With the Shelby County Board of Commissioners positioned Monday for a vote on legislation that would mandate Tennessee Bureau of Investigation inquiries into all police shootings, word came that the Memphis Police Association had advised its members not to cooperate with the TBI out of concern about officers’ rights.
That development surprised some commissioners and frustrated Commissioner Tami Sawyer – the sponsor of the proposed legislation, along with Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr., who also has it up before the Memphis City Council. Ford temporarily serves on both the commission and the council after his recent election to the County Commission.
“When you’re talking about officers talking to a criminal investigative unit, they need advice from their attorneys before they talk to these people,” Memphis Police Association President Michael Williams told The New Tri-State Defender on Tuesday. “We’re not opposed to TBI coming in and doing an investigation. That’s not it. But we at the police association have to protect the legal rights of officers.”
In a social media post after Monday’s session, Sawyer wrote, “We are at a critical juncture in our community where the people are requesting transparency by our police agencies. …This laughs in the face of that request and undermines the opportunity for police to rebuild trust and simply do the right thing.”
Meanwhile, at Monday’s meeting questions surfaced about wording in some sections of the proposed measure. The unreadiness for the final vote led to the proposed legislation being routed back to committee for adjustments and put Sawyer on “highly concerned” alert to make sure it is not “gutted.”
“I’m fine with it going back to committee as long as the purpose is for us to get the language clear,” Sawyer told The New Tri-State Defender Tuesday. “I’m going to fight for us to do a cleanup and not a gutting of the resolution. I still stand by the heart of the measure. …There needs to be more transparency. TBI needs to have more teeth in their investigations.”
The proposal came in the aftermath of the recent police shooting of 25-year-old Martavious Banks following a South Memphis Traffic stop that degenerated into a chase and the critical wounding of Banks, who remains in the hospital.
The next step on the proposed resolution is a committee meeting set for Oct. 24 at 8:30 a.m.
At present, the police department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office call in the TBI to investigate all officer-involved shootings that result in a death. The measure that is working its way through the council and commission would require that the TBI be asked to investigate all shootings involving the police department and the sheriff’s office that result in serious injury or death.
A spokesman for the TBI told the commission that if police officers decide not to make direct statements to its agents, investigation of shootings would become more difficult.
Several of the police officers involved in the Banks-shooting case did not have their body cameras or dash cams on at the time and have been suspended pending the outcomes of a TBI investigation and an MPD internal inquiry. The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office asked for the TBI investigation.
Williams said the Memphis Police Association’s board decided to advise officers not to speak with the TBI upon the advice of attorneys. He said officers are encouraged to provide Garrity statements that can be released to the TBI but can’t be used against the officer for the purpose of prosecution.
The 1967 Supreme Court case Garrity vs. State of New Jersey held that a government entity can require a public employee, such as a police officer, to give a statement but that statement cannot then be used in criminal proceedings. That is meant to protect the employee’s fifth amendment right against being forced into self-incrimination.
“Just as murderers have rights, individuals that definitely commit crimes and regular citizens have rights the Constitution affords rights to everybody,” Williams said. “Just because you are a police officer does not mean you give up your Constitutional rights.”
Williams said there are numerous “gray areas” in the proposed legislation; areas he fears could leave police officers vulnerable to prosecution.
Union officials, he said, are willing to engage in discussions to come up with a policy that provides the transparency the public wants and that protects the rights of officers.
Police Director Michael Rallings favors such discussions.
“We voluntarily entered the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with TBI in 2015, so I am open to the idea of TBI handling all officer-involved shootings,” Rawlings said in a written statement.
“However, more conversations will need to take place. All agencies need to come to the table to see if TBI can handle additional cases.”