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Family of Damien Cameron demand transparency nearly two years after death in police custody

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(From left) Betty Cameron, Damien’s grandmother; Chloe Cheyenne, founder of COMMUNITYx; Monica Lee Cameron, Damien’s mother; and Cornelius Cameron, Damien’s brother, speak at a press conference in West Jackson June 22 demanding more transparency into his death.
(Michael McEwen / MPB News)

On July 26, 2021, Damien Cameron was at his family's Rankin County home when Deputy Hunter Elward arrived, responding to a call of vandalism at a neighbor's house. What happened next remains disputed — except for the fact that the 29-year old was pronounced dead at the University of Mississippi Medical Center shortly after with trauma to his face and arms. 

Damien’s family — mother Monica Lee Cameron, younger brother Cornelius and grandmother Betty — gathered activists and community members in West Jackson last week to present a new list of demands regarding his case, with transparency into Damien’s death the priority. 

All three were at the Cameron family home when the arrest occurred. They say they saw both arresting officers kneel on Damien’s back and neck for several minutes while attempting to place him into custody.  

“The family shared a sentiment with me outside that I think is really important for everyone here to know, which is that they feel that Damien asked you to be here today,” said Chloe Cheyenne, founder of advocacy group COMMUNITYx and co-organizer of the event. “Even though it’s been two years since Damien was brutally murdered by the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department, there’s simply no amount of time that can ever pass that would make a mother, or a brother or a grandmother or a cousin stop fighting for justice.”

In the years that have followed, the family says they haven’t received incident reports from either the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office or the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. 

“I feel like they just swept Damien’s case under the rug. I want justice and I want the officers held accountable because he might not have meant anything to them, but that was my child and I think I deserve justice for him,” she said. "That night, I didn’t think the last words my son was going to say to me were ‘mama I love you, I do,’ other than hearing him say he couldn’t breathe.”

A questionable timeline

In October of 2022, a state grand jury declined to indict the officers due to what they described as a lack of evidence

Incident reports filed separately by the arresting officers Hunter Elward and Deputy Luke Strickman in addition to the MBI contradict each other, especially with concern to whether Cameron collapsed while fleeing into his mother’s house. Initial reports filed by both Rankin County officers contain no mention to Cameron collapsing whatsoever. 

According to Elward’s report, he arrived at the Cameron home to look for Damien after a neighbor said he was using a pipe to break holes into their wall and had fled. Shortly after, Elward said he spotted Cameron running through woods behind the family home and warned him he would use his taser if Cameron tried to enter the home, which he did. 

The chase then entered a bedroom, where Cameron tried to remove the taser’s prongs and was tased again by Elward before being wrestled to the floor. Then, according to Elward, Cameron attempted to punch him or his taser, leading Elward to punch him in his left eye three times to “gain compliance,” leading Cameron to roll over on the floor with his hands underneath him. 

According to his mother, who was watching the arrest unfold in her own home, Elward then kneeled on Cameron’s back for 15-20 minutes while waiting for Deputy Luke Strickman to arrive, who then “fell” on Cameron’s neck and remained there while placing him in handcuffs. 

The officers’ report then says they attempted to place Cameron, now handcuffed, into the squad car, but he continued to writhe and kick the door open behind him, leading Elward to tase him a third time on the back of his thigh to shut the door. 

After returning from inside the home and before going to the neighbor’s home to collect evidence, the officers’ report says they found Cameron unresponsive in the back seat and began administering CPR. 

There, according to Monica Lee Cameron, one of the deputies asked her if Damien had any known medical issues, which she denied, to which one of the deputies then yelled “Fuck!” 

She added that as paramedics took over CPR on her son, Elward was sitting on the back bumper of his car crying and repeating ‘why me?’

Hours later, Damien Cameron was pronounced dead at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Damien Cameron’s autopsy report. 
Courtesy of Cameron family. 

Demanding transparency

Now almost two years later, the family is continuing to demand all evidence from that night, including bodycam or footage from the dashboard of either responding officers’ car. But in Mississippi, police officers aren’t required to wear body cameras when in the field, and the family says the last they saw or heard from anyone affiliated with the Rankin County Sheriff’s office was the morning after Damien’s death. 

“We haven’t seen them since the next morning when they made a mess in the yard trying to flee,” said Cornelius Cameron, Damien’s younger brother. “They came back and threw dirt in our yard to try and cover up the mud tracks they left and that was it. None of the officers came to apologize or anything.”

To fill what they described as a void of local or state accountability, Monica Lee Cameron says the family is now formally requesting United States President Joseph R. Biden and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case, and are also demanding both reports from the MBI and Sheriff’s Department be made public. 

“Monica Lee shared with me that when the officers entered her home, they weren’t wearing their body cams because it’s optional. Most places in the country have by now adapted to the reality that you need to have a bodycam on so people can know what’s going on,” said Cheyenne. 

One symptom of a long-term issue

At the end of the press conference the Cameron family announced they have hired attorney Trent Walker to file a lawsuit in the near future. 

Walker is currently representing two other Black men allegedly abused by Rankin County Sheriff’s deputies in a separate case which is now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice as a federal civil rights case. 

It names deputy Hunter Elward among five other officers who stormed the home where two Black men – Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terell Parker – were on the night of Jan. 24 before allegedly handcuffing, beating and torturing them for nearly two hours. According to both Jenkins and Parker, an unnamed deputy placed his gun into both of their mouths as a way of intimidating them, ultimately shooting Jenkins in the process through his tongue and jaw. 

Carvis Johnson, another Black Rankin County resident who was arrested by the Sheriff’s Department in 2019, alleged an unnamed deputy placed his gun into his mouth but ultimately didn’t discharge their weapon. 

Rankin County Sheriff’s Department deputies Hunter Elward and Luke Strickman, the responding officers the night Damien Cameron died, were also named in the fatal 2019 shooting of Pierre Woods, a Black man who Elward said exited his house during a standoff with officers brandishing a weapon. 

Elward and Strickman are among an undetermined number of additional Rankin County Sheriff’s deputies currently under investigation by the DOJ for possible civil rights abuses dating back to 2019. 

“We understand that this is a systemic issue in Rankin County and that the police and county as a whole needs to be investigated, and there needs to be some level of atonement for what’s been happening here for a long time,” said Cheyenne. “At the same time, we want everyone to understand that justice for Damien Cameron specifically needs to happen.”

Police and court records obtained by the Associated Press determined several of those officers belong to the Sheriff’s Office’s Special Response Team, a highly trained and specialized tactical unit whose structure has become increasingly popular in police departments across the United States in recent years. 

Most recently, multiple members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION unit were arrested in connection to the death of Tyre Nichols this January. Both the Rankin County Sheriff's Office and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation did not respond to requests for comment.