Above: Surveillance camera footage from May 5, 2013, shows Jasper Police officers Ryan Cunningham and Ricky Grissom's brutal treatment of a woman inside the city jail.
Two former Jasper police officers won’t face criminal charges for assaulting a woman in their custody last year, the last chapter in an incident that became a flashpoint for racial tension in the East Texas town.
The Beaumont Enterprise reported in November that a grand jury had cleared officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham, who are white, for a violent encounter with a black woman named Keyarika Diggles inside the Jasper City Jail. Overhead cameras caught the officers grabbing Diggles by the hair, slamming her face onto a counter and pinning her to the floor, before dragging Diggles, by the feet, into a holding cell. According to her lawyers, Diggles spent hours in the dark “detox” cell before being strip-searched by police dispatcher Lindsey Davenport.
Along with the damning video footage, the case was troubling because Cunningham and Grissom had arrested Diggles at home that morning for nothing more than an unpaid traffic ticket. And the ticket wasn’t quite unpaid—the single mother of two had been paying down her debt in monthly installments. Even after those payments, she still owed $100 at the time Grissom and Cunningham knocked on her door—but it’s still not clear why they’d chosen to arrest her that day.
It was already a touchy time for Jasper’s police. The city’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson, had been removed in 2012 by a City Council stacked with new members who ran, in part, on a pledge to replace Pearson with a chief they deemed more qualified; all the serious candidates they considered were white. It wasn’t until October 2013 that the council hired the current chief, Bob MacDonald, who spoke freely about the need to reach out to the city’s black community and build trust. One of his first initiatives was to buy body cameras for the city’s police force.
Diggles settled a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers last December for $75,000. And less than a month after the incident, Jasper’s city council voted to fire Cunningham and Grissom. That alone was a stronger response than many allegations of police brutality get, and Jasper Mayor Mike Lout said the council would work with the district attorney to consider criminal charges against the officers. Lout and other city leaders stressed that the Diggles case wasn’t a sign of some deeper racial divide in the city, but an isolated incident with the perpetrators swiftly punished.
“The law is the law for everyone, and just because you have a badge on doesn’t mean you have the right to break the law, or do something wrong,” Lout said at the time.
These days, in the week since the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury cleared Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, that hasn’t exactly been the prevailing sentiment. We’ve been reminded of how easily prosecutors can secure indictments when they want, and how rarely police officers are indicted for shootings and other allegations of misconduct. Emily DePrang’s Observer series on impunity in the Houston Police Department detailed those same problems last year.
The Jasper grand jury’s decision, coming so long after Diggles’ beating, but a few days before Darren Wilson was no-billed in Ferguson, is at least another marker of just how wrong it is to suggest that “the law is the law for everyone.”
In September 2014, after losing his city police job, Cunningham hired on with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, according to records obtained by the Observer from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Grissom apparently isn’t working in Texas law enforcement at the moment, but he easily could someday, like so many officers with spotty records who shuffle quietly from town to town.
And Diggles, whose beating remains unpunished, wound up back in the Jasper jail last May—for trying to shoplift $31 of baby formula from Walmart.