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A 2024 Goldsmith Prize-finalist investigation by Mississippi Today and The New York Times revealed decades of abuse and torture allegations at sheriff’s offices in Mississippi. Image: Courtesy of Jerry Mitchell / The Journalist's Resource



Goldsmith Prize Finalist: How One Collaboration Revealed Alleged Sex Abuse, Torture by Sheriff’s Deputies

It was no surprise to Jerry Mitchell to learn high-ranking law enforcement officials had been accused of behaving badly in parts of Mississippi where journalists had not kept a watchful eye.

But the details he and his colleagues at Mississippi Today and The New York Times uncovered during a year-long investigation shocked even this veteran journalist, who has been exposing corruption in the state’s criminal justice system for more than 30 years.

The project uncovered decades of allegations of sex abuse, torture, bribery, retaliation, and other abuses of power at sheriff’s offices across the state. When Mitchell and a fellow journalist at Mississippi Today, Ilyssa Daly, started looking into claims made about one sheriff in 2022, residents came forward with what seemed like unbelievable stories about other sheriffs as well as detectives and patrol deputies in different parts of the state.

After Daly was selected in early 2023 for The New York Times’ inaugural class of its Local Investigations Fellowship, a partnership with local newsrooms designed to cultivate and fund promising, early-career journalists, Mississippi Today brought two more reporters onto the project. It hired Brian Howey and Nate Rosenfield to investigate whether deputies in Rankin County, just outside the state capital of Jackson, had been torturing people.

Also last year, the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which Mitchell founded in 2018, moved to the Mississippi Today newsroom. And Big Local News, part of Stanford University’s Computational Journalism Lab, pitched in to help with data reporting. The combined efforts of these journalists and journalism organizations produced the seven-story series, “Unfettered Power: Mississippi Sheriffs.” It revealed that:

  • A sheriff in Noxubee County, located on the Mississippi-Alabama border, allegedly demanded that a woman being held in the county jail send him sexually explicit photos and videos and ignored her complaint that she had been coerced into having sex with two deputies.
  • Multiple women accused a sheriff in Clay County, in northeastern Mississippi, of sexually harassing or coercing them. For example, an incarcerated woman accused the sheriff of arranging for her and another prisoner to be brought to his house, where they had to change into boxer shorts and pose for photos. A Clay County Sheriff’s Office employee told journalists she picked up two female prisoners from the sheriff’s house and returned them to the jail.
  • A sheriff in Rankin County, in the middle of the state, allegedly lied to get grand jury subpoenas to spy on his married girlfriend.
  • Rankin County narcotics detectives and patrol officers, some of whom referred to themselves as the “Goon Squad,” allegedly used Tasers and waterboarding to torture people into confessing to drug crimes or providing information. Of the drug raids the journalists examined, the biggest involved a $420 sale of heroin. The series identified 20 of the deputies present during those incidents.

“All of this reporting has just been beyond the pale,” Mitchell says. “A lot of this has been totally shocking to me.”

The front page of Mississippi Today’s reporting series. Image: Screenshot, Mississippi Today

A Lack of Oversight in Mississippi

The series also documents how the three sheriffs operated largely without oversight and avoided being investigated for a range of serious allegations.

For example, a district attorney compiled a report of evidence collected against Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey in 2016 but stopped investigating, in part because he was friends with Bailey. Although he shared details with two local judges and forwarded the investigation to the state’s attorney general, the case ended there, Daly and Mitchell reported in September.

When a former deputy called Bailey to warn him about the Goon Squad, Bailey called him “a dirty cop and accused him of secretly recording the call,” Howey and Rosenfield wrote in a November article.

The Impact

The series jarred public leaders. Earlier this year, state legislators introduced a bill that would allow the Mississippi Board on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training to investigate law enforcement misconduct. The measure passed the Mississippi House unanimously last week and was sent to the Senate.

The series also spurred federal action. Several weeks after journalists asked about the US Attorney office’s languishing investigation of former Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree, he was indicted on bribery charges. After the story about him ran in April, he was indicted on additional charges.

Immediately after the two news outlets published the piece on Rankin County’s Goon Squad, attorneys for the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division flew to the state capital to meet with the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Days later, the US Attorney’s office put out a press release urging victims to come forward.

Federal officials put up billboards, too, urging residents to report police brutality to the FBI.

Meanwhile, on March 19, two members of Rankin’s Goon Squad were sentenced to prison for torturing two Black men last year using Tasers, a sex toy, and other objects. One of the victims was shot in the mouth. On March 20, two other former deputies were sentenced for their part in the torture, one of whom received a 40-year federal prison sentence.

We asked the reporting team for advice to help other journalists take on similar projects. Below, we highlight four of the tips they shared.

1. If You Report on Law Enforcement Agencies, Get Their Taser Log Data

Data collected from deputies’ Tasers played a key role in Howey and Rosenfield’s reporting on Rankin County deputies’ use of force. It allowed them to confirm victim statements and demonstrate when, where, how, and how long deputies fired their Tasers while on the job.

Rosenfield recommends asking industry experts and academic researchers for help understanding Taser log data. Image: Shutterstock

“One running theme we kept hearing again and again is people being tased and Tasers being used as torture weapons,” Rosenfield says.

