MPD bodycam video raises questions about police treatment of mentally ill

Footage stems from 2019 incident in which a handcuffed man was pepper sprayed

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Updated: October 08, 2020 7:00 PM CT | Published: October 08, 2020 3:40 PM CT
<strong>A freeze frame from police body camera footage shows Drew Thomas&rsquo; puffy face after a police officer sprayed him with a chemical irritant. One officer said Thomas&rsquo; face was bloody because he kept banging his head against the squad car door after he was sprayed.</strong>

A freeze frame from police body camera footage shows Drew Thomas’ puffy face after a police officer sprayed him with a chemical irritant. One officer said Thomas’ face was bloody because he kept banging his head against the squad car door after he was sprayed.

This article was produced in partnership with the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, a non-profit newsroom specializing in investigative and explanatory journalism, and WREG Channel 3.

Drew Thomas snuggled deep into his hoodie. It was cold that night, near freezing, as he walked across a parking lot toward a warm, well-lit convenience store.

Just hours earlier police had taken him to a mental health facility attempting to get him emergency help.

But following a long pattern that’s sent Thomas bouncing like a pinball between behavioral health care, jail and the streets of Memphis’ Orange Mound community, he was quickly released.

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Back on the street, he might sleep on someone’s lawn. Or curl up inside an unlocked car or the cold floor of a relative’s house.

This time he sought refuge at an old haunt, a Shell gas station where employees had run him off many times before for his disruptions, some of them petty and some aggressively violent. When Thomas went inside and allegedly ransacked shelves of groceries, a manager called police yet again.

<strong>William Skelton</strong>

William Skelton

But what happened next on that chilly winter night last year would defy any sense of justice: As police body cameras rolled, a compliant Thomas submitted to arrest. He was handcuffed and then verbally abused by a Memphis Police Department patrolman who sprayed him in the face with a chemical irritant.

“I will spray the [expletive] out of you! You worthless piece of incestuous [expletive],” officer William Skelton yelled at Thomas before spraying the handcuffed arrestee for kicking the inside of his patrol car.

Editor’s Note: This video and the others below contain content that may be upsetting to sensitive viewers.

The encounter was first reported in July by The Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian as part of an ongoing investigation of severe use-of-force cases that MPD declined to refer to prosecutors to weigh criminal charges against officers.

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But the full scope of the abuse that night is only now coming to light.

Family interviews, previously unavailable bodycam footage and dozens of public records examined by The Institute and The Daily Memphian in partnership with WREG-TV News Channel 3 show Thomas, 30, has long struggled with acute behavioral health issues well known to Skelton and other officers on the scene.

Those struggles have triggered dozens of arrests and emergency commitments for Thomas.

“Throwing him in jail is just wasting taxpayer money I believe,’’ said Michael Burgess, 69, a relative who was once violently attacked by Thomas yet says he isn’t getting the help he needs. “He needs some treatment. He needs some professional help.’’

<strong>Drew Thomas</strong>

Drew Thomas

Following his arrest that night, Thomas landed in the Shelby County Jail, and he’s spent most of the past year there, too, following separate drug and trespassing arrests that violated his probation in yet another criminal case.

Thomas’ story intersects with a myriad of issues currently gnawing at America – police brutality, poverty, our treatment of the mentally ill. But for Josh Spickler, it illustrates an over-reliance on police and expensive incarceration to address societal ills.

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 “When we talk about defunding the police, I think what we really mean is breaking down that dependence on people with guns,’’ said Spickler, a criminal reform advocate who believes police should begin sharing more of their duties with social workers and health care professionals to help relieve a high volume of calls they’re often ill-equipped to handle.

“Sending a person with a gun or a man with a can of pepper spray, as it turns out, is fraught with all sorts of (negative) possibilities.’’

Police Director Michael Rallings agrees tweaks are needed but says Memphis has a huge head-start in reforming police interaction with the mentally ill.

“Memphis is the international model for crisis intervention. We have had the CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) program since the 80s,’’ Rallings told WREG of MPD’s widely recognized training to de-escalate conflicts with individuals struggling with mental illness.

Local leaders added to the program with a recent initiative that pairs police and mental health professionals when responding to some 911 calls and in the creation of a mental health court that diverts individuals with behavioral health disorders from incarceration and into treatment.

