On Sunday afternoon, a passerby captured on video a white Shelby County deputy following a lone black woman down a Cordova road, calling for backup and then joining three deputies who tackle her, cuff her and shove her into a sheriff’s car.
The three-minute video of the arrest quickly went viral. Viewers were outraged, as was I, but on Facebook, I took a measured tone, writing that I looked forward to learning what happened before the recording began.
Based on the police report, the details are worse than I imagined.
Before deputies encountered Kesha Gray, an eyewitness had already told them he saw her being choked and punched by a man outside a silver sedan. Yet it was Gray who ended up in jail.
Gray, 29, is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, charged with obstructing a highway, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault. The incident raises issues of race and power, police discretion and police abuse, and how victims are re-traumatized by those who are supposed to protect and serve.
Here’s a condensed account: A passing motorist noticed a man choking, punching and dragging a black woman outside of a silver sedan on Pisgah Road in Cordova. The motorist stopped to help prevent what he thought was a kidnapping, but the man, later identified as the woman’s fiancé, threatened the motorist. The motorist pulled a gun on the fiancé, who sped off.
The victim left on foot, refusing to give her name to the motorist, who called police. She wouldn’t give her name to the police officer who arrived, either, and that’s her right in Tennessee.
Tennessee does not have a stop-and-identify statute, which means police cannot force a person to identify him/her/themselves unless police have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime.
Content warning: The embedded video below shows an intense and physical exchange between Kesha Gray and four Shelby County Sheriff Department deputies.
If the police report and affidavit of complaint is accurate, then what the police knew about Gray is that she was a crime victim. Not a suspect.
Yet the deputy follows Gray, attempting to grab her by the arms as she wrestles away. At no time in the video can the deputy be heard telling the victim that she is being detained, that she is under arrest, or why she would be subject to either.
“Deputy Barnett informed the suspect that a report had to be completed at which time Suspect Doe began to become very uncooperative and began yelling racial slurs,” the report says.
No slurs can be heard in the video, but at one point, the victim walks past the woman videotaping the incident. “Call the news!” the victim, who briefly leans inside the woman’s car window. “He’s trying to arrest me for walking because I won’t give him information,” she said.
The affidavit of complaint says:
“As Deputy Barnett attempted to detain Suspect Jane Doe, in order to identify her, Suspect walked W/B (westbound) on Pisgah Road towards Houston Levee and walked in the roadway, obstructing traffic.”
I had questions before I read the police’s account of the incident and now I have even more.
- What part of Tennessee Code Annotated requires a domestic violence victim to file a police report?
- What part of Tennessee Code Annotated authorizes detaining a victim of domestic violence?
- What part of Tennessee Code Annotated requires a citizen who is clearly not a suspect in a crime to identify herself to law enforcement?
- Why was the deputy following this woman?
- If a resident crosses a street to get away from an armed officer of the state who is forcing her, against state law, to prove her identity and complete a police report, is that “obstructing traffic,” particularly when the video shows a practically empty street?
- One of the charges was obstructing a highway, which is also referred to as a “contempt of cop” charge, one used by police grasping for justification, no matter how flimsy, to arrest civilians simply for being loud or belligerent. Observers might wonder if this is an example of “contempt of cop” charge. Would you agree and if not, how would you refute that?
- In the last year, how many arrests for obstructing a highway have Shelby County deputies made in unincorporated Shelby County? If the answer is less than 20, that suggests such charges are rare. What was it about this incident that warranted arrest?
- What training, if any, does the department provide on interacting with domestic violence victims? When was that training last provided? Did the officers involved in tackling this woman participate in that training?
- Were there any women deputies on duty in Shelby County when this occurred? If so, what was the discussion about having a woman officer approach this victim instead of four male officers?
- Is there body/dash cam video and if so, what does it show? If there isn’t body/dash cam video, why not?
- The police report notes the victim used racial slurs, although she cannot be heard using any slurs during the 3-minute video. Is it a crime to use racial slurs? If so, please note the part of Tennessee Code Annotated that states this. If not, why is this detail relevant?
- The inclusion of the racial slurs in the police report could be considered a not-so-subtle attempt to disparage this woman and perhaps make her a less sympathetic victim in the public’s eye. Do you agree? If not, please explain.
- The police report says: “Deputies then detained Jane Doe using the minimal amount of force necessary.” The video shows four male officers tackling one woman to the ground. Do you expect residents to believe that that was minimal force?
- Neither the video nor the police report indicate that at any time, any of the four officers involved attempted to de-escalate the incident. Do you agree? And if not, please explain.
- What de-escalation tactics are deputies trained to use, if any? Which were used here?
- How many years had each of the deputies who tackled this woman been on the force? Have any residents complained of abuse, harassment or mistreatment by these officers?
- What does the department want domestic violence victims to know about what to expect when police respond to a call that they have been beaten?
- This video sparked or revived concerns that law enforcement will be heavy handed toward black people during the coronavirus pandemic. Given that residents are understandably tense and fearful that civil liberties that were already under attack may not survive in this moment, do you think this video heightens or lessens these worries?
- Do you think black residents — particularly black women — in a county that is majority black have more or less faith in law enforcement now?
These are just some of the questions I have, and I’ve sent them to Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner and to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. If they respond, I’ll let you know what they say.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.