The state ignored or was unaware of allegations of jailhouse rape, brutal beatings and corrupt acts by sheriffs and their deputies, even when there was ample evidence to examine.
This article is part of a series by The New York Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship on the power of the state’s sheriffs.
As Marquise Tillman led deputies on a high-speed chase through rural Mississippi in March 2019, Sheriff Todd Kemp issued a blunt order over the radio: “Shut him down and beat his ass.”
When the Clarke County deputies caught Mr. Tillman, they did just that, he later alleged in a lawsuit. He said they pummeled and stomped on him while he was handcuffed, leaving him with a fractured eye socket and broken bones in his face and chest.
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The sheriff denied giving the order. But it was captured on tape and described under oath by four of his deputies.
Such an explosive revelation might have roiled a community elsewhere in the country and led state or federal officials to investigate. But in Mississippi, it was largely ignored, even after the county paid Mr. Tillman an undisclosed amount to settle his claim.
There was no news coverage and no state investigation. In an interview, Sheriff Kemp said he had turned the case over to the state’s police agency. But the agency could find no record of having pursued it.
That is not unusual in Mississippi, where allegations like those leveled against Sheriff Kemp often go nowhere, an investigation by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today has found.
State authorities are responsible for investigating shootings and in-custody deaths involving sheriffs and deputies. But they are not obligated to investigate other potential wrongdoing by sheriffs’ offices, and may not even know about it: The sheriffs’ offices are also not obligated to report incidents to them.
The Times and Mississippi Today examined dozens of publicly available federal lawsuits that described severe brutality and other abuses of power, reviewing thousands of pages of court records and interviewing people involved in cases across the state.
At least 27 claims do not appear to have led to a state investigation, including accusations of rape, brutal assault and retaliation against sheriffs’ enemies.
Many of the lawsuits depicted incidents that had eyewitnesses or significant physical evidence. Some included transcripts of deputies admitting under oath to troubling conduct. All but five of the cases were settled, according to court files that do not disclose the financial terms.
Mississippi has a long history of powerful rural sheriffs breaking the law with little consequence. This year, The Times and Mississippi Today revealed how sheriffs and deputies dodged accountability after allegations that they had sexually abused women in their custody, tortured people for information or misused subpoena power to spy on others.
The lawsuits underscored how many similar allegations have been leveled in the state over the past decade, especially in small-town jails. A man in Itawamba County said that in 2020 his jailers tied him to a chair, choked him and squeezed his genitals until he vomited. A woman in Bolivar County said that in 2016 a deputy held her arms behind her back and raped her in her cell. A man in Simpson County said that the sheriff in 2012, Kenneth Lewis, choked him and slammed his head against a cell wall until he passed out.
All of their lawsuits were settled. Attempts to reach former Sheriff Lewis for comment were unsuccessful.
Officials with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office said they could find no records indicating that either office had investigated any of the 27 allegations. Jim Hood, who was attorney general during most of these cases, did not respond to requests for comment.
Reporters also reached people familiar with 12 of the claims, including plaintiffs, their family members and their lawyers. All said they were not aware of state investigators asking about the cases.
In a statement responding to The Times and Mississippi Today’s findings, the state’s public safety commissioner, Sean Tindell, said he was working toward more oversight. He said he would ask the legislature to empower Mississippi’s law enforcement licensing board, which he oversees along with the bureau of investigation, to investigate abuse allegations and consider revoking law enforcement officers’ licenses, an approach some states use aggressively.
Sheriffs are elected and not required to hold licenses, however. And it would not change how cases are investigated criminally.
The lack of investigations troubled experts who reviewed some of the cases.
James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general who now lectures at Harvard Law School, said the lawsuits described “corrupt” and “criminal” behavior that should have been investigated by the attorney general.
“This wasn’t one renegade cop or a renegade D.A. There is a systemic problem here,” he said.
In Mr. Tillman’s case, the accused deputies all denied beating him. They do not appear to have faced any consequences. “I don’t think there was any wrongdoing,” Sheriff Kemp said in an interview.
“Everybody kept their job,” recalled Mr. Tillman’s aunt, Kristy Tillman.
Mr. Tillman is serving 12 years in prison for crashing into deputies during the high-speed chase. Sheriff Kemp is retiring at the end of this month after 24 years in office. His elected successor, Anthony Chancelor, is one of the deputies accused in the beating.
Trails of Evidence
Across Mississippi’s 82 counties, candidates for sheriff are not required to have law enforcement experience or police training. Once in office, sheriffs can launch investigations, direct the use of force and put people in jail, where they control virtually every aspect of an inmate’s life.
“There is no transparency for what happens inside these local jails, and we know that abuse thrives in dark places,” said Michele Deitch, the director of a center at the University of Texas at Austin that studies jail oversight and operations. She said the allegations of brutality described in the lawsuits were a window into a world that sheriffs have been allowed to conceal.
Many of the lawsuits examined by The Times and Mississippi Today included trails of evidence — video footage, medical records, eyewitness accounts — ready for an investigator to follow.
