Police Abuse

Memphis Police to Forward all Fatal Shootings to State Investigative Agency

Fatal shooting earlier this month becomes a hot button issue in the upcoming mayoral election.


Memphis PD

The mayor of Memphis announced that the Memphis Police Department would begin to forward all investigations of fatal police shootings to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). Previously, most cases were investigated by the police department itself, except when the country district attorney general decided to send a case to the TBI. That's what happened when a Memphis police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Darrius Stewart during an alleged altercation.

The move to have the TBI investigate all shootings is a confused one. In the aftermath of the Stewart shooting going to the TBI, the officer who killed Stewart has reportedly received death threats. Part of the reasoning in moving all fatal shooting investigations to the TBI is so that an investigation by the TBI isn't a signal that something's not right. Via the Memphis Daily News:

"It's so that it won't look like it's something out of the ordinary," [Mayor A.C.] Wharton said. "(TBI director) Mark Gwyn and (Shelby County District Attorney General) Amy Weirich have been considering it for some time. This was simply a time that we felt it should be expedited so we will have a set protocol on that. I support him in that."

One hitch is that by state law, TBI investigations remain sealed from the public even after they are concluded. However, a court order could get those files unsealed. The mayor promised all the cases sent from the Memphis police would be available to the public. One local state representative, G.A. Hardaway, also says he's working on legislation to reform the way the TBI investigates police shootings, which would, among other things, keep the files from remaining sealed after investigations end.

There's also a mayoral election in October, so the Stewart shooting has become something of an electoral issue. Via the Daily News:

Wharton was criticized for the decision to turn over the Stewart shooting to the TBI at a forum of mayoral candidates Tuesday at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young.

Challenger and Memphis City Council member Harold Collins called for a federal investigation of the shooting by the U.S. Justice Department in the immediate aftermath of the Stewart shooting.

And he again called for such a probe Tuesday at the forum by the Memphis Area Women's Council and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc.

While the Department of Justice has done a lot of good work investigating police departments and cases of police brutality around the country, sending questionable police shootings to the federal government as a matter of standard operating procedure is untenable. The DOJ is not equipped to be the regular backstop for a local government that can't get a grip on its police department, and it would be an inappropriate role for the feds. If Collins believes there is a pattern and practice of police brutality and civil rights violations in Memphis, he should say so and ask the DOJ to investigate that.

Fatal police shootings don't happen in vacuums. Collins and other politicians appear more interested in using the Stewart shooting to shore up their own support than in asking whether the Stewart shooting is indicative of systemic problems with the Memphis police department and what kind of reforms are needed. Political leaders aren't needed so much to draw attention to incidents of police brutality—activists around the country have been doing that—as they're needed to push for reform in the system. Unfortunately, the former requires little expenditure of political capital and can be a rhetorical winner, while the latter requires a modicum of courage and willingness to challenge special interests, like the police unions, that have engrained themselves deeply in the local political system.