TBI pledges transparency in probe of Memphis police shooting

By Adrian Sainz, Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Departing from their routine protocol, state investigators in Tennessee said Wednesday they will publicly release details they discover as they investigate the fatal shooting of a black teen by a white police officer.

The announcement from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation came amid heightened sensitivities nationwide to the fatal shootings of unarmed black men by white officers, and after the local community held a vigil to demand answers.

“We understand the desire for transparency,” Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn told a news conference.

Gwyn did not provide a timetable for the investigation into the death of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart. Police say Stewart was shot by Officer Connor Schilling, 26, during a struggle after Stewart was placed in the back of a squad car following a traffic stop on Friday. Schilling has been relieved of duty — a routine procedure — pending the TBI’s investigation.

Gwyn said his agency would release important facts of the case through the office of Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich. Such a move is a departure from the normal protocol: Gwyn says the agency’s case files are confidential under state law, and the bureau typically does not release details of ongoing investigations.

On Monday, Weirich and Police Director Toney Armstrong told reporters they requested the outside investigation.

“I’m aware that this incident is on the forefront of media coverage, and I’m equally aware of the national sentiment and appearance of this shooting: A Caucasian police officer shoots and kills an African-American male,” Armstrong said Monday.

The bureau began its investigation days after the shooting, and it has yet to independently piece together the events that led to Stewart’s death, Gwyn said. The agency is asking for the help from community members who may know what happened.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, said he appreciates that the local district attorney asked for an outside investigation, but he also would like to see the case handled by an independent prosecutor who is not from Shelby County. Cohen said he has reached out to Attorney General Loretta Lynch to ask for help from the Department of Justice to determine whether any civil rights have been violated.

“As a matter of national policy, decisions to investigate and, if need be, prosecute police use of deadly force should not be placed in the hands of local prosecutors who rely on a strong working relationship with those same officers,” Cohen’s statement said.

Also Wednesday, the Rev. Keith Norman, president of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, expressed condolences for Stewart’s family and also said members of the community should have patience during the investigation.

“We’re often saddened and disappointed at the slow process toward finding justice in police-involved killings,” Norman said, adding later that the community should not rush to judgment about a shooting that could “ultimately divide our community.”

Police said Stewart was a passenger in a car stopped by the officer for a headlight violation. Stewart was placed in the back of a squad car without handcuffs as the officer checked on two active warrants for Stewart from Iowa and Illinois, police said.

The officer returned to the squad car to handcuff Stewart after a warrant was verified, police said. Stewart kicked the door, attacked the officer and began hitting the officer with the handcuffs, police said.

Police said the officer then shot Stewart with his duty weapon. Stewart died at a hospital.

Relatives have questioned whether Stewart was mistakenly identified as the person with the outstanding warrants. Dozens of people attended a vigil for Stewart on Tuesday.

Schilling was suspended a year ago for a DUI arrest, police said. Criminal charges were dismissed, but he was suspended for 18 days without pay.

Another case alleging that Schilling used excessive or unnecessary force was dismissed in 2013.