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Goon Squad Hearings Reveal Culture of Violence in Mississippi Sheriff’s Office

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Goon Squad Hearings Reveal Culture of Violence in Mississippi Sheriff’s Office

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Sentencing hearings this week for six law enforcement officers, some of whom were members of the Goon Squad, revealed a disturbing portrait of a Mississippi sheriff’s department that encouraged deputies to use extreme violence as a policing tool.

Prosecutors, along with several of the deputies who were sentenced, described a toxic culture in which senior officers directed the men they oversaw to humiliate and torture people suspected of crimes.

Young deputies said they saw violence as a way to earn promotions and to live up to the expectations of their supervisors, who were considered heroes of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department.

In court this week, Christian Dedmon, a former narcotics detective, said that a culture of misconduct reigned at the sheriff’s office and that he rose through the ranks at the department because of his willingness “to do bad things.”

Mr. Dedmon and five other former law enforcement officers from Rankin County were sentenced this week to prison terms for federal civil rights violations stemming from the torture and sexual assault of two Black men, Michael Jenkins and Eddie Parker, in January 2023.

The officers, who pleaded guilty last summer, shocked both men with Tasers and abused them with a sex toy. During what was described as a mock execution, one of the officers shot Mr. Jenkins in the mouth, nearly killing him.

Three of the deputies were also sentenced for their roles in the beating of Alan Schmidt in December 2022, when Mr. Dedmon shocked Mr. Schmidt with a Taser, and then pressed his genitals against the man’s face and bare buttocks while he was handcuffed.

Judge Tom Lee of U.S. District Court sentenced the last of the officers Thursday. Brett McAlpin, a senior detective who has been described as the Goon Squad’s ringleader, was sentenced to more than 27 years in prison. Joshua Hartfield, a narcotics detective for the Richland Police Department, received a 10-year sentence.

An investigation by Mississippi Today and The New York Times last year exposed a decades-long reign of terror by nearly two dozen Rankin County deputies, several of them high-ranking investigators who reported directly to the Rankin County Sheriff, Bryan Bailey.

In pursuit of drug arrests, the deputies shoved a stick down one man’s throat until he vomited, dripped molten metal onto another man’s skin and held people down and beat them until they were bloody and bruised, according to dozens who said they had witnessed or experienced the raids.

Residents in impoverished communities in Rankin County have complained that deputies targeted them for years, routinely barging into homes without warrants and violently shaking them down for information on drug use.

Testimony at the hearings this week shed new light on why the violence had been so widespread.

Christopher Perras, a federal prosecutor, said Thursday that Mr. McAlpin had been involved in at least nine incidents over the past five years in which the detective led deputies in “brutalizing people with impunity.”

Mr. Perras said Mr. McAlpin, the former chief investigator, had forced younger deputies “to do his dirty work for him.”

“McAlpin is the one who molded these men into what they became,” Mr. Perras said. “He modeled that behavior for young impressionable officers, and it’s no wonder that they followed his lead.”

Jeremy Travis Paige, a local resident, told reporters last year that he was one of Mr. McAlpin’s many victims. During a 2018 raid of his home in Pearl, Miss., deputies led by Mr. McAlpin waterboarded and beat Mr. Paige until his face was blackened and bloodied. Throughout the encounter, he said, Mr. McAlpin instructed deputies to carry out the attack.

“He was the captain, and they were the hit men,” he said Thursday. “He just sat in the chair and watched them do everything.”

Mr. Paige was one of many people who said they filed federal lawsuits, submitted formal complaints or tried to contact Sheriff Bailey directly to complain about Mr. McAlpin and other deputies’ behavior. He was also one of multiple people who arrived to jail with obvious injuries, according to booking photos obtained by The Times and Mississippi Today.

Jeremy Travis Paige’s booking photo, taken at the Rankin County jail in 2018, shows his battered and bruised face after an encounter with the deputies.Credit…Rankin County Sheriff’s Office

Jeffery Reynolds, a lawyer representing Daniel Opdyke, a former patrol deputy who was sentenced to almost 18 years in prison, said his client viewed Mr. McAlpin as a father figure and followed him “right or wrong, without question.” But while complaints about Mr. McAlpin continued to surface, Mr. Reynolds said, Sheriff Bailey kept promoting him.

“Where’s the true leadership? Why aren’t they in this court?” Mr. Reynolds said.

Sheriff Bailey, who did not attend the sentencing hearings, has repeatedly denied knowledge of his deputies’ actions. But policing experts said the details revealed at the hearings cast further doubt on his claims.

“There were so many red flags in this case, it seems unbelievable to think that higher-ups didn’t have some knowledge of this,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “Officers were held accountable for these egregious crimes, but it should not have taken 20 years.”

In a Thursday news release, Sheriff Bailey said his department was dedicated to preserving the safety and security of county residents and the sheriff’s office fully cooperated with state and federal authorities during their investigation of his former deputies.

“As the duly elected and acting Sheriff of Rankin County, I will remain committed to the betterment of this county and this sheriff’s department moving forward,” he said.

Erin Chalk, a prosecutor at the U.S. attorney’s office, revealed that investigators have recorded violent incidents beyond those that led to the federal convictions.

Speaking in court, Ms. Chalk referenced an investigative report that had tallied “countless other missions” by Mr. Dedmon and others. According to the Justice Department investigation, “mission” was a code word used by deputies referring to a violent arrest.

One side of a challenge coin that some Goon Squad members were given to note their association with the group.

Jeffrey Middleton, a former lieutenant, created a sense of brotherhood among the deputies by designing challenge coins, mementos commonly shared among military and law enforcement officers to create a sense of camaraderie in exclusive units.

The Goon Squad challenge coin features Mr. Middleton’s name above three cartoonish mobsters. During Mr. Middleton’s hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Chalk said the original design featured images of a Confederate flag and a noose.

Local prosecutors are now reviewing criminal cases that involved Goon Squad members and are determining whether to dismiss them. District Attorney Bubba Bramlett of Rankin County declined to share details about the cases under review.

Mr. Parker and Mr. Jenkins said they hoped federal authorities investigate Sheriff Bailey next.

“He’s the head of the snake,” Mr. Parker said. “We got our foot on his tail now.”

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