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VOL. 130 | NO. 142 | Thursday, July 23, 2015

Reaction Grows to Stewart Shooting

By Bill Dries

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The NAACP’s Memphis branch called Wednesday, July 22, for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to go public with the results of its investigation into the shooting death of Darrius Stewart by Memphis Police office Connor Schilling.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said Tuesday he backs the decision to have the TBI investigate the police shooting of Darrius Stewart.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Leaders of the Memphis chapter also questioned what led to the traffic stop in front of 5799 Winchester Road; Stewart was a passenger in the front seat of the vehicle police pulled over. NAACP leaders vowed to monitor the case and possibly call for a U.S. Justice Department investigation.

District Attorney General Amy Weirich and Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong announced Monday that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would investigate the incident and not police Internal Affairs.

The NAACP statement was one of several reactions Wednesday to the July 17 shooting.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. called for Memphis Police to have "a clearly understood policy as to when it is standard operating procedure or permissible to question, detain and search a passenger."

"Police stops are made every day and officers need to know this," Wharton added in a written statement Wednesday afternoon. "The public wants to know what the courts say about their rights as passengers, what MPD policy is and what's being taught in the police academy."

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen said Wednesday that the U.S. Justice Department should investigate Stewart's death.

And Cohen called for an independent prosecutor to pursue any charges that may result from the TBI investigation.

"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 said in a written statement from his Washington D.C. office.

Meanwhile, TBI director Mark Gwyn said some information from his office's investigation could be released to the public through the Shelby County District Attorney General's office despite a state law that specifically forbids any public access to TBI investigative files.

City Council member Harold Collins, who is running for mayor on the October ballot, suggested the city should work with U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton on an independent Justice Department and FBI investigation "which will allow all evidence, once revealed and analyzed, to be released to the public."

Wharton said Tuesday he has been conferring with Armstrong since the Friday shooting on those specific issues.

Stewart was put in the back of a police patrol car, but not handcuffed, after the traffic stop as police checked to see if he had any outstanding warrants.

The crucial details of what happened after that are the reason Wharton and Armstrong concluded the best move was an outside investigation by the TBI.

“By Sunday evening it just seemed like we couldn’t make a quick answer to this,” Wharton said Tuesday in his first public comments on the shooting. “That’s when the thought went to, ‘Maybe we’d better get somebody from the outside to come in.’ If someone had walked in Sunday afternoon and said, ‘Here’s precisely what happened.’ But we couldn’t.”

Weirich and Armstrong said they hoped the TBI investigation would definitively lay out how Stewart died and what role Schilling played in the death.

They also expressed hope that the investigation would be “transparent” and answer public concerns in a national environment where such incidents are under increased scrutiny.

But they chose a state agency whose investigative files are never open to the public without a court order under terms of Tennessee law.

Wharton admitted Tuesday he was unaware that TBI files are closed to the public by state law.

Plough Foundation director Mike Carpenter specifically recommended in an April report to Wharton that the city not use the TBI except as a “last resort” in such investigations because of the state law. Wharton commissioned the report to examine access to open records and general transparency in city government.

“It would be perhaps the politically correct thing for me to say, ‘Oh yes, I knew that,’” Wharton said. “I didn’t really know until today that there was an express statute … I practiced law for many years and I thought it was maybe some rule of evidence where they have some discretion.”

But Wharton said he stands by and concurs in the move to the TBI.

“I’ve not read the law. I don’t pretend to know the exact language,” he added. “But as far as I’m concerned, I will do everything in my power to do whatever it takes once this is over … to say, ‘Look, tell the people what happened. Let the chips fall where they may.’”

Armstrong acknowledged Monday that the national discussion and environment plays a role in how his department is handling Stewart’s death.

And Wharton added Tuesday that it is important for the city to stay ahead of reaction and critical questions. That’s why he said there was a quick move to take what would normally be an internal investigation by Memphis Police to another law enforcement agency.

“And against the backdrop of what is going on in this nation, we just felt let’s move quickly before there’s a hue and cry and it looks like we are reacting to the demands of the public,” he said.

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