Still, critics and officials alike agree the criminal justice system is overrun with people who wouldn’t be getting arrested or incarcerated over and over again if they could only get the preventative mental health care services they need.

 “That’s why the CIT program is so critical. That’s why we make sure that all of our officers are trained,’’ Rallings said. “And until that capacity is there for social workers to respond and our staffing levels are brought up to do the community policing that our citizens have been asking for, we have to rely on CIT.”

Thomas’ trail of trouble

Having a robust CIT program is no guarantee abuse won’t happen, however.

At least three CIT-trained officers were on hand that night when officer Skelton pepper-sprayed Thomas. MPD hasn’t identified who they were.

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But body camera footage reveals a circle of officers who stood by and failed to intervene as Thomas screamed from a locked patrol car for water, fresh air and help after Skelton fired 62 grams of pepper spray foam in four separate shots at or directly into the face of the handcuffed detainee.

“I just committed him at like 1 (a.m.),’’ Skelton told colleagues of his earlier attempt that night to put Thomas in a psychiatric hospital. Body cameras captured him and fellow officers laughing and swapping stories about Thomas, a tall man with a large frame known to police and acquaintances as “Heavy”.

“He got his [expletive] sprayed with the foam,’’ one officer mocked. “It’s Heavy. He got back off three hours after being up at MMHI (Memphis Mental Health Institute). So, yeah, use the foam on his [expletive].’’

Footage also captured an officer saying MPD’s Airways Precinct Station had been called six separate times that night to deal with Thomas, who at one point that evening was alleged to have threatened to burn down a man’s house.

An internal investigation report says officers on the Shell station scene misrepresented a misdemeanor vandalism charge against Thomas — reporting it as a felony that carries a longer sentence — because, as another officer said as his bodycam rolled, “We are trying to get him away for a long time. This is our most frequent flyer in the precinct.’’

Thomas’ rise to frequent flyer status stretches back over a decade to May 2009 and another pepper-spray incident.

Then 19, Thomas boarded a Memphis Area Transit Authority bus but refused a driver’s demand to get off after he failed to pay the full fare. The incident is memorialized in a police report that alleges Thomas fought police who responded.

“The defendant started clinching [sic] his fist and threatening to do officers harm,’’ a police affidavit says. Officers sprayed Thomas twice during the struggle before arresting him.

It was among the first of what would become dozens of encounters with law enforcement.

Thomas pleaded guilty to burglary the following year, and with the conviction came a ray of hope.

He was enrolled in The Jericho Project, a program launched in 1998 by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to divert individuals struggling with serious and persistent mental health disorders such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia from the criminal justice system into community-based treatment. Most program participants also struggle with substance abuse.

“They noticed the same folks coming through over and over and over again through the criminal legal system, which is where people end up,’’ said Spickler, executive director of the criminal justice reform organization Just City. As a one-time attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, he helped oversee the Jericho Project, named for its mission to “bring down barriers to recovery’’ much as the biblical Joshua blew down the walls of Jericho.

“And they said, what if we could divert these folks in some way from the legal system into the mental health system, which is where they belong. They don’t belong in jail. They don’t belong in courtrooms. They belong in a place where they can get help, the kind of help they need.’’

The program links participants to services like intensive outpatient treatment, medication management, transportation and, if needed, housing for four months to stabilize them and get them back on their feet.

It’s achieved considerable success. Recidivism is especially high among mentally ill individuals with co-occurring substance abuse disorders — reaching 85% — yet the Jericho Project has cut that rate to 44% among its participants.

Thomas was not one of the project’s success stories.

Though he spent a month in a halfway house receiving drug and alcohol treatment along with psychiatric and medication treatment, records show he soon found trouble after moving in with a relative in October 2010 to continue intensive outpatient treatment. His probation was revoked that November after he was arrested while in possession of 51 grams of marijuana – enough to charge him with a felony. He later pleaded guilty to simple misdemeanor possession and spent 34 days in jail.

Over time, more arrests followed. There were theft, firearms and assault charges.

Thomas was spinning out of control.

Family tries to help

“He was sleeping under bridges. He slept in our old cars. He slept in our driveway. And his mother also,” said Arleen Burgess, a family member.

Thomas’ mother, Antonette Bates, had her own issues. She is currently serving three years probation for entering a man’s house and pulling a knife on him.

Arleen Burgess and her husband Michael spoke with a journalist on a warm fall afternoon as they sat on cushioned lawn chairs on their front porch. They live in a comfortable three-bedroom home on a working-class street where Thomas once roamed.

 “He’s on medications. And half the time he doesn’t take them,’’ said Michael Burgess, 69, Thomas’ cousin. “As long as he’s taking them, he can kind of maintain his control. But once he stops taking his medications he may do anything.’’

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Court records don’t spell out his diagnosis. But Michael Burgess, who’s provided financial support for Thomas and has reviewed medical bills, said Thomas is bipolar and possibly schizophrenic.

(Efforts to interview Thomas in jail through an attorney were unsuccessful. His mother, Bates, could not be located. The Tennessee Department of Correction notes on its website that she is in residential treatment.)

Initially, the Burgesses were happy to help Thomas and his mother.

“We helped them out with food, and they even slept in our driveways,’’ Arleen Burgess said.

But that support began to wane when the mother and son turned violent.

“We had to call the police every single day – nearly two, three times a day,’’ said Arleen Burgess, 62. “And it got to the point where the police in this area, in this precinct, they knew us and they knew our address and they knew what we were calling for.’’

Though police at times took Thomas to jail, they often tried to divert him from the criminal justice system into treatment.

A police report in 2018 said Thomas’ “history shows at least 51 Emergency Commitments’’ on his record. But he would never stay in long. Available records don’t spell out the reasons for releasing Thomas, but Shelby County Mental Health Court Judge Gerald Skahan said the law favors release.

“Often they take them in for a day or two until they get them where they’re no longer a danger to themselves or others, which is a pretty low threshold, and they put them back out,’’ Skahan said.

Emergency involuntary hospitalizations require a rigorous protocol, said Matthew Parriott, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. That includes two separate evaluations, one by an admitting physician. Under state law, admission criteria includes evidence that an individual “poses an immediate substantial likelihood of serious harm.’’

“Individuals can be detained for an evaluation, but if they don’t meet commitment criteria in the second evaluation they are released,’’ Parriott said in an email.

Michael and Arleen Burgess said they lived in fear of the next time Thomas or his mother might show up.

“We had cameras installed around our home because they will come and they would terrorize us,’’ Arleen Burgess said, pointing to video boxes that ring her home.

They would throw bricks from her garden, Burgess said. And smash her vases.

“They call him Heavy because he’s a big guy – a big guy,’’ she said of the six-foot-three, 250-pound Thomas.

 “He’s foreboding. I mean, if he walked up on you now, you’ll take guard.’’

It all came to a head in September 2018 when Thomas assaulted her husband.

“And if it wasn’t for the cameras that we had when Heavy attacked Michael,’’ Arleen said, pausing to collect her thoughts: “It was almost like a bull coming after a red flag, if you understand what I’m saying. No stopping until he accomplished what he was set out to do.’’

Police reports tell how the Burgesses’ cameras captured Thomas’ vicious attack as he demanded money: He pushed Burgess to the ground. Then he bent his index finger backwards.

“He grabbed my fingers and broke them. Broke my finger,’’ Michael Burgess said, retelling the story to a journalist. “I had a few dollars in my pocket. It wasn’t much. About maybe 40, 50 dollars. And he grabbed my money and (tore) my pocket out while he was taking the money.’’

Thomas pleaded guilty to robbery and received four years of probation. A judge’s order required him to receive a year of intensive treatment, “follow (his) mental health plan,’’ and stay away from his cousin, Burgess.

But he simply couldn’t do it.

He was arrested twice that fall for trespassing at convenience stores. He’d harass and threaten customers and scream obscenities. One police report describes how Thomas got in an argument with his mother and laid her on the ground — in front of police — and raised his foot up as he threatened to stomp her face.

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Eventually, he came back looking for Burgess, too.

On Jan. 5, 2019, a woman accused Thomas of knocking her to the ground at the Shell station at 2400 Airways – the very place where he would encounter officer Skelton in the pepper-spray incident five days later. Police responded but they couldn’t find Thomas.

Thomas was arrested that same night down the street at the Airways Food Mart where a manager complained that he’d caused a series of disturbances. He spent three nights in jail and was back out.

