JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Monica Lee sat outside her parents’ home, where a former Mississippi sheriff’s deputy pummeled her son, who died hours later in the hospital.
It was a sweltering afternoon in Braxton — the same town where, in a separate episode, six white law enforcement officers tortured two other Black men in January, shaking seasoned federal prosecutors, elected officials and ordinary people to their core.
The officers, one of whom also was involved in the violent episode with Lee’s son two years prior, pleaded guilty Thursday to a long list of federal civil rights charges.
Lee believes former Rankin County Deputy Hunter Elward is responsible for the 2021 death of her son, Damien Cameron, who was accused of vandalizing a neighbor’s home while living with his grandparents. A grand jury declined to indict Elward and he was never convicted of a crime. The brazen acts of violence to which he would plead guilty two years later were made possible because of a police culture that has festered for years, Lee said.
Five deputies from the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office, some of whom called themselves “the Goon Squad,” and an officer from the Richland Police Department admitted to taking part in a racist assault against Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrel Parker. The men never thought their abusers would pay for their crimes.
“It’s really a shock, but I enjoyed every moment of it,” Parker said, recounting the former officers being led out of a federal courtroom in shackles.
Court documents unsealed by federal prosecutors suggest only some members of the Goon Squad participated in the raid. There are other Rankin County deputies “known to the United States Attorney,” the documents say.
Lee, who spoke to The Associated Press the day after the guilty pleas, rejoiced that Elward is headed to federal prison. Elward’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But even as Elward and the other deputies face accountability for their brutal crimes against Jenkins and Parker, she said, a culture of corruption and violence exists within the sheriff’s office, which she worries will persist.
“They say one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” Lee said. “If they do it once, they’ll do it again.”
The charges follow an investigation by The Associated Press linking some of the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries. Law enforcement officers are seldom charged for crimes committed on the job, and it is rarer still for them to plead guilty.
When a white neighbor complained Black people were staying with a white woman on Jan. 24, the officers went to the home and found Jenkins and Parker. They burst inside without a warrant and handcuffed the men. They beat and sexually assaulted the pair and shocked them with stun guns. They poured milk, alcohol and chocolate syrup over their faces and mocked them with racial slurs. Elward shoved a gun in Jenkins’ mouth and fired, lacerating his tongue.
To cover up their crimes, they planted drugs on Jenkins.
“That behavior is taught,” said the Rev. Ricky Sutton of Mount Carmel Ministries, a Rankin County church. “When I think about this culture, I just ask myself, how deep does it run?”
The behavior runs deep enough, Sutton said, that some Black people are afraid to spend time in Rankin County, a majority-white county just east of the state capital, Jackson, which is home to one of the highest percentages of Black residents of any major U.S. city.
As if channeling that fear as a tool to layer their physical abuse with maximum psychological terror, the officers warned Jenkins and Parker to stay out of Rankin County and go back to Jackson or “their side” of the Pearl River, court documents say.
The former officers who pleaded guilty included Elward, Christian Dedmon, Brett McAlpin, Jeffrey Middleton and Daniel Opdyke of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office, and Joshua Hartfield of the Richland Police Department.
The officers believed they could operate with impunity because of the negligence of Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, said Angela English, president of the Rankin County NAACP.
“It starts at the top, and I don’t believe you regain our trust if the same people are running the show,” English said.
Bailey has presided over a “code of blue” in which officers protect one another instead of citizens, English said.
Bailey, who said he was lied to by the officers, told reporters Thursday that he would not resign.
“The only thing I’m guilty of in this incident right here is trusting grown men that swore an oath to do their job correctly. I’m guilty of that. But the people of Rankin County elected me to do a job during good times and during bad times,” Bailey said. “There’ve been times during this I want to hide under a rock because I’m ashamed and embarrassed about what they’ve done.”
Keith Taylor, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former New York police officer, said the mindsets of officers are often downstream of department culture.
“If you have a policing culture that tolerates all the -isms — sexism and racism and classism — if you have a department that allows for that kind of behavior to thrive, then it’ll be exhibited by the officers on the street,” Taylor said.
Had a better internal system been in place for conducting oversight, Lee said her son, Damien Cameron, would still be alive and the January episode would never have happened.
Jenkins and Parker, who aren’t sure if they will ever return to the state for an extended period, took solace that at least one part of the justice system appears to have worked.
“We finally got justice knowing what we went through,” Jenkins said. “They got what they deserved.”
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.