, another deputy resigned to avoid being terminated after violating department policy and procedures, records show. Sheriff’s department officials did not respond to requests for comment on why the deputies left.

The department conducted another review in late May after the Times and Mississippi Today unearthed a private text thread where deputies discussed beating criminal suspects, traded memes about rape and posted pictures of rotting human corpses they had found on the job.

Department representatives said Sheriff Bailey was not aware of the private group chat.

“We are confident that the actions of our current employees are and will remain proper as they serve the citizens of Rankin County,” department officials said in a statement.

In recent months, more local residents have come forward to the press claiming they had been abused by deputies, and at least three people have filed federal lawsuits against the department accusing deputies of using excessive force against them in jail or during arrests.

In a lawsuit filed against the department two weeks ago, Christopher Mack said that in 2021 deputies beat him for 45 minutes at the county jail after he refused to share information about drugs and gangs with deputies.

A photo of Christopher Mack in front of the Rankin County jail where he said he was taken after he was beaten by officers.

Several jail inmates assisted the deputies during the beating, Mr. Mack said in an interview. Pictures he said were taken just after the beating show his eyes blackened and his back bruised. Red splotches on his forehead and nose show the imprint from a deputy’s boot, he said, and he was hospitalized and treated for a broken rib.

“It mentally messes with me every day,” Mr. Mack said, adding that since the incident he has been diagnosed with an anger disorder that can result from trauma and that he now takes epilepsy medication to treat seizures. “I stay angry. I just stay angry all the time.”

After the attack, Mr. Mack said, Sheriff Bailey asked him who had beaten him. Mr. Mack said that when he told the sheriff it was his own deputies, Sheriff Bailey cursed and walked away.

The department did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Residents have come to the local chapter of the NAACP before with complaints about the conduct of deputies, according to Ms. English. Until recently, many were too frightened to take action, but as more come forward, Ms. English said, their neighbors become more emboldened to speak out.

“People are tired of it,” she said. “They are not going to allow it to happen anymore.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

SEE ALSO:

Mississippi Goon Squad Cop Who Tortured Two Black Men Appeals His Sentence

‘Reckless Brutality’: Video Shows White Cop Choking Unarmed Black Man In Louisiana, Lawyers Say

Rest In Power: Notable Black People Who Have Died This Year
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