Six white former police officers have pleaded guilty to civil rights offenses related to the assault and torture of two Black men in Mississippi. Their pleas underscore the systemic nature of police abuse, the racism underpinning many incidents of police misconduct, and the urgent need for more accountability.
In the Mississippi case, the officers, some of whom referred to themselves as “the Goon Squad,” entered a home without a warrant and proceeded to physically and verbally assault two Black men — Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker — who were inside.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the officers attacked and tortured the men repeatedly, with one officer shooting Jenkins in the mouth. Additionally, the group tased the two men multiple times, used racial slurs, poured oil, alcohol, and chocolate sauce on them, and planted evidence in the house in a bid to escape responsibility. As part of the encounter, the police warned the men to stay out of Rankin County, Mississippi.
The officers were reportedly told to go to the house on January 24, 2023, by a Rankin County deputy, who’d received a complaint that the two Black men were in the house with a white woman. Court documents note that Parker was a longtime friend of the woman and aiding in her care, per the Associated Press.
The Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation earlier this year and charged the officers with 16 felonies — including civil rights violations, discharge of a firearm during a crime, and obstruction of justice — all of which they pleaded guilty to this week. Additionally, the Mississippi attorney general’s office has charged the officers with assault, conspiracy, and obstruction.
This case is only the latest to illustrate how police can abuse the unique authority they have, and is only one of several highlighting the violence Black Americans can face at the hands of police. The pleas follow the recent police killings of Jarrell Garris in New Rochelle and Ahmad Abdullah in Detroit, both unarmed Black men, among many others.
Police misconduct is a systemic problem — and there needs to be much more accountability
Legal protections like qualified immunity — which require proof that an officer has violated a “clearly established” right — have typically made it difficult to hold police liable for everything from property damage to fatal violence. Efforts to remake qualified immunity law on the federal level, which were accelerated after a police officer murdered George Floyd, have failed. As have efforts to increase transparent reporting and data collection about police use of force, making it tougher to pursue both investigations and convictions.
“Departments don’t even have to disclose the most basic information about how many people officers kill each year,” UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz previously said in an interview. “That, in itself, is a failure of accountability.”
The Mississippi assaults present a rare instance when police have had to deal with legal ramifications for harms they’ve caused. As recent reports on Albany, Chicago, and Oakland’s police departments have shown, it is far more common that investigations into misconduct don’t come to any resolution. The Mississippi case is also a reminder of how ignoring misconduct can lead to further abuses. Infamously, Derek Chauvin, the former officer who killed Floyd, had previously been the subject of multiple complaints concerning excessive use of force.
Similarly, an AP report linked several of the officers involved in the Mississippi case with four incidents of violence since 2019, including actions that led to the deaths of two Black men. And while the recent assaults they are accused of took place in January, the officers weren’t fired from their jobs or forced to resign until June of this year.
The guilty pleas and DOJ investigation in this case are extremely important, Harvard Kennedy School professor and police violence expert Desmond Ang tells Vox, though he notes that such accountability is uncommon.
“That the officers pleaded guilty, instead of going to trial, really demonstrates how clear-cut the evidence was,” he says. “At the same time, it’s really important to note that this type of behavior had been allowed to persist for way longer than it should.”
Because of the opacity when it comes to documenting use of force in police departments, it’s tough to track how frequently similar offenses are being confronted in court. One analysis from Bowling Green State University professor Philip Stinson found an uptick in the number of police who were being charged with murder or manslaughter between 2017 to 2021, though they still marked a very small fraction of the reported number of police killings. Seven officers were charged in 2017, 10 in 2018, 12 in 2019, 16 in 2020, and 21 in 2021. In 2021 and the years since, however, there have been more than a thousand police killings per year, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.
“It makes you wonder how many other cases like this exist that just haven’t made the light of day,” says Ang, while alluding to other potential instances like the Mississippi case.