Around 10:30 p.m. on the night of the pepper-spray incident a man in Memphis’ Alcy-Ball neighborhood called police to report that Thomas had threatened to shoot him and set his home on fire.

Once again, Thomas couldn’t be found.

“I Foamed Him”

Eight-year MPD veteran William Grant Skelton arrested Thomas later that night. How it happened or what might have transpired between the two isn’t clear. Skelton says on bodycam footage he took Thomas sometime after midnight to Memphis Mental Health Institute, state psychiatric hospital.

But around 6:30 that morning, as Skelton’s shift wound down, he got another call:

Heavy was out again. He’d vandalized the Shell station convenience store.

As Skelton pulled into the station’s parking lot and activated his body camera he was clearly agitated.

“I said you’re under arrest, [expletive],’’ Skelton yelled when he spotted Thomas walking from the store. “Get the [expletive] over here. Get your [expletive] ass over here.’’

Thomas never resisted. Skelton’s bodycam footage shows Thomas calmly walking to the patrol car as commanded and putting his hands on the hood as Skelton frisked him. At one point, when Thomas momentarily pulled a hand off the hood, Skelton barked, “Hands on the car, [expletive].’’

When Thomas contended he was on his way to work, Skelton taunted, “Have you ever even had a real job?’’

“Downtown,’’ Thomas answered.

“Yeah, you’re about to have some work downtown,’’ Skelton replied. “Hands behind your back. You’re under arrest.’’

Again, without incident, Thomas was cuffed and placed in the back of the squad car. But when he began kicking the car door from inside, Skelton exploded.

“You kick my car again I’m going to foam you!’’ Skelton yelled, threatening to deploy his department-issued can of pepper spray foam.

“You understand, [expletive]? I will spray the [expletive] out of you! You, worthless piece of incestuous [expletive]!’’

 When Thomas kicked the door again Skelton calmly radioed into dispatch: “I am deploying my pepper foam,’’ he reported.

 His radioed message stirred laughter from officers who’d gone inside the store to inspect the damage.

“I got to see this,’’ officer Jonathan Sharman said as he briskly walked outside and over to patrol car.

<strong>Jonathan Sharman</strong>

Jonathan Sharman

“Did you get him?’’ Sharman asked.

“I’m trying,’’ Skelton answered.

Bodycam footage shows Skelton opening the left-side door and firing foam at Thomas. When it appeared he didn’t get a direct hit — had turned his head — Skelton went over the right-side door and fired again. And then back to the left. And then to the right again.

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This time, Skelton climbed deep inside the backseat and shot the foam point-blank into Thomas’ face.

Skelton and a second officer then took the added step to bind Thomas with a rip hobble — a device similar to a hogtie — to keep him from kicking the car door again.

“Will you let the window down?’’ asked Thomas, desperate for fresh air.

“For you? Hell no,’’ Skelton said. “Not after that. You gonna make me have to treat you like that after I tried to be good to you the first time? Tried to take you somewhere to get you some help. Then you gonna make me be an [expletive]. Now, you gonna ask me for a favor? I don’t think so.’’

Outside the car, Skelton told the other officers what had happened.

“He wanted me to roll the window down,’’ Skelton said with a shrug. “I probably should.’’

But he didn’t. Neither did the other officers on the scene.

“Make that [expletive] burn,’’ Sharman said.

Officer Jonathan Halteman, standing nearby, added:

 “I’ll bet that stung like a [expletive].’’

“I hope so,’’ Skelton answered.

A supervisor arrives

<strong>Alexander McGowan</strong>

Alexander McGowan

Minutes later Lt. Alexander McGowan pulled into the lot and rolled down the window for Thomas.

“Did you spray him?’’ McGowan asked.

“I foamed him!’’ Skelton exclaimed.

 “Good,’’ McGowan said.

 “I foamed the [expletive] out of him!’’ Skelton crowed. Then, pulling his body camera off his chest, Skelton yelled directly into the lens.

“I’ll tell the camera I foamed the [expletive] out of him!’’

Officers later engaged in banter as they waited on a Memphis Fire Department ambulance to treat Thomas, ignoring his repeated cries of “Air!’’, “Water!’’ and “Help!’’ from the back of the squad car.

One officer laughed that Thomas looked “like a puppy dog rubbing his face in the dirt’’ as he struggled with the foam shot into his face.