Many Tasers keep detailed digital records of their use. The Rankin County Sheriff’s Office gathers that data to compile department-wide logs. Mississippi Today and The New York Times examined 24 years of the agency’s Taser data.

The journalists determined, for example, that three deputies triggered their Tasers a combined 14 times during a 2018 home raid over an $80 sale of methamphetamine. The four men at the home that night said deputies beat them and used Tasers and a blowtorch while interrogating them.

Howey and Rosenfield reported the Taser logs also showed that “[a]t least 32 times over the past decade, Rankin deputies fired their Tasers more than five times in under an hour, activating them for at least 30 seconds in total — double the recommended limit. Experts in Taser use who reviewed the logs called these incidents highly suspicious.”

Rosenfield recommends asking industry experts and academic researchers for help understanding Taser log data and identifying potentially problematic patterns.

“We talked to lots of use of force experts to find out what we could actually glean from the logs and how to read them correctly to contextualize them,” he adds.

2. Be Kind and Transparent. Sources May Be More Willing to Help If You’ve Treated Them Well

Daly, the lead reporter on the project, spent hours driving across the state with Mitchell, interviewing sources, tracking down court files and transcripts, and digging through stacks of paper records in various government offices and facilities.

When she’s out reporting, she says she tries to treat everyone she encounters with kindness. She also aims for transparency, so sources know what she plans to do with the information they share with her.

She calls this approach “walking in the sunshine.”

“Always walk in the sunshine with whatever you’re doing and be friendly and polite and make source connections with everyone around you — because you don’t know who’s going to help you with the thing you need most,” she says.

It paid big dividends for her last year, when an assistant records clerk she saw often at a local courthouse went out of her way to find a case file. Details from the case, filed in 2012 by a former prisoner accusing Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott of sex abuse, were crucial to the story about Scott.

Initially, no one could locate the file, which Daly later learned probably had been missing for years.

“The woman comes back and can’t find it and she’s freaking out and she’s saying, ‘This has never happened before,’” Daly says.

Daly helped search the office’s paper files but also came up empty-handed.

A couple weeks later, she and Mitchell returned to the courthouse with a different strategy for gathering bits of information from court filings, to try to figure out what information the missing file contained. When the head clerk spotted the two journalists, she told them the assistant clerk found the file they wanted.

The assistant clerk had spent days looking for the file and found it misplaced in another part of the clerk’s office. What it contained: The only public record of a local woman’s allegations that Scott, when he was the county’s chief deputy, had coerced her into a sexual relationship after her arrest. He had promised to use his influence to help her, she writes in the court filing. She says they had sex in his patrol car, parked on a hog farm, on at least five occasions.

The file also contained hand-written, suggestive letters that Scott sent to her in prison in 2011, months before he became sheriff. Mississippi Today and The New York Times published one of those letters.

“You never know which source might go that extra mile,” Daly says.

3. Understand That the Way You Present Yourself through Your Words, Actions, and Appearance Can Create or Break Down Barriers Between You and Members of the Public

For Howey, one of toughest parts of the series was getting people to open up, especially those living in communities that have been regularly targeted by law enforcement.

He discovered that being himself, which meant not hiding his tattoos and piercings, helped him connect with residents in the rural and lower-income communities he visited. Sometimes, he wore a T-shirt to interviews — for his own comfort and so people he approached might be less apprehensive or suspicious of him.

“Usually, the people with the big vocabularies and nice wardrobes are the people who put them in the positions they’re in,” Howey says.

He notes that most people can “sniff out insincerity.”

“I just approach people as myself instead of a stuffy, professional reporter,” he says. “It’s about finding that line that allows you to stay professional and allows you to be personable enough for people to see you’re a real human being.”

If someone starts confiding in you, they might tell others you’re trustworthy.

“I’ve had situations where I’m talking to people and they’ll make a phone call [to a potential source] and say, ‘He’s actually cool,’” Howey says. “That has gotten me interviews.”

4. Use Digital Tools Such as Pinpoint and Descript to Make Your Job Easier

Two of the investigative team’s favorite digital tools are Descript and Google’s Pinpoint.

Descript is a video editing app. You can use it to record, edit, and transcribe videos as well as collaborate on videos and podcasts. Rosenfield and Howey use it for transcribing audio files.

There is a free version, but they recommend investing in the paid version, which starts at $12 a month. The free version comes with one hour of transcription per month while the entry-level paid plan provides 10 hours a month.

Pinpoint is a free research tool that lets you examine and search large collections of documents quickly. You can also use it to transcribe audio and video files and sort documents according to key words and phrases, including locations and people’s names.

“It’s a great resource when you’re grappling with reams of court and police records and it’s a mixture of digital and paper,” Howey explains. “This tool allows you to compile everything into one folder and makes it all text searchable so it’s easy to extract information. It’s extremely useful. We used it constantly to look for patterns in police reports, to pull certain records out without spending 20 minutes looking for them in folders.”

Read the Stories:

joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2015 after working as a reporter for newspapers and radio stations in the US and Central America, including the Orlando Sentinel and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work also has appeared in publications such as USA TODAY, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post. 

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