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VOL. 130 | NO. 143 | Friday, July 24, 2015

One Week Later, Darrius Stewart Shooting Frames Larger Debate

By Bill Dries

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The best indication the public has of how Darrius Stewart died is a YouTube video of his encounter Friday, July 17, with Memphis Police on Winchester Road.

A week after the fatal police shooting of Darrius Stewart, reaction to how the incident is investigated continued to frame a larger discussion in Memphis about police accountability.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

It’s dark, it’s hard to make out key details and there is a lot happening in and out of the frame.

One week after Stewart’s death the same can be said of the atmosphere surrounding the official investigation into his death and the role police played in it.

“What I saw in the video was an officer who was in a fight with a young man,” Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams said Wednesday, July 22. “Do we want the young man to be killed? No. We don’t.”

But Williams, who is running for Memphis Mayor, questioned “Monday morning quarterbacking” by others who have spoken up.

“I don’t want this to escalate into a cause when there really is possibly no cause,” he said.

In the YouTube video posted on his Facebook page, Williams did acknowledge that Stewart’s violent death is part of a national discussion and environment.

He urged police officers to be aware of that “because we don’t want it to grow.”

“We want to keep this contained, make this a one-time incident,” he added. “This is turning into a cause for some people. I think we can get through this.”

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich announced Monday she was handing the investigation over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. She and Police Director Toney Armstrong said they hoped the investigation would be transparent.

There were immediate doubts about how that would be possible given the state law that seals the TBI’s investigative files from public view.

The TBI’s website includes a “frequently asked questions” page with a question about how to see investigative reports on TBI cases.

“We’re sorry, but no,” the answer reads. “Tennessee state law dictates that all TBI investigative records are confidential.”

The state law doesn’t give discretion to TBI officials on such public access. It specifically says a court order is the only way to get access.

So when TBI director Mark Gwyn was in Memphis Wednesday, his pledge to release “appropriate” information through Weirich’s office prompted a lot of unanswered questions about what his definition of appropriate is.

He said Weirich “has pledged that at the appropriate time she will release pertinent information out of that file.”

Local elected leaders specifically are looking for more than the conclusion the bureau reaches at the end of its investigation. They want to know how investigators reached their conclusion and see the source material gathered.

As that reaction grew, a difference of opinion about who should investigate widened.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen called on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to bring U.S. Justice Department “resources” to the investigation.

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.

City Council member Harold Collins, who also is running for Memphis 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.”

The Memphis branch of the NAACP called for an open TBI investigation and president Keith Norman said the civil rights organization could call later for a federal investigation.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., asked about the possibility of a federal probe, said traditionally Justice Department investigations of such incidents begin after a police or state investigation has reached its conclusion.

Wharton backed Armstrong Tuesday in the move of the investigation to the TBI.

On Wednesday, he called for 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.”

Williams also backs the TBI investigation. But he said anyone stopped by police should comply; if they feel wronged, they should complain “on the back end.”

“Compliance is the best way to deal with these situations,” he said. “If in fact Mr. Stewart was not guilty, he could have been fingerprinted, released and nothing would have happened. Something went terribly wrong out there that night and I don’t want that to happen to any other young individual in this city.”

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