As 15-year-old Damon Grimes lay dying in the middle of Rossini Drive last August, Michigan State Police Trooper Mark Bessner crouched over his body.
“He’s got a pulse, and he’s breathing. He’s unconscious,” Bessner said into his police radio, adding later, “He slowed down. We tased him, and he crashed out.”
Grimes had been driving about 35 mph on an ATV when Bessner — a passenger in a moving patrol car — fired his stun gun at the teen during a chase on Detroit’s east side.
Grimes slammed into the back of a parked truck and flew off his ATV. The impact of the crash ripped gashes into his forehead, both cheeks and upper lip and dislocated his skull. Doctors pronounced him dead on arrival at St. John Hospital.
Bessner, who resigned from his job amid a criminal investigation, has been charged with murder.
To better understand what happened the evening of Aug. 26, the Free Press used the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to request extensive records related to the crash. It received almost 11 hours of footage captured by cameras mounted in patrol cars, on nearby businesses and worn by Detroit Police officers, who also responded to the incident.
The Free Press also obtained almost 16 hours of audio recordings from police radios and phones as well as more than 600 pages of documents and more than 500 photos. Michigan State Police took six months to provide those records, which were heavily redacted. For example, State Police withheld all footage captured from the camera in Bessner’s squad car, and also blurred the video of Grimes.
Still, the video and audio files that were turned over by MSP show elements of the chase and its aftermath from dozens of angles and perspectives with candid, real-time comments provided by police officers seeing the events unfold in front of them.
Seen and heard in the materials are:
- Security camera video showing the final seconds of the chase
- Emergency lights on top of the patrol car start flashing 24 seconds after the crash
- Bessner acknowledging using the stun gun on Grimes as he rode the ATV
- Unfiltered talk from officers including one who says “Don’t run from the State Police, you’ll get fucked up.”
Communities across the nation are equipping officers with body cameras to document police contacts with the public. Detroit Police began wearing them in 2016 but little footage from their cameras has become public — until now.
“Tony, give us priority,” Bessner is heard saying into a police radio. “Chasing an ATV east on Rossini from Reno. It’s a red quad. Black male, black shirt.”
A security camera mounted on the Embassy Coney Island restaurant at the corner of Gratiot and Rossini was pointed at the parking lot, but in the background, it showed a view of Rossini where Grimes’ ATV appears followed closely by a State Police patrol car. Just as the ATV exits the camera frame, it bounces back into the frame after striking a parked Ford F-150 pickup. The security camera footage didn’t include sound, but police cameras did.
“He flipped,” Detroit Police Officer J. Williams said before quickly reporting the accident over his radio.
Williams and his partner, Officer Cameron Boersma, pulled up about 20 seconds after the crash. As they stepped out of their police cruiser, Bessner was bent over Grimes, who lay in the middle of the street beside the pickup, his overturned ATV nearby.
A view from another security camera shows the overhead emergency lights on Bessner’s squad car appear to have been activated 24 seconds after the crash. State Police policy requires troopers to turn on their emergency lights, sirens and in-car video recording systems during a pursuit.
State Police and prosecutors wouldn’t say whether the lights were on during the chase. About the time the lights appear on video, Bessner’s partner, Trooper Ethan Berger, can be seen walking away from the car.
State Police spokesman First Lt. Mike Shaw said there is dashcam video from that patrol car, but he wouldn’t describe what it shows citing the pending criminal case.
Shaw said the cameras typically are activated in one of several ways. They begin recording automatically when a trooper turns on the emergency lights. Troopers also can activate them by pushing a button on the dash or by turning on a microphone worn on the trooper’s belt.
“Have EMS step it up,” a person at the scene urged soon after the first two Detroit police officers arrived. As police waited for the ambulance, Grimes’ condition quickly worsened.
“I don’t know if he’s got a pulse anymore,” a voice is heard over the radio.
As another Detroit patrol car arrived, officers radioed for another update on the ambulance, noting Grimes’ pulse was weakening.
“His pulse is weakening because he was on that fuckin’ thing, and you chased his ass,” Detroit Police officer Kimberly Buckner muttered to herself as she stepped out of her vehicle, her body camera recording every step and word.
