When a law enforcement officer kills another person in Shelby County, a specific and detailed protocol is followed by law enforcement as well as the District Attorney's Office. Such incidents deserve careful attention as they can have criminal, administrative and civil consequences. They also may attract scrutiny from the public, and can have an important impact on the relationship between law enforcement officers and the community they serve. It is important that this formal protocol be followed.
In 2015, the District Attorney, Memphis Police Department (MPD), Shelby County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) signed a memorandum of understanding changing the manner in which officer involved death investigations were conducted and handled. Pursuant to the memorandum of understanding, the District Attorney is notified immediately when an MPD officer or SCSO Deputy kills someone. The District Attorney, in turn, notifies TBI and asks them to conduct the investigation.
At the conclusion of the TBI investigation, the file is delivered to the District Attorney General for her review. Copies are provided to each assistant district attorney assigned to the Officer Involved Death Review Team for their review as well. The team consists of four (4) senior attorneys: the deputy DA, the administrative assistant for Grand Jury, the administrative assistant for the trial courts and the director of training.
We appreciate the public interest in these matters and give top priority to reviewing the file and deciding the matter based upon the evidence and the law of the state of Tennessee.
Procedure when criminal charges are filed
The charges will be filed in compliance with the same procedures as any other criminal filing. An indictment will be prepared and presented for approval by the Shelby County Grand Jury. Charges will be filed if there is sufficient admissible evidence to create a reasonable chance for a conviction after considering defenses that could be raised with that evidence.
The file will be maintained by the District Attorney's Office and will become available and open to the public for review at the conclusion of the criminal prosecution and any subsequent appeals and in accordance with Tennessee case law and rulings of the court.
As with any other criminal case, the file cannot be considered open to the public until a) one year has passed from final judgment in the case and b) there are no pending post-conviction proceedings. (See Pennell v. Woodall, Davidson County Chancery Court No. 1-719-II (III) (June 13, 2011); and The Tennessean, et al. v. Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County, No. M2014-00524-SC-R11-CV.
Procedure when criminal charges are not filed
If criminal charges are not filed, the specific reason(s) for declining prosecution shall be set forth in a letter that includes a summary of the facts, a legal analysis and a conclusion of law. The decision letter will be sent to the head of the law enforcement agency involved in the death.
A petition is then filed in Chancery Court pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated Section 10-7-504 requesting permission for this office to release the TBI Investigative file to the public through the Shelby County District Attorney's website, www.scdag.com . If permission is granted, a copy of the decision letter as well as the TBI file will be posted on the DA's website.
In accordance with Tennessee law and privacy standards, redactions will be made to exclude lay witness identification, social security numbers, telephone numbers and home addresses. Also, the names of officers, investigators and others involved in the case will be redacted by court order.
Every effort is made by this office to meet with the family of the deceased and explain our decision.
Since there generally is no dispute that the officer intended to shoot or otherwise harm the person, the determination of whether the conduct was criminal is primarily a question of legal justification. Under Tennessee law, a peace officer is justified in using deadly force upon another person when he/she reasonably believes that it is necessary to defend himself/herself or a third person from what he/she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly force.
A death may be ruled "justified" or the ruling may be that there is insufficient evidence of a criminal offense, or that there is not a reasonable likelihood that all the elements of the crime could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, unanimously, to a jury of 12 people after considering reasonable defenses. A shooting also may be a justifiable use of deadly force to apprehend a fleeing, immediately dangerous felon.
The fact that an officer involved death may have been questionable, that it raised community concerns, or that it involved possible violations of police policy does not make it criminal. The fact that a shooting may be controversial or that it involves conflicting accounts does not mean there is a criminal remedy. Administrative or civil remedies are generally the purview of the local government, police department or private attorneys in arenas where the standards of proof and rules of evidence are less stringent than in criminal law.
The links below are to the completed OIS files that Shelby County Chancery Court has approved for public inspection: