Bill to bring transparency to TBI investigations of police shootings advances

A bill that would make public the investigative record of TBI investigations of police shootings after the case is over advanced in a House subcommittee today.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted to move the bill to the full committee. State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, is sponsoring the bill, H.B. 277, in the House, and state Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, is the sponsor in the Senate. (S.B. 1039)

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

Currently, some district attorneys in the state say they cannot release the investigative record in a police shooting case, even after the case is over, because of an exemption to the Tennessee Public Records Act that allows all TBI records to remain closed forever. This is different from local police and sheriff’s records, which are public once a case is finished. The loophole has caused a lack of transparency in what some consider cases of the most public interest.

For example, a public records request to see body cam footage of a police-involved shooting in Sevier County was denied in 2016, citing the TBI exemption, even though the district attorney had decided not to pursue charges against the sheriff’s deputy involved.

A similar bill sponsored by Hardaway was approved by the House Criminal Justice Committee last year, but because the Senate version carried by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, differed from Hardaway’s bill, in the final days of the session no legislation was passed

Hardaway amended his bill Tuesday to add language that “the district attorney general may disclose all or part of the investigative record to the public prior to the record becoming a public record as provided in this section,” essentially making clear that the the district attorney has discretion if he or she wanted to release some information before the case is concluded.

The bill says: “After completion of an investigation into an officer-involved shooting death by the Tennessee bureau of investigation and after the completion of the prosecutorial function by the district attorney general, notwithstanding 10-7-504 to the contrary, the investigative record of the incident shall become a public record pursuant to title 10, chapter 7.”

It defined officer-involved shooting death as a “death that results from a shooting by a law enforcement officer that occurs while the officer is on-duty or is off-duty while performing activities that are within the scope of the law enforcement officer’s duties.”

“Prosecutorial function” was not defined in the bill. But the same phrase was used in the Hardaway bill that passed out of the same committee last year. At the time, a district attorney from Cleveland testifying before the committee said prosecutorial function included any investigation by the prosecution, deciding whether or not to prosecute, as well as handling the trial and any post trial work and appeals.



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