Seventeen hours after a police officer slammed him to the ground, Michael Scurlock staggered out of his Dickinson city jail cell pleading for help.
Video captured from the jail in February 2022 showed Scurlock could hardly walk, even with the assistance of the jailer. When a judge read Scurlock his rights in the jail hallway, the 65-year-old appeared confused and disoriented. Moments later, he slipped to the floor, clinging to a bench for support.
“Oh my God,” he slurred, over and over. “I’m hurting so bad.”
Rather than getting him medical assistance, however, Dickinson authorities released him and drove him home.
Within 24 hours, Scurlock was admitted to intensive care with a brain bleed. He spent the next two weeks there, and the final nine months of his life in hospitals and nursing homes before he died in December 2022.
Now, nearly two years after the original arrest on a questionable public intoxication charge, allegations of excessive force used against Scurlock, neglect by police officers and a cover-up by law enforcement leadership have stirred outrage in Dickinson. City officials in the Galveston County town are demanding accountability and changes to police operations – though it’s unclear to what extent the city’s police department will heed those calls.
Driving the fury is footage from law enforcement’s encounter with Scurlock, which the Houston Landing has obtained and is publishing for the first time.
The videos leave little doubt that Scurlock sustained a serious injury in his encounter with Officer Michael Kinsley, who was called to the scene after a pick-up truck collided with Scurlock as he rode his bike. Scurlock, who begins the exchange alert and coherent, spends nearly three minutes limp and unresponsive after Kinsley throws him to the ground.
The footage also shows multiple police officers and jail staff encountered Scurlock in distress after the officer’s takedown. Though Scurlock initially declined medical help after coming to, he is seen on video with multiple symptoms of serious head trauma over the following 17 hours, including vomiting, dizziness, and an inability to walk.
“It was rough to watch,” City Councilmember Johnnie Simpson Jr. said of the video footage. “It was rough to hear that man screaming that he can’t see anymore and crying and unable to stand. I didn’t sleep after watching that video.”’
Dickinson officials’ anger has been further stoked by a private investigator’s report on the incident, which they commissioned after a whistleblower came forward. Details of the report were first published in late September by the Galveston County Daily News.
The investigator, retired Austin Police Department detective Jesse Prado, found extensive misconduct stretching into the highest ranks of the department.
Prado determined that a former Dickinson lieutenant leading internal affairs, Frank Price, conducted a “flawed and biased” inquiry into the matter, deliberately working to “cover up the incident.” Meanwhile, Prado concluded Dickinson’s then-police chief, Ronald Morales, was intentionally “untruthful” in his communications with city officials when they inquired about the incident.
Dickinson police officers received virtually no punishment in connection with the case.
“I was shocked,” Dickinson Mayor Sean Skipworth said of the report’s findings. “I was disgusted. Disheartened. I felt betrayed by… the upper administration of the department in particular for covering it up, in addition to being disgusted by what happened to Mr. Scurlock.”
It is unclear whether Scurlock’s head trauma, sustained during a seconds-long tussle initiated by Kinsley, contributed to Scurlock’s death. But Prado, who reviewed the video footage and interviewed 15 people involved in the case, said there is reason to believe Kinsley’s actions that day “could have contributed to his eventual death.”
The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office’s public integrity division is reviewing the report for criminal charges, an agency spokesperson confirmed.
Efforts to reach Kinsley, Price and Morales were unsuccessful in recent days.
Skipworth and other city officials, who say they want reform in the Dickinson Police Department, expressed confidence in the department’s new chief, Michael Berezin, to improve operations. But in an interview with the Landing, Berezin acknowledged he has only “perused” the report without reading it “in depth,” and added Kinsley is doing a “spectacular job” in his new role.
Efforts to reach Scurlock’s siblings were unsuccessful, but family members have expressed anger toward Dickinson police and grief over his death on social media. In a Facebook post last week, Scurlock’s niece, Tisha Jordan Tarver, wrote: “WE DEMAND JUSTICE FOR MY UNCLE MICHAEL!!”
‘What are you doing?’
Scurlock, a wiry man with a long beard and curly white hair, was well-known to the residents of Dickinson, where he lived with his sister. He had a drinking problem, his friends acknowledged, and had been arrested at least once previously for public intoxication, according to Prado’s report. But he had a reputation for kindness.
“He was a really good man,” said Daisy Emmite Synatzske, a longtime friend. “He would help anybody. He would give you the clothes off his back.”
Scurlock’s February 2022 encounter with Kinsley, captured on the officer’s body-worn camera, began after Scurlock was struck by a car while riding his bicycle. The collision was minor, and by the time Kinsley arrived, Scurlock was on his feet and assuring the concerned driver he was fine.
The encounter escalated quickly, however, when Kinsley ordered Scurlock to remain at the scene. Instead, Scurlock took a few steps away to gather his dropped belongings. Within seconds, Kinsley seized Scurlock’s arm and shoved him against the squad car.
“What are you doing?” Scurlock cried.
What happened next was swift and not clearly visible on Kinsley’s body camera. As Scurlock tensed up, Kinsley threw him to the ground. A horrified bystander would later tell Prado that he saw Kinsley flip Scurlock upside down and slam him headfirst into the curb. A nearby officer, meanwhile, told Prado that Scurlock’s body hitting the concrete sounded “like a watermelon exploded.”
For his part, Kinsley told Prado that he wrapped his arms around Scurlock and tripped the 65-year-old with his leg as part of a tactical takedown move.
