Government secrecy is a corrosive force that almost universally erodes public trust.
That’s the best takeaway in studying the unsettling arrest of Nechoe Lucas, who gave Memphis police officers a truckload of trouble one warm May night in 2018.
A menacing man with a violent past who in turn was murdered months after the incident, he was by his own admission “high as hell’’ when he spewed a stream of insults at a patrolman who had detained him following a domestic dispute.
The tense situation escalated inside the Shelby County Jail.
There, behind the thick metal doors of the sally port’s booking room, Lucas resisted as officer Brandon Jenkins attempted to fingerprint and process him.
The arrestee began spitting at officers. Jenkins responded with force.
That’s when the story arc of this unfortunate incident morphed from routine concerns over the proper handling of an unruly prisoner to a cautionary tale of police abuse complicated by authorities’ refusal to release all the records in the case.
As police body cameras rolled, Lucas sat restrained in a metal chair – each wrist handcuffed to an armrest – as Jenkins appeared to kick him in the head at least twice and punch him multiple times.
“You were observed by several witnesses striking a prisoner who was clearly handcuffed,’’ Memphis Police Department supervisors wrote in disciplinary papers that led to a 17-day suspension against Jenkins. “Your actions show you displaying an unprofessional, negative and degrading persona.’’
Jenkins, 36, an 11-year veteran, remains on the force.
The District Attorney declined to file criminal charges.
Though MPD released body camera footage of the incident, questions remain because the Sheriff’s Office has refused to release a critical piece of evidence – the jail’s security camera footage.
That’s a key reason why I filed a public records lawsuit this week asking Chancery Court Judge JoeDae L. Jenkins to release the missing footage – one in a series of suits I’ve filed in recent months in the face of growing government secrecy.
But there’s much more as stake here than just a video.
If successful, my suit could enhance the public’s ability to review decisions to not charge officers, exposing injustices when they exist but also allowing fuller examination of the complications these cases often present.
Evidence in this case shows the Sheriff ’s Office launched a criminal investigation into Jenkins’s actions and then forwarded a copy of the video to District Attorney Amy Weirich when referring the matter to her for possible prosecution.
Yet while the sheriff won’t release the video, the DA’s office says it didn’t keep its copy – prosecutors returned the entire investigative file to the sheriff.
The DA’s own policy requires it to keep investigative files for at least five years. Yet as Weirich’s public records coordinator told me, “the brief temporary review’’ by prosecutors of a law enforcement agency’s records when making charging decisions “does not typically warrant such retention.”
If that’s true then there are gaping holes in the official record explaining when and why prosecutors decline to charge officers suspected of misconduct.
That’s not conducive to justice or public trust, and it needs to be fixed.
My suit names Weirich and Sheriff Floyd Bonner as defendants and asks Judge Jenkins to order Bonner to return a copy of the Jenkins file to the DA. It also seeks an injunction requiring the DA to retain all future records received when deciding whether to prosecute possible crimes.
“The DA’s decision to charge—or not charge—a criminal suspect affects all members of the public. This is particularly true when the criminal suspect is a law enforcement officer,’’ my attorney, Paul McAdoo, said in a pleading accompanying the suit.
The Tennessee staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, McAdoo argues that the DA is required by state law to retain such records and make them available for public inspection.
The suit is the latest of three brought on my behalf by the Reporters Committee, a Washington-based nonprofit that helps journalists access records officials refuse to release.
One suit filed last year led to the release of Memphis police body camera footage that showed an officer repeatedly abusing citizens with a Taser. Another filed in April seeks records demonstrating how MPD attempts to retrain troubled officers before their behavior erupts into brutality or other misconduct.
For the record, I file these lawsuits as a journalist and a citizen of Tennessee; the University of Memphis, where I work, is not party to them. It’s part of a long tradition in this country of newsgathering: Journalists using the courts to access information that the government refuses to release.
You can read a copy of the latest suit here.
Many people who watch the available video in this case may find it hard to sympathize with Lucas. He appears threatening and contemptuous, spitting at officers even as he’s shackled to a chair. Tragically, he was later shot and killed by a rival just weeks after he himself had been charged with a firearm-related assault.
Still, absent the missing video, the reasoning for not charging Jenkins seems unsatisfactory.
Weirich wrote in a declination letter that because Lucas had already pleaded guilty to assaulting Jenkins (an arrest affidavit says the assault involved Lucas grabbing the officer’s shirt and spitting on him) it would be “difficult, if not impossible, for our office to refute a claim of self-defense by Officer Jenkins’’ — even though both of Lucas’ wrists were shackled when Jenkins repeatedly struck him.
As McAdoo says, decisions in such cases affect all of us. Secrecy benefits no one. It’s a cancer that poisons confidence in the system and the very health of our democracy. And Memphis journalists here generally agree it’s getting worse, particularly among law enforcement.
I’ve personally waited months – even more than a year – for records that once took just days to obtain. Repeatedly, requests are denied.
So, the Reporters Committee and I are taking a stand for transparency. We’ll let the courts decide just how much information the public is entitled to know.
In the process, we may just restore some public trust.