Before the beating death of Tyre Nichols in
January, it took an average of 15 months for local officials to release video evidence after an officer or deputy shot and killed someone.
So far, since Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced his office would share videos with the public sooner, the average is five months.
“Tyre Nichols led the way,” Mulroy said in an interview this week with the Institute for Public Service Reporting. “Those extraordinary circumstances made us realize that we could move quicker – and why don’t we? – which led to the new policy.”
It may be a while before the effect of the quicker releases, if any, can be seen on police misconduct or community trust.
Under Tennessee law, district attorneys – who decide if charges can be brought against police – can only release evidence in shooting deaths by police. The law does not specify if district attorneys can release evidence from any other type of death at the hands of law enforcement.
Deborah Fisher, the executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said police chiefs and sheriffs have a lot of discretion on whether to release footage from body or dashboard cameras. She has noticed that law enforcement tends to release videos quickly when the evidence shows an officer was clearly in the right or can be upheld as a hero.
“And the rules in Tennessee are not defined,” she said. Decisions to withhold videos “should be more along the lines of when it would legitimately compromise an investigation.”
A video could compromise an investigation if all of the witnesses had not been interviewed, Mulroy said. If videos are released before then, witnesses acting in good faith may get confused about what they saw during the incident versus what they saw in a video. And witnesses who may have been part of the crime may watch the video before talking to police so they can reduce their likelihood of getting caught in a lie.
But in the two deaths Mulroy’s office has released videos of so far – the June shooting death of Jarveon Hudspeth, 21, who died during a traffic stop by a Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy and the December death of Jaylin McKenzie who was shot and killed by a Memphis police officer – witnesses had already been interviewed before releasing them, he said.
“Once we decide that there’ll be no harm in showing the video… rather than trying to redact the entirety of the video, we’ll focus on just the small excerpt that I think people are most interested in,” Mulroy said.
But the smaller excerpts left the mother of McKenzie with even more questions than she had before the video’s release. McKenzie was shot and killed in December during a car chase that turned into a foot chase by Memphis police officer Nahum Dorme, according to Mulroy’s office.
Police said McKenzie, 20, shot at Dorme first. But because Dorme did not have his body camera on, there’s no video evidence to back up his version of events.
The department later disciplined Dorme for not activating his body camera and for initiating the car chase for a traffic violation, according to records obtained by advocacy group DeCarcerate Memphis. Department policy only allows car chases when an officer suspects a felony has been committed.
“I would say seeing the videos, I was right the whole time,” said Ashley McKenzie Smith, McKenzie’s mother who lives in Atlanta. “Something was not right, that they’re covering some things up.”
Smith and supporters lined up about 20 garbage bags filled with paper to resemble body bags in front of the Memphis Police Department during a rally Sept. 16 to represent Memphians killed by police in recent years. In a video of the rally, Smith said she shouldn’t have to put so much pressure on public officials to get answers.
“I’m not asking for a lot,” she said. “You’re not doing me a favor to tell me what the truth is. Your job is to tell me what happened to my son.”
Mulroy said during a press conference Tuesday that his office’s review of the case revealed “significant concerns about MPD officer conduct in these types of shootings.” In addition to Dorme’s policy violations, a supervisor left Dorme and his partner alone in a patrol car together after the shooting where they potentially could iron out differences in their stories. Department policy requires officers in these situations to be separated, Mulroy said. And there were several inconsistencies between officer statements and the video, he said.
Still, Mulroy said the policy violations did not amount to a crime, so his office will not be charging Dorme or any of the officers involved. A decision regarding the sheriff deputy in Hudspeth’s death is still pending.
Mulroy said his office plans to release the rest of the video evidence after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation releases its findings. That will involve reviewing hours of footage to ensure the faces or contact information of bystanders and witnesses are redacted, Mulroy said. A TBI spokeswoman said earlier this month that the investigation is done, but officials are wrapping up a few administrative tasks before releasing their report to the public.