TBI, Sevier County sheriff keeps video of police shooting secret, though deputy back on duty

Just one week after a House State Government committee asked for a full study on body camera footage, a reporter in Sevierville continues to struggle to access police camera footage from a Jan. 13 fatal police shooting there.

The reporter, Jeff Farrell of The Mountain Press, did what any good reporter would do after a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a fleeing suspect. Knowing that the Sheriff’s Department had equipped deputies with body cameras, Farrell requested any dash cam or body cam footage of the incident.

The Sheriff’s Department, however, said it would not or could not release footage, saying it had turned over investigation into the incident to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. TBI also would not release the police shooting video, citing its exemption from the Tennessee Public Records Act that allows all TBI investigatory files to remain confidential during and after the investigation.

Brandon Bearden was shot and killed by police on Jan. 13, but law enforcement won't release the video.

Brandon Bearden was shot and killed by police on Jan. 13, but law enforcement won’t release the video.

TBI had said that preliminary information indicated that the suspect Brandon Bearden, who was wanted on charges including assault of an officer, brandished a gun as he fled on foot after a car chase.

Sevier County Sheriff Ron Seals put the deputy back on duty the week of March 18, saying “He was cleared as far as I was concerned, and they just kept on and kept on and wouldn’t do nothing.” The following week, TBI gave its investigative results to the district attorney, Ferrell reported in his most recent story (Sheriff: Deputy involved in shooting back on patrol).

As of yet, the district attorney has not announced plans to prosecute or not. Most fatal police shootings in Tennessee — if not all in recent years — have been ruled as a justifiable use of force by law enforcement and have not been prosecuted by the local district attorney. Seven people have been killed by Tennessee law enforcement so far in 2016, according to a Washington Post database that tracks them. In 2015, the number was 20.

7:45 p.m. 4-4-16 UPDATE from The Mountain Press, Deputy justified in fatal shooting: “A TBI investigation confirmed that a local man had drawn a gun and pointed it at Sevier County Sheriff’s Deputy Levi Morton before Morton shot him as he fled arrest earlier this year, District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said Monday.”

But as police and sheriff’s departments across the state equip their officers with body cameras to provide more accountability, the public’s access to that video is in question, even when the investigation is over.

The access to body camera footage when there is a question about use of force — particularly lethal force — was one key reason that Tennessee Coalition for Open Government opposed a bill that blocked access to such footage for an undetermined amount of time.

In this case, it’s unclear if anyone will get to see any footage that might be related to the Bearden case. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told the reporter they would only release it under a subpoena or court order.

What do you think?