Mississippi is changing its policy on releasing police shooting videos
"As more of these incidents are shared with the public in other parts of the country, I believe we need to be more transparent here in Mississippi as well," said public safety commissioner Sean Tindell
By Isabelle Taft and Margaret Baker
The Sun Herald
JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the agency charged with investigating all fatal shootings by Mississippi police officers, has typically responded to requests to release video footage and other evidence with a simple answer: No.
Now, that's changing.
Public safety commissioner Sean Tindell, who took the statewide position in June 2020, said he has directed the agency to be more responsive to public records requests.
Last month, the agency turned over video footage and some investigative material from its investigation of a Harrison County deputy's shooting of Reginald Johnson outside the Biloxi courthouse in January 2021.
"As more and more of these incidents of officer-involved shootings are shared with the public in other parts of the country, I believe we need to be more transparent here in Mississippi as well," Tindell said. "I've always been a big believer in transparency. I believe that if you ...maintain a cloak of secrecy, then it lends itself to conspiracy theories and incorrect assumptions. I believe the public should have a right to view the footage and understand exactly what happened."
Tindell said his guidance for transparency applies to all agencies under his department. MBI typically handles the investigations of fatal shootings by law enforcement officers on the Coast. But legislation effective July 1 now requires MBI to investigate all such shootings across the state.
MBI records released in fatal police shootings
The Sun Herald also recently requested all records relating to the shooting death of Leonard Parker Jr. by a Gulfport police officer and received some investigative material, including investigators' summaries of witness interviews, from MBI.
"It has previously been the policy of DPS not to produce the agency's investigative reports in response to public records requests," the agency's chief counsel Mac May wrote in May in response to the Sun Herald request. "The current administration is working to shape its own policy on this issue. In doing so, the administration is taking into consideration the need for preserving investigative integrity, the rights of involved/interested parties, and the public's interest in governmental transparency."
May wrote that DPS will now produce "investigative reports and related documents" in cases where the investigation has been closed and any potential criminal charges resolved.
In the cases of both Parker's and Johnson's killings, MBI released a fraction of all investigative material. The file shared in response to the Sun Herald's requests for records relating to Johnson's death contained 14 pages, but one line in the documents described a "case report" of 480 pages.
The Sun Herald received 48 pages of records from MBI relating to its investigation of Gulfport Officer Jason Cuevas's fatal shooting of Parker. But the complete investigative file provided by the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury contained hundreds of pages, including crime scene investigative reports, as well as video recordings of witness interviews. There was no video footage of Cuevas shooting Parker.
Where has footage come from in the past?
Some law enforcement agencies on the Coast and around the state have in the past released evidence in shootings by their officers, including video footage. For example, the City of Moss Point released body camera footage from the officer who killed Toussaint Diamon Sims in 2019.
MBI investigated that case, and the Jackson County grand jury that cleared the officer saw and heard their investigation. But the decision to release the footage was the city's.
Sometimes, prosecutors also decide to make public the evidence they showed to a grand jury.
That's what special prosecutor Chris Hennis did after a Harrison County grand jury cleared Cuevas in Parker's death. And Lowndes County District Attorney Scott Colom uploaded evidence files to his website after Attorney General Lynn Fitch dropped the case against a white officer who killed a Black man during a 2015 traffic stop.
Tindell has criticized the inconsistency among agencies in Mississippi when it comes to releasing information about killings by police.
"There is a desire among district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs that when we do release information, we release it in a uniform manner," Tindell said. "We want the public to have trust in the decisions that are made. I've met with the sheriffs and I've met with the police chiefs and with law enforcement across the state and generally, they are supportive of us being more transparent.
The feeling among law enforcement, he said, is