In 2020, deputies at the Itawamba County jail beat Christopher Evan Easter relentlessly, he said in court filings and an interview.
He said one jailer put him in a chokehold until he passed out; he awoke to deputies doing chest compressions on him. They tied him to a chair, squeezed his genitals and punched his head until he lost consciousness again, he said. “When I come to, my ears are ringing. I’m covered in puke and blood,” he recalled.
Mr. Easter was taken to a hospital, he said, but when he returned to jail, he was stripped naked and thrown in a dark, maggot-infested room the deputies called “the hole,” where the plumbing did not work and the toilet was full of feces.
Mr. Easter’s father, Christopher Lewis Easter, said the jail’s administrator told him that his son had fallen and hit his head on a filing cabinet. The family filed a lawsuit, detailing the violence inflicted on Mr. Easter, which the county settled for $15,000, he said.
Some claims revealed patterns of similar allegations. In a three-year span, two men held in the jail used by Humphreys County filed lawsuits saying deputies had taken them to the chapel before beating them out of view of security cameras. The lawsuits said that members of each family had confronted then-Sheriff J.D. Roseman, who acknowledged one of the assaults happened. Both cases were settled. Sheriff Roseman remained in office until his death in 2020.
In other cases, deputies’ testimony supported some of the plaintiffs’ claims.
The county administrator of Tunica County, population 10,000, accused Sheriff Calvin Hamp of conspiring to have him arrested in 2014 in retaliation for trying to cut the department’s budget.
Two days after the men argued over a purchase order, a captain in the department pulled over an S.U.V. carrying the administrator, Michael Thompson. The captain instructed Mr. Thompson to get behind the wheel and watched him drive away, then pulled him over and charged him with driving with a suspended license. The sheriff’s office issued a press release announcing the arrest.
In a sworn deposition, the captain conceded that he had known Mr. Thompson’s license was suspended — because of an unpaid traffic ticket in another county — when he told him to drive.
Sheriff Hamp did not respond to questions from The Times and Mississippi Today. Mr. Thompson declined to comment.
On appeal, a judge dismissed the charge against Mr. Thompson, and a jury later awarded him $50,000 in damages.
In 2022, state lawmakers formally gave the attorney general and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation responsibility for investigating police shootings and prosecuting those that involve criminal misconduct.
When a sheriff or a deputy is accused of other types of crimes, however, it remains less clear what is supposed to happen.
The F.B.I. and the Justice Department handle some law enforcement cases, but generally look into only the most serious allegations.
District attorneys can investigate and bring charges. But those local prosecutors can have “politically incestuous” relationships with sheriffs, creating pressure to overlook allegations, said Chris Toth, the former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General.
To avoid conflicts of interest, sheriffs or local prosecutors can ask the attorney general or the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to step in. But the system only works if local officials contact the state for help, and that often does not happen, The Times and Mississippi Today found.
Mississippi’s Board on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training also conducts background checks and decides whether law enforcement officers who have been fired for cause or charged with a crime should be allowed to serve in other counties. But it does not perform its own investigations into officers’ conduct. Mr. Tindell, the public safety commissioner, argues that it should.
Some states, including Florida and Arizona, have long taken an approach like the one Mr. Tindell is proposing, with powerful licensing boards that require police agencies to report misconduct and then can hold hearings and potentially revoke officers’ certification.
More recently, other states have given their attorneys general additional authority. New York’s can now investigate any officer or deputy, and Illinois’s and Colorado’s can conduct wide-ranging civil investigations into patterns of illegal conduct.
In Mississippi, the lack of process has allowed some sheriffs and district attorneys to disregard reports of abuse within their jurisdictions.
In Clarke County, accounts that Sheriff Kemp had gotten on the radio and ordered his deputies to beat a fleeing man were widely known.
District Attorney Kassie Coleman said in a statement that she had heard about the accusation and that it was “general knowledge” that both the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the F.B.I. had been contacted about the case.
“I was not provided an investigative case regarding any potential criminal acts that resulted from the investigation into the allegations,” Ms. Coleman wrote, “nor was I provided a copy of the federal lawsuit.”
But the state bureau of investigation said it had no file on the case; Mr. Tillman’s family said he was never contacted by the F.B.I. or anyone else, and the lawsuit is available in an online courts database.
People who have complained directly to Mississippi sheriffs’ offices have often found themselves speaking to someone close to the sheriff.
A man accused deputies in Forrest County of shackling him in a holding cell, beating him unconscious and breaking his ribs in 2016. He noted in his lawsuit that he filed complaints with the F.B.I. and Nick Calico, a chief investigator for then-Sheriff Billy McGee, giving him medical records and photos that could have served as evidence.
In an interview, Mr. Calico said he had investigated the allegations and found that nothing improper happened. After the lawsuit was filed, he said, he was contacted by the F.B.I., sent them a copy of his investigative file and never heard about it again.
Seven months after the alleged beating, he would marry Sheriff McGee’s daughter.
This article was co-reported by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today. Reporting was supported in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Joel Engelhardt contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.