Mississippi sheriffs and deputies often face little accountability for allegations of crimes they committed, the New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting report. In one case, 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 Tillman, they did just that, he alleged in a lawsuit. There was no news coverage and no state investigation. In an interview, Kemp said he had turned the case over to the state’s police agency. The agency could find no record of having pursued it. State authorities are responsible for investigating shootings and in-custody deaths involving sheriffs and deputies. 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 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. 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.