As she walked toward Grimes, an unidentified Detroit police officer reached out his hand to cover the lens of Buckner’s body camera quietly saying: “They fuckin’ tased his ass while he was cruisin’.”
The body camera views come only from Detroit Police. State Police don’t have them.
State Police reported over the radio that “he’s fading fast.” The ambulance arrived about seven minutes after the crash — about a minute faster than the city’s average response time for life-threatening calls.
By then, a crowd had gathered in the neighborhood watching as ambulance crews loaded Grimes onto a stretcher. Witnesses recorded the scene on cell phones, some questioning the pace at which first responders were moving.
“He is dead because if he wasn’t they’d be rushing,” a woman said on a witness recording obtained by the Free Press.
Officer Emily Stephenson’s body cam shows her approaching a fellow Detroit Police officer, whose name is not clear from the video. She asks whether police should escort the ambulance to the hospital.
“Hell no,” he responded, noting the ambulance has lights and sirens, and escorts are reserved for police. “If an officer was shot, we’ll do that.”
Shortly after the ambulance pulled away, Buckner approached that same officer and said Grimes’ mother needed to be at the hospital.
“That’s a grown-ass man,” he said of Grimes, a 6-foot-1, 234-pound teenager.
“No, he’s 15,” she replied. “He’s 15 years old.”
“He’s a bad-ass 15,” the male officer said, later adding: “No sympathy at all for bullshit. Motherfucker wanna be grown, ya act grown, you gotta fuckin’ deal with it.”
Detroit Police Chief James Craig said Wednesday that supervisors weren’t aware of the officer’s comments until the Free Press asked about them.
After reviewing the body camera video himself, Craig ordered an internal investigation and pulled the 22-year veteran from his position of neighborhood resource officer. He has been reassigned to a non-patrol duty.
Craig called the remarks insensitive and said he expects better of officers at a critical scene.
“It’s troubling, especially when you talk about a young man who lost his life,” Craig said.
Without defending the comments, Craig said the officer who made them may mistakenly have thought Grimes’ injuries were not life-threatening.
Craig declined to name the officer, citing the investigation. The Free Press identified him from a photograph as Neighborhood Police Officer Aubrey Wade. When reached by telephone Wednesday, the officer declined comment, saying he was speaking to his lawyer at the time.
Other Detroit Police officers at the scene appeared more sensitive, trying to get Grimes’ mother to the hospital to see her son. One appeared to express disgust with the use of a stun gun in that situation.
“They tased his ass while he was driving,” Buckner whispered to Stephenson, “causing him to flip and crash.”
Many details surrounding the chase remain unclear because Michigan State Police heavily redacted the written reports in addition to the videos and audios.
In a typed report Berger filed after the incident, he said that he and Bessner were on Reno near Fairmount when they observed Grimes popping a “wheelie” on his ATV.
“The 4-wheeler ATV continued to approach our fully marked MSP patrol vehicle at a high rate of speed southbound Reno St. as I was driving northbound Reno St.,” Berger wrote.
State Police redacted what Berger said happened after that. Later, Berger’s report said EMS loaded Grimes onto a backboard then a cot. An autopsy concluded Grimes died of blunt force head trauma.
“After EMS arrived on scene and transported the ATV driver, Tpr. Bessner and I followed critical incident protocol and separated ourselves from other troopers and sergeants,” wrote Berger, who was later suspended.
Residents in the neighborhood recorded the aftermath on cell phone video, voicing their emotions.
“They don’t give a damn,” a man said while police investigated after sundown. “They’re gonna still go home to their wife and kids and still get paid.”
People in the area said police can’t be trusted.
“They’re supposed to protect and serve,” a man’s voice is recorded saying.
One witness also reporting seeing a piece of a police Taser, and quickly concluded that it was used on Grimes. Witnesses spotted a pair of earbuds, which a police photo shows lying in a pool of blood.
Police and prosecutors would not say whether Grimes was wearing the earbuds when he crashed.
That evening, as a Detroit firefighter hosed blood from the street, a woman, who identified herself as Grimes’ cousin, said they are cleaning up the blood.
“Unbelievable,” she said in the video. “Fifteen years old — killed by the State Police. Unbelievable.”
Within hours of the crash, Detroit Police brass and Grimes’ family demanded answers about the teen’s death.
“You guys had a pursuit today … and now our bosses want some information,” a Detroit Police sergeant said in a voice mail left for State Police.
Detroit Police policy prohibits high-speed chases for traffic offenses and misdemeanors but State Police allowed them at the time. After the crash, State Police announced a policy review and suspended chases in Detroit involving traffic or misdemeanor violations. That policy was later adopted statewide.
When Grimes’ family sought answers about his death, State Police told them the case was still being investigated, and that reports are available under the Freedom of Information Act, according to documents obtained by the Free Press.
State Police took six months to provide the records the Free Press requested under FOIA.
By then, Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger had filed an excessive force lawsuit on behalf of Grimes’ family. Fieger told the Free Press on Wednesday that he has seen unredacted video that shows the Taser incident.
“It’s horrible,” Fieger said. “It shows him shooting … using him for target practice.”
Fieger declined to show the unredacted video to the Free Press. Last month, a judge issued an order that prohibits the parties from sharing material from MSP with anyone other than those involved in the lawsuit.
“There is no defense to this case,” Fieger said. “The defense is ‘How much do we have to pay?’ ”
Fieger also criticized Detroit Police for not doing more to try to stop the chase that ended Grimes’ life.
“I think they were watching it,” Fieger said, adding that the disparaging comments from the Detroit police officer were insensitive and uncaring.
A federal lawsuit filed by Grimes’ family is proceeding with a trial expected to begin in summer 2019.
In December, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges against Bessner.
“Trooper Bessner unnecessarily deployed his Taser at Mr. Grimes without legal justification or excuse as Mr. Grimes was traveling at least 35 to 40 miles per hour,” Worthy said when she announced the charges Dec. 20.
Worthy declined to charge Berger and Sgt. Jacob Liss, a supervisor. Both those men remain suspended amid an internal investigation, Shaw said.
Bessner, a 44-year-old husband, father and lawyer, remains behind bars with bond set at $1-million cash. His criminal trial is scheduled to start July 9 in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Bessner’s attorney, Richard Convertino, agreed to an interview, but then didn’t respond to requests to schedule it.
Convertino previously called Grimes’ death tragic, noting the teen drove the ATV “recklessly and dangerously” and “actively resisted and evaded arrest.”
“During the pursuit, Trooper Bessner was forced to make a split-second decision under circumstances on the scene and at the moment which was tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving,” Convertino told the Free Press in the email, shortly after the crash.
Bessner has a history of using excessive force and has been reprimanded before for using his Taser inappropriately, including using the device on handcuffed suspects. The investigation into Bessner’s conduct shows that over a four-year span ending in 2017, he had 40 use of force incidents, 17 pursuits and five car accidents.
Shaw said use of force reports cover a broad range of contact between troopers and suspects, including things like wrestling someone to the ground, using pepper spray or a Taser, all the way up to using deadly force. The number of such contacts may vary based on a trooper’s assignment, Shaw said.
“There’s no way to look at that and say this is high, this is low,” he said.
Neighbors were outraged at the death of Grimes, who was about to begin ninth grade at Michigan Collegiate in Warren. School officials described him as a considerate student who excelled in science and math.
Four days after the crash, Berger said he returned to the area looking for the black Ford F-150 Grimes’ barreled into and saw more than 100 people at the corner of Gratiot and Rossini — some on ATVs, golf carts and dirt bikes. News crews also were present.
Berger never got out of his patrol car.
“The large crowd of people were not pleased with our presence and began to taunt us by yelling and screaming at us,” his report said. “The large crowd displayed multiple hand gestures (middle fingers) with explicit language.”
MSP detectives interviewed residents as part of their investigation and can be heard on one audio recording, discussing what a local woman said about the crash.
“She’s like, ‘All these people in here are wanting to talk about protesting the police. He drives this neighborhood recklessly all the time. Why didn’t he just stop?’ ” an investigator recalled her saying.
The woman’s voice was redacted from the audio recording provided to the Free Press.
The detectives go on to say two people made bad decisions.
“It could have been handled differently on both sides as far as I’m concerned,” one of the men said. “Had I been out here chasing him … I guarantee I would have done it differently. Guaranteed, I would have done it differently.”
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Executive Video Producer Brian Kaufman, Staff writer Allie Gross and Senior News Director for Investigations Mark J. Rochester contributed to this report.