Bill keeps TBI records about officer-involved shootings confidential unless police agree to release

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referenced language in the original Senate Bill 2023 and House Bill 2091 that required the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to handle investigations into all officer-involved shootings in the state. The amended bill that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week does not appear to mandate TBI investigate all shootings, but when TBI does handle the investigation, it gives the district attorney and law enforcement agency discretion on whether to release public records regarding the investigation.

A bill that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week regarding TBI investigations into officer-involved shootings would keep public records of the investigation closed after the investigation is finished unless local law enforcement and the local district attorney agree to their release.

The change would affect cities that ask the TBI to investigate officer-involved shootings. Traditionally, the four major cities have done their own investigations. Citizens have a right to access investigative records of local law enforcement after the investigation is finished and any related legal proceedings are over. Under this bill, if the TBI does the investigation, the records would be open only if approved by the district attorney and local police.

The bill as passed by a Senate committee says “the district attorney general may disclose the investigative records to the public upon agreement with the chief law enforcement officer of each agency involved in the shooting.”

The change to transparency could be significant if the large cities turn to the TBI for such investigations. More than half of the fatal police-involved shootings in Tennessee last year were in the state’s four largest cities, according to a Washington Post database that tracks such deaths.

The language appears in an Senate amendment to the original bill and also increases the amount of death benefit for officers killed in the line of duty from $25,000 to $100,000.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis

Brian Kelsey

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown

The bill (S.B. 2023 / H.B. 2091) is sponsored by state Sen. Bill Kelsey, R-Germantown, and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis.

However, Hardaway’s version of the bill does not include the same language as Kelsey’s and was amended to only provide for the increased benefit to families of officers killed in the line of duty. It removed original language requiring a TBI investigation and how to handle public release of TBI information.

During discussion of the Hardaway bill during the House subcommittee meeting, Hardaway said that the original bill was “ambitious” and “originally intended to bring transparency and independence to police-related shootings.” But he decided that he would like to proceed with the one area of the bill where there was “no debate.”

Currently, all investigative records of the TBI are exempt from the Tennessee Public Records Act, even after a case is closed. Kelsey bill softens the TBI exemption by allowing discretionary release of records related to officer-involved shootings, but it does not go as far as the law regarding local investigations where records eventually become open without permission from local police.

Increased controversy over officer-involved shootings around the country has put the spotlight on transparency into police investigations when their own officers kill someone. Most times, investigations conclude that the officers were justified in use of force. But video – sometimes captured by surveillance or shot by bystanders – has raised new questions.

In Tennessee last year, 20 people were shot and killed by police, according to the Washington Post database. Seven have been killed by Tennessee law enforcement so far this year.

All but the largest cities in Tennessee already call in the TBI to investigate after lethal force by an officer results in death. For example, TBI investigated when a Sevier County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a fleeing suspect who was said to have brandished a gun. Video footage was apparently captured by either a body camera or dash cam owned by the sheriff’s department, but the TBI and the sheriff’s department have refused to release it. The deputy has been cleared and was put back on duty earlier in March.

The major cities in Tennessee — Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga — have traditionally done their own investigations and some had argued they have the resources to continue to do this without a TBI investigation. The city of Memphis recently started asking the TBI to handle its investigations.

Just two weeks ago, a state House committee decided to delay a bill that dealt with police records — in this case body cam footage that is being increasingly produced as law enforcement agencies start buying systems to outfit officers. An amendment to a bill created mandatory confidentiality on body cam footage, including when it was related to questions of police use of force and misconduct until after an investigation and legal proceedings. The House committee decided to  send the issue for study to the Advisory Committee on Open Government. Members of the committee noted the complexities presented by body cameras, and said they wanted to ensure transparency as well as protect citizen privacy.

The House version of the bill sponsored by Hardaway is scheduled for consideration by the House Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday.

One thought on “Bill keeps TBI records about officer-involved shootings confidential unless police agree to release

  1. John Stern

    Great article. Not having access to a complete set of incident and arrest records can be a major impediment to neighborhood level crime fighting. I just outlined a anti-crime strategy with a losely organized neighborhood. A real important component of that is the use of very specific crime data across time. Over the years we have found neighborhood organizations crossing over political lines.

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