Two bills on transparency of police shooting investigations advance in Legislature

A Shelby County state senator and Memphis state representative have both gained passage in legislative committees of different amendments to bills that would govern access to TBI files in police shooting investigations.

Both amendments carve out a pathway for the public to see elements of the investigation that led to a decision to clear law enforcement officers or charge them. Most police shootings where someone is killed in Tennessee do not result in charges against the officer.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey

State Sen. Brian Kelsey

An amendment to S.B 2023 by State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, says: “After completion of an investigation by the Tennessee bureau of investigation into an officer-involved shooting and after the bureau has provided investigative records regarding the shooting to the district attorney general, notwithstanding (T.C.A.) 10-7-504 to the contrary, the district attorney general may disclose the investigative records to the public.”

An amendment to the same bill in the House, H.B. 2091, by state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, says: “After completion of an investigation into an officer-involved shooting death and after the completion of the prosecutorial function by the district attorney general, notwithstanding (T.C.A.) 10-7-504 to the contrary, the investigative records shall become a public record pursuant to Title 10, Chapter 7.”

Both would override an exemption in the Tennessee Public Records Act that makes all TBI files confidential, even after the case is finished. Neither of the amendments regarding police shooting investigations would apply to past cases, but only affect new cases if the law is passed.

Kelsey’s bill first passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with a different amendment. The amendment that passed the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee today removed previous language that would have required the law enforcement agency employing the officer being investigated to sign off on release of the TBI file.

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

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

The key difference between the two amended bills is that Hardaway’s bill requires eventual mandatory public access to the TBI investigative file in cases of police shootings — it does not rely on the district attorney to decide whether to proactively release the files. But it also contains language that appeared to trip up committee members who passed it. Members of the state House Criminal Justice Committee questioned the meaning of “completion of prosecutorial function.” Chairman William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, noted that “prosecutorial function” was not defined in statute. Eventually, a district attorney from Cleveland told the committee that it involved prosecutor functions such as any investigation by the prosecution, deciding whether or not to prosecute, as well as handling the trial and any post trial work and appeals.

One other difference in the amendments: Hardaway’s amended bill has unrelated language that would increase the death benefit paid to families of slain officers from $25,000 to $100,000. Kelsey’s new amendment removed the death benefit increase, meaning it no longer had a fiscal note requiring increased state funds.

In presenting the bill today, Kelsey told the committee of a situation in Shelby County in which the TBI investigated an officer-involved shooting death. In that case (involving the death of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart), the district attorney petitioned a local judge to order the release the TBI file after the D.A. decided the evidence did not warrant charges against the officer. The judge ordered the release. Kelsey’s proposed law would allow the district attorney to release the file without getting a judge’s order, he said.

 

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