A throng of corrections officers at a Memphis jail used handcuffs as makeshift brass knuckles to beat a Black inmate and kneeled on his back and neck until he went limp in a pool of blood, according to surveillance video. And for minutes, they administered no aid, including CPR.
The county medical examiner ruled Gershun Freeman’s death on Oct. 5, 2022, a homicide. Ever since, the 33-year-old’s family and friends have demanded the officers involved be punished and the notorious Shelby County Jail where it happened be reformed. Now, a federal civil rights complaint filed Tuesday reveals new details of the horror Freeman experienced, including analysis of the jail’s blurry, 13-minute surveillance video.
“The gatekeepers are supposed to keep, but instead they abuse their authority with violence,” Kimberly Freeman, Gershun’s mother, told VICE News. “We are mountain climbers for my son, Gershun. Living wasn’t in vain.”
The incident began when corrections officers approached Freeman’s cell in what was known as the “suicide pod,” on the fourth floor of the jail, to serve dinner, according to court documents. Freeman seemed to be experiencing a mental health crisis and was housed naked and alone to minimize the risk of self-harm. But instead of serving his tray through the door slot, which was common practice, surveillance video shows two officers approached Freeman’s cell and pointed a can of mace at him as a third officer opened the doors remotely from the other side of the hallway.
In the surveillance video, Freeman is seen shielding himself from the mace with an orange piece of fabric, which he was given for warmth, and darting out of the cell. His family’s attorneys say he wasn’t attempting to hit anyone but “bat away the mace can in the deputy’s hand.” Then, the other officer hit Freeman with a haymaker punch, which knocked him to the ground, surveillance video shows.
“The gatekeepers are supposed to keep, but instead they abuse their authority with violence.”
As the complaint points out, the door operator was watching and could have closed the pod door, limiting access to other parts of the jail or could have called for medical staff. Instead, the door operator left the pod door open and joined the beating, the video shows.
Within seconds, the surveillance video shows at least seven other officers also joined the beating, including members of the jail's infamous Blackshirt officers, which are “known for their physicality and rough treatment of detainees,” according to the court documents. The unit, officially called the Detention Response Team, has previously come under fire for using electrified “shock shields” on inmates.
The video shows Blackshirts kicking Freeman and beating him with fists, handcuffs fashioned as makeshift brass knuckles, and mace cans. The complaint alleges that officers also beat Freeman with “heavy rings of jailer’s keys” and “sets of brass handcuff keys.”
The rest of the surveillance video follows corrections officers as they chase Freeman through multiple units of the jail, which he ran through since jailers left the pod door open. His attorneys say Freeman’s body was slippery from all the sprayed mace and thus hard to restrain. At one point on the video, court documents say a person wearing a sheriff’s office supervisor’s shirt and tie slammed Freeman to the ground.
Later, the video shows an officer kneeling on Freeman’s back, neck and head for over five minutes. At some point, Freeman stopped breathing. When officers finally eased off Freeman, they lifted his limp body off the floor to reveal a pool of blood under his head.
The video shows that jail staff did not perform CPR or attempt any resuscitation. One officer stepped over Freeman’s body, carrying paperwork, and glanced over but did not stop.
Other jail staff also stepped around and over Freeman’s body, until medical staff arrived. The autopsy, conducted by the county medical examiner and released in February, shows Freeman was pronounced dead on scene and classified his death as a homicide.
Freeman had only been booked into the Shelby County Jail four days earlier, on charges of aggravated kidnapping and domestic violence. His bond was set at $75,000.
The Freeman family’s lawsuit names Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, Jr., Chief Jailer Kirk Fields, and the municipality of Shelby County, as named defendants. Attorneys say Gershun’s civil rights were violated as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. They’re demanding a jury trial.
“However entrenched the cycle of dehumanization may seem, however indifferent Sheriff Bonner may appear, the Freeman family chooses to fight. The memory of Gershun, and the many hundreds of young Black men currently in the custody of his killers, deserve no less,” one of the Freeman family’s attorneys Jake Brown said in a statement to VICE News.
Sheriff Bonner is also currently a candidate for mayor of Memphis. The election is scheduled for the one-year anniversary of Freeman’s death, Oct. 5, 2023.
The Shelby County Jail, known colloquially as 201 Poplar after its street address, has a long history of lawsuits over poor conditions, violence, and overcrowding going back to the 1990s. In 2000, the Department of Justice found “that certain conditions in the Shelby County Jail violated the constitutional rights of detainees.”
“It's because, obviously, this jail is full of poor black people,” said Josh Spickler, Executive Director of Just City, a Memphis nonprofit that works to keep citizens out of the criminal legal system. “It's an 87% African American male population in that jail. And that's, as always, who bears the brunt of these types of opaque, poorly run systems. And that's what's happening with this jail. It just has to end.”
Freeman’s death is yet another example of a Black man killed at the hands of law enforcement in Memphis, where Tyre Nichols was beaten and kicked to death in the middle of a residential street during a traffic stop. That case, too, has drawn condemnation and calls for reform.
“I don’t know what is happening in America where law enforcement feels they can treat mental health issues like criminal issues, especially if they are marginalized people of color, especially if they are Black men,” Ben Crump, who’s representing both families, said at a recent press conference.
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