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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Watchdog

Lawsuit: Prosecutors Should Keep Records In Police Misconduct Cases 

Journalist’s appeal would require the Shelby County DA to maintain records when deciding whether to file criminal charges

The Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar Avenue. (Karen Pulfer Focht for the Institute for Public Service Reporting)

A local journalist is seeking a court order requiring the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office to maintain records of all prosecutorial reviews of police misconduct.

The request is part of an appeal filed Monday in answer to a Chancery Court judge’s decision to deny access to jail security video footage that shows a Memphis police officer beating a man who was restrained in handcuffs.

Journalist Marc Perrusquia had attempted to obtain the footage from the District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute the officer. But a representative of the DA’s office said prosecutors had returned the video along with the full investigative file to the Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail. The Sheriff’s Office declined to release the video.

Perrusquia, a long-time Memphis investigative reporter, said prosecutors should be required to keep records of all such decisions so the public can understand how officials handle accusations of police brutality.

“Without a paper trail, there is no way for the press or public to monitor these decisions,” Perrusquia said. 

If successful, the appeal filed with the Tennessee Court of Appeals would require the DA to maintain complete records in any case, including police misconduct cases, referred to prosecutors to determine whether or not to file criminal charges.

The appeal filed by an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Perrusquia’s behalf comes as the Memphis Police Department is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The district attorney’s office is often the first line of accountability for police misconduct cases, and Tennessee law allows the DA wide discretion on whether or not to prosecute an officer.

The appeal argues that “with such power, public oversight is of even greater importance.”

Brandon Jenkins

The case in question began in 2020, when Perrusquia obtained MPD records from 2018 describing how 11-year police veteran Brandon Jenkins punched and kicked arrestee Nechoe Lucas as he was handcuffed to a chair. Jenkins reacted after Lucas began insulting and spitting at officers attempting to process his arrest inside the county jail booking room.

The Sheriff’s Office denied Perrusquia’s request to release its video of the incident, saying Tennessee law gives the government discretion to release surveillance video that could pose a security risk.

The appeal argues that agencies like the Sheriff’s Office must release surveillance footage when it includes “possible criminal activity.” The sheriff’s office shared the footage and other materials with then-District Attorney Amy Weirich so that her office could review allegations of excessive force against Jenkins.

When Perrusquia requested the security video from Weirich, her office claimed Tennessee law did not require prosecutors to keep a copy.

Erica Williams, a spokesperson for current district attorney Steve Mulroy, said his office agrees that prosecutors should not be required to keep a copy of incoming records.

“However, we do favor maximum transparency in these officer-involved injury cases,” Williams said in an email Thursday. “We hope that some edited or redacted portion of the video could be shared to shed light on the incident without threatening jail security.”

The appeal argues that just because the DA didn’t create the record, that doesn’t mean the law says prosecutors have no responsibility in stewarding it.

Tennessee law defines a public record as any record “made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental entity,” the appeal says.

Paul McAdoo, an attorney with the Reporters Committee, said that Tennessee public records laws should be enforced to the furthest extent possible.

“That provides an additional layer of oversight of government, which is at the heart of the public records act,” McAdoo said.

Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, but he is appealing the case as a citizen journalist, not as a university employee.

The lawsuit is one of several Perrusquia is pursuing to increase public access to government records.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and the Shelby County District Attorney’s office have 30 days to file a response to the appeal, McAdoo said.   

Laura Kebede-Twumasi is coordinator of The Institute’s Civil Wrongs project exploring racial injustice in Memphis and the Mid-South. She is a corps member of Report for America and covered education in Memphis for several years for Chalkbeat Tennessee.

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