Protecting the integrity of a police investigation and the public's right to know often ends in an unsatisfactory stalemate, as highlighted in a Sunday Times Free Press report about two police-involved fatal shootings.
Together, the shootings should serve as a reminder to all Hamilton County residents that information is power, and those who have it — in this case District Attorney Coty Wamp — should not use it as a way to convey a single narrative.
Of course Wamp, her staff and law enforcement have a job to do and must take the time they need to gather and analyze all of the evidence in sensitive, highly-charged incidents so they fully understand the cases. But that doesn't mean that the public shouldn't be given access to video and other information as quickly as possible so that they too can have a full picture of what happened in order to make sound opinions.
"My office decides when to release video in ongoing investigations on a case-by-case basis," Wamp said in an email to the TFP for the Sunday report. "We of course work with the involved law enforcement agencies when making these decisions."
Be that as it may, her definition of "case by case" appears to be based on whether the video supports a pro-law enforcement narrative.
The facts are the facts, but selectively choosing when and how they are distributed can distort their validity and foster skepticism and mistrust within the public at large.
Controlling a narrative
It took no more than nine days for Wamp's office to release video of Roger Heard Jr. being confronted by police at a gas station on Aug. 11. Heard, a felon, is seen in his car with a gun next to him as an undercover police officer approaches the vehicle, squeezed in between two unmarked police cars, with a gun pointed at Heard. The officer pulls the driver car door open and Heard proceeds to jump out of the car, shooting at the officer as he tries to run away. According to an autopsy released on Sept. 18, Heard was shot by police 14 times. During an exchange of gunfire, a Chattanooga police officer was injured.
On Aug. 15, before the footage was released, family and friends of Heard publicly demanded the release of body camera footage at City Hall.
The shooting and killing of 17-year-old David Mendez Lopez on Sept. 3 created a firestorm in the community almost immediately. Mendez Lopez's parents claimed that their son was holding a cellphone and not a gun, as police said. Three weeks later, Wamp released images and audio to the Times Free Press that showed Mendez-Lopez was holding a gun.
Releasing those video stills and audio more promptly would have likely cleared up questions about police actions in a community that desperately wanted to understand how a teen's life was cut short.
Wamp acknowledged that she released the images from the Mendez Lopez video and 911 call to dispel rumors in the community about the shooting.
"In the Heard case, we wanted to mitigate the possibility of unrest amongst the community and dispel the myths and rumors that individuals in the community were sharing," Wamp said in the Sunday TFP report. "Similarly in Mendez-Lopez, we were able to dispel very damaging rumors that had been spread by a group only working for their own gain."
Since being elected district attorney, Wamp has earned a reputation for direct, blunt assessments and strong backing of law enforcement.
About the Heard shooting, she said in August, "A violent felon who shoots at cops, I'm not worried about his family. "I'll tell you whose family I am worried about, [CPD investigator] Celtain Batterson's, because I don't know if he'll be able to work in law enforcement again. He has kids that no one has talked about. He has a family. He has a mother."
There is a place for public servants to express their opinions, to lead with their convictions, but comments like that can inflame the public, especially since the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had not (and has not yet) finished its review of the shooting. The TBI has not yet completed its investigation into the Mendez Lopez shooting either.
A community to serve
Police-involved shootings are among the most controversial incidents a community must deal with. Access to timely information about such incidents is critical if all communities are to trust law enforcement agencies.
The Heard video appears to vindicate actions by law enforcement officers, a positive narrative at a time when distrust and suspicion about police are not uncommon, especially in marginalized communities. The public has seen no actual video or bodycam evidence from the Mendez-Lopez incident. The inadequate flow of information could suggest a not-so-positive narrative about law enforcement.
The remedy is transparency. The more, the better. The sooner, the better.
Transparency is paramount. Lack of transparency will only deepen the divide among our diverse communities and the public servants whose job is to protect them and build trust and respect among them.
Knowledge is power.