One topic officers mulled that night involved the amount of property damage Thomas had done. An internal investigation later determined that they had inflated the amount in order to charge him with a felony.

<strong>Adam Bittick</strong>

Adam Bittick

As body cameras rolled, officer Adam Bittick told Lt. McGowan, “the reason we are trying to make sure it is a felony is because we are trying to get him away for a long time, this is our most frequent flyer in the precinct.”

According to an MPD case summary, Bittick fist-bumped McGowan when it was decided to charge him with a felony and said, “Boom! I like that. I like that. That will work.”

Following a lengthy internal investigation, Skelton was charged with violating department policies governing use of force and proper use of weapons. Among other things, MPD regulations forbid using chemical irritation agents on handcuffed detainees who don’t pose “an imminent physical threat’’ to officers or others.

Commanders declined to refer the case to prosecutors to determine if any criminal laws were broken.

Skelton stayed on the force for another year, then resigned in January before supervisors could complete disciplinary action.

Asked for comment in July, Skelton, 35, wrote in an email, “I appreciate your interest, but I am no longer with the Memphis Police Department. I resigned in January and now (happily) work in the private sector. Best of luck with your story.’’

He did not respond to a recent request for comment.

<strong>Jonathan Halteman</strong>

Jonathan Halteman

Administrative charges were dismissed against officers Sharman and Halteman.

Officer Bittick and Lt. McGowan each received a three-day suspension, records show.

Reforming the system

“Misconduct of that nature will not be tolerated,’’ Police Director Rallings said.

But critics say more needs to be done to reduce interactions between police and the mentally ill, which can lead to violent, even fatal, confrontations.

One initiative that aims to limit such interactions involves Shelby County Mental Health Court.

Launched four years ago, it aims to divert people with serious and persistent mental health disorders from the criminal justice system into treatment. Many people in the voluntary program have histories or repeat “nuisance’’ offenses like theft, disorderly conduct and “aggressive panhandling,’’ said Skahan, the Mental Health Court judge.

“These are people that have been arrested a hundred, a hundred and thirty times,’’ he said. “These are people basically trying to survive out on the streets without any real help.’’

Like the Jericho Project, Mental Health Court has achieved success in reducing hard-to-budge recidivism rates among the mentally ill. Because incarcerating the mentally ill is so expensive, it has huge cost-saving potential, too, though officials couldn’t provide firm figures.

But, also like the Jericho Project, it has limited bandwidth. The court assists about a hundred participants a year. It meets once a week, but could easily go full time, Skahan said.

While many people now talk today about “defunding the police,’’ decades of defunding mental health care — closing hospitals and cutting funding for behavioral health services —have helped swell populations in the County Jail at 201 Poplar, he said.

“201 is the biggest mental health care provider in the state of Tennessee,’’ Skahan said. “I guess nobody thought when they shut down all the mental health hospitals in the early ‘80s that they were going to turn every jail into the de facto largest mental health provider.’’

Jails are relatively good at stabilizing individuals, said Just City’s Spickler. But once detainees “hit the back door of the jail’’ they often face enormous challenges finding community-based treatment to prevent them from re-entering the criminal justice system, he said.

The state has ramped up spending over the past five years for community behavioral health programs, including launching a “pre-arrest diversion’’ project in Shelby County to “divert individuals from arrest to the mental health services they need,’’ said state mental health department spokesman Parriott.

Still, as calls to reform the police mount, cities like Houston and Los Angeles have begun pairing police with mental health professionals on some calls. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018 that a program in Eugene, Oregon, a nonprofit organization of social workers and medics called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Street is linked into the 911 system responds to most calls without police.

Memphis launched a similar, limited program two years ago called the Crisis Assessment and Response Team (CARE) that pairs police CIT officers, Fire Department paramedics and social workers from Alliance Healthcare Services on calls from high utilizers of the 911 system.

More such reform is needed, Spickler said.

“It certainly doesn’t mean dispatch with the police forever. It means stop asking them to do so much,’’ he said.

“I mean, to me, it’s almost sympathetic to the police themselves because they are asked to do the impossible and we don’t give them the resources.”


Memphis Police Department police brutality Michael Rallings police reform Behavioral Health
Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He's won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and  political reporting. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.

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