As Scurlock laid limp and still on the ground, Kinsley called for an ambulance. Although he refused medical attention after coming to, Scurlock was unstable and confused, with blood streaming down his face.
Kinsley, in consultation with a supervisor, arrested Scurlock for public intoxication, though Scurlock had shown no signs of being drunk and was never tested for his blood-alcohol content. Kinsley’s supervisor said he had seen Scurlock acting erratically earlier in the day, and Kinsley said a bottle in the basket of Scurlock’s bike contained liquid that smelled like alcohol.
When Kinsley and Scurlock arrived at the Dickinson City Jail, staffer Floyd Pruitt said Scurlock needed to go to the hospital but admitted him anyway. Scurlock, who began complaining of pain and dizziness even before he arrived at the jail, would spend the night in a cell, where video footage shows him unsteady even in a seated position, collapsing and vomiting.
Scurlock’s condition worsened overnight. The next morning, Pruitt had to help him out of his cell to stand before a judge setting bail. Scurlock stumbled, told Pruitt he couldn’t see and begged for help. Instead, Pruitt said he gave Scurlock an aspirin and released him from the jail.
The next day, Scurlock’s sister discovered him unconscious in her backyard. At the hospital, doctors diagnosed Scurlock with a brain bleed. He would remain in intensive care for two weeks.
Scurlock experienced a variety of medical issues following his arrest, but it is not clear how many of them, if any, were connected to his brain injury. His sister told the private investigator that he never fully recovered, and spent the rest of his life in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. Scurlock died in December 2022 following a stroke.
A blistering report
Price, the Dickinson lieutenant, conducted an internal affairs review of the Scurlock incident shortly after it occurred, even visiting Scurlock in the hospital. He cleared the case without recommending any punishment or finding any wrongdoing.
Nearly seven months later, city officials hired Prado to review several Dickinson Police Department cases, including Scurlock’s.
Prado’s findings, delivered to Skipworth and the Dickinson City Council in April, were devastating for the police department.
Prado concluded Kinsley “showed ill will and malice” during his encounter with Scurlock, escalating the incident unnecessarily. Kinsley also omitted key information about Scurlock’s injury to the EMS technician who responded to the scene and missed multiple opportunities to provide medical care to Scurlock, Prado said. In addition, Kinsley inaccurately described the encounter in an official report, Prado found.
Kinsley previously worked as an officer for the Houston Police Department from 2017 to 2019. During that time, he received a five-day suspension for inappropriate use of force, department records show.
The investigator also blasted the internal affairs investigation conducted by Price. Prado noted that Price only interviewed one Dickinson police officer — Kinsley — and did not document Scurlock’s extensive medical issues in the jail. When visiting Scurlock at the hospital, Price did not tell doctors that Scurlock hit his head on the ground, even though doctors were unsure of what caused the injury, Prado found.
Prado issued scathing criticism, too, of Morales, the former police chief. He determined that Morales “misinformed” top city officials about the Scurlock incident, initially telling them that Scurlock’s injuries were caused by the bike crash.
Dickinson City Councilmember Jenna Simsen told the Houston Landing that Morales’ accounts of the Scurlock encounter did not match what she saw on body camera footage.
“I believe that there was something that was untruthful in what was relayed to us originally,” Simsen said.
Prado, who was not asked by city officials to investigate Pruitt, said the jail staffer “failed to render aid” to Scurlock.
In an interview with Prado, Kinsley said Scurlock was uncooperative during his initial investigation of the bike crash and resisted detainment, prompting the takedown. He defended his response to Scurlock’s initial injuries, telling Prado that “my duty was to render aid and I did by calling an ambulance.”
Morales told Prado that he did not get involved in the Scurlock internal affairs investigation, according to Prado’s report. Morales did not raise any significant issues about the department’s handling of the matter, Prado wrote.
Prado said he did not interview Price because the former lieutenant was on leave and subsequently terminated.
A reformed department?
Five months after Prado delivered his report, Dickinson police and city officials have taken little direct action.
According to Skipworth, the Dickinson mayor, the police department’s collective bargaining agreement bars the agency from retroactively disciplining an officer following a completed internal investigation. However, Skipworth forwarded Prado’s findings to Galveston County prosecutors in April.
Since the Scurlock incident, Kinsley has been promoted to sergeant. Price, who was laid off from the department in February 2023, has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city tied to a matter unrelated to Scurlock. Morales retired in late 2022.
Skipworth said the Scurlock case should prompt reforms in the department, such as reviewing jail procedures and maintaining high staffing standards. He also supported hiring an outside investigator to review past internal affairs inquiries, a recommendation made by Prado, though city officials have not taken that step.
Dickinson City Manager Theo Melancon said he believes Berezin, the new police chief he hired in conjunction with council members, will create a more professional department and earn the community’s trust.
“Our goal would be for him to take in these observations, recommendations from the private investigator, and implement them as needed,” Melancon said.
Berezin said he is “definitely making sure this police department is meeting industry standards,” including at the city jail. However, he has shown limited interest in reviewing any wrongdoing with Scurlock.
“All I can do is try to reset the clock and make sure that they’re a professional organization moving forward,” Berezin said.
Meanwhile, Dickinson city officials say they remain troubled by the police department’s handling of Scurlock.
“I’m just angry,” Skipworth said. “We’re all very, very angry and upset and disappointed that this went on and that people attempted to hide it from us.”