by Dave Waddell
Chico police never had the cell phone of a Chico State student who says the phone contained video showing excessive police force, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey told ChicoSol late Friday.
In a telephone voice message left for ChicoSol, Ramsey said he suspects a “transient” had the phone in the days after it left student Madeline Hemphill’s possession as she was arrested last August. Hemphill was filming officer Steve Dyke as he arrested her roommate when she was suddenly ordered to jail by Dyke, “tackled” to the ground by other officers, and accused of resisting arrest.
However, Ramsey never brought any charges against Hemphill and her phone has never been found.
After 10 months and “hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars,” the “investigation into the Hemphill phone is pretty much winding, winding down,” Ramsey said in his Friday phone message to ChicoSol.
“And it appears bottom line: Hemphill didn’t have it, police didn’t have it, and it looks like quite possibly a transient – at least from the pattern of (the phone) moving around town.”
It was not immediately clear why a transient would be suspected, but Ramsey said more details would be provided next week after the investigation is concluded. The district attorney has repeatedly blamed the length of his inquiry on Hemphill’s cell phone carrier, labeling T-Mobile “uncooperative” in providing court-ordered information.
Hemphill could not immediately be reached for comment on Ramsey’s message to ChicoSol. She told ChicoSol recently that she had not heard from the district attorney’s office since late last year, when it stopped answering and returning her calls.
Emily Alma, a community activist who has aided Hemphill, said she’s not persuaded by Ramsey’s “transient” theory.
“I still think Chico PD ‘lost’ the phone because it has incriminating evidence on it revealing officer excessive use of force,” Alma said. “I hope Chico PD is taking responsibility for the lost phone, and paying Madeline for the value of the phone and her inconvenience.”
Hemphill, then 21, had been drinking but not driving the night of her arrest. She said she angered Dyke initially by filming police as they conducted a DUI check. As related in a ChicoSol story that can be read here, Hemphill claimed the following occurred:
- Hemphill’s phone was snatched from her hand as she was “tackled” to the ground by officers after the burly Dyke had radioed for backup while arresting her petite roommate, Nicole Braham, then 19. A misdemeanor resisting arrest charge against Braham is pending in Butte County Superior Court.
- While in handcuffs, Hemphill recalls seeing a number of officers looking at what she assumed was video from her phone, some laughing.
- Hemphill was asked by officers at the scene of her arrest for permission to use the video on the phone as evidence, which she granted.
- Later, at a Chico PD holding facility, Hemphill was asked a second time for permission to access her phone video, which she granted a second time. Braham, who was sober, has said she remembers those same details. O’Brien has acknowledged that Hemphill was asked by officers “at least once to access her phone, but that was with the mistaken thought” that it was in police possession.
- Upon her release from jail, Hemphill’s phone was not among the personal items returned to her. Later, at Chico PD, an officer told her the phone was in evidence and would be returned no sooner than her first court date.
- A short time later, Hemphill’s father called Chico PD and also was told the phone was in evidence.
The incident gained notoriety after a video of Braham’s arrest, shot by a third roommate, went viral.
O’Brien, in a story that can be read here,told ChicoSol that the district attorney’s office was conducting a comprehensive investigation into Hemphill’s complaint of retaliation and excessive force. However, Ramsey told ChicoSol that his inquiry was focused solely on tracking Hemphill’s phone.
On the night of her arrest, Hemphill said she first encountered an “aggressive” Dyke after stopping to film police conducting a DUI check on the Esplanade. A second encounter – after Dyke pulled up behind a car Braham was parking because, he said, it had a burned-out license plate bulb – took place just two blocks away in front of the students’ residence.
O’Brien’s and Hemphill’s versions about how much time passed between the two encounters – which would seem germane in determining whether Dyke’s actions were, as Hemphill claims, retaliatory – differ widely. According to a press statement signed by O’Brien, nearly 30 minutes elapsed, while Hemphill says it was just five minutes or less from the time Dyke left the scene of the DUI check until her and Braham’s arrests.
Hemphill said recently that she has never been asked by any investigator from any agency about the length of time between the two encounters with Dyke.
Ramsey has said it was appropriate for his office to do the investigation because multiple Chico police officers “were in the vicinity of that phone” when Hemphill was taken to the ground Aug. 27.
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.