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Otis Sanford

Otis Sanford holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and is the political analyst and commentator for WATN Local 24. Contact him at 901-678-3669 or at o.sanford@memphis.edu. Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.

Telling police officers to keep silent undermines investigations and cripples justice

By Updated: October 18, 2018 4:00 AM CT

Picture this scenario: A man with a gun is chasing on foot another man, who may or may not be armed.

As the man being chased reaches the front door of a home and tries to enter, the man in pursuit opens fire. He critically wounds the fleeing individual as other bullets pierce the front door and outer walls of the home.

Two other people, who are associates of the shooter, witness the incident. But as law enforcement officers later try to figure out what happened and whether the shooting was justified, neither the shooter nor the witnesses will cooperate with investigators. And the inquiry is seriously hampered.

Sadly, this is not a hypothetical situation. It basically describes what’s taking place as a result of the September officer-involved shooting of Martavious Banks, although some of the details are in dispute.

A month later, Banks, 25, remains hospitalized. But the good news is he is recovering from being shot twice in the back, a family attorney told reporters last week.

“He’s doing well,” said Billy Murphy, an attorney based in Baltimore. “He’s able to talk, he is able to articulate what he remembers.”

If that’s true, Banks is the only one talking. This week we learned that the Memphis Police Association has advised the three officers linked to the shooting not to speak with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the outside agency looking into the incident. The directive also applies to any other officer-involved shootings that are turned over to the TBI.

So much for police-community relations.

Keeping quiet may make sense for officers who pull the trigger in a questionable shooting. They have a right to protect themselves against self-incrimination just as any other citizen. But what about witnesses who also happen to wear a badge? As the community presses for answers, should they be encouraged to maintain a code of silence?

Yes, says police association president Mike Williams, whose son, Michael Williams II, was one of the three officers at the scene when Banks was shot. “Not that they’re trying to hide anything,” the elder Williams said. “But their rights have to be protected.”

Before we draw any conclusions about a possible cover-up, obstruction of justice or simply a righteous adherence to the thin blue line, let’s remember – for background and context – how this highly contentious and murky story has unfolded.

The initial police report said Banks was pulled over Sept. 17 for a routine traffic stop in the 1200 block of Gill in South Memphis. Police said Banks reached for a gun in his vehicle, but then jumped out of the car and fled on foot as officers chased him.

Banks was shot moments later. Police have not said if he had a gun in his possession when he was shot. Family members insist he did not.

Keeping quiet may make sense for officers who pull the trigger in a questionable shooting. They have a right to protect themselves against self-incrimination just as any other citizen. But what about witnesses who also happen to wear a badge? As the community presses for answers, should they be encouraged to maintain a code of silence?

The officer who shot Banks was later identified as Jamarcus Jeames, 26, who has been with the department 19 months. Officers Christopher Nowell, 27, a member of the department for four years, and Williams, a member for three years, were present when the incident happened.

Adding to public suspicion was the disclosure by Police Director Michael Rallings that Jeames did not have his body cameras on when the shots were fired, and the other officers either switched off their body and dashboard cameras or never turned them on.

Since then, we’ve heard nothing from police officials as an internal investigation continues into why the cameras were not in use and the TBI looks into the shooting. And now the police association is telling officers to invoke what is known as the Garrity rule in refusing to speak to TBI investigators.

Garrity vs. New Jersey is a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that officers cannot be coerced into answering questions about alleged misconduct under threat of losing their job if those answers are later used in a criminal prosecution.

The Garrity case involved an investigation into ticket fixing, not use of deadly force. And the Supreme Court decision does not apply to officers who witness questionable activity.  

Simply put, “the Garrity Rule does not apply in situations where one officer is asked to give a statement against another,” wrote retired corrections expert and author Carl Toersbijns in a 2015 article about the Garrity case for the web site Corrections.com. “No officer has a right to protection against incriminating another person.”

But regardless of what the Supreme Court ruling says or does not say, the police union presenting rank and file officers is advising its members, including those who are mere witnesses, not to answer when the TBI comes knocking.

How is that any different from the code of silence that police routinely encounter when trying to solve gang-related crimes? And how is it different from the deafening silence of the three witnesses in the car the night 2-year-old Laylah Washington was shot to death while riding in her mother’s car more than two years ago?

I get it that police officers under suspicion enjoy the same rights as other citizens. But I agree with former City Council member TaJuan Stout Mitchell, who wrote on Facebook this week that the police association telling officers to keep silent amounts to undermining investigative institutions and a crippling of justice.

“I know (police) feel vulnerable, but they must trust the same institutions they use to convict people,” Mitchell wrote. “A young man was shot in the back and if a police officer was shot in the back they would want answers and I would too. I want ‘law and order.’ ”

We all do. Which is the very reason we should call out anyone who intentionally protects those suspected of doing wrong, whether they wear a badge or a bandanna.



<strong>Otis Sanford</strong>

Otis Sanford

Topics

Memphis Police Department Memphis Police Association Officer-Involved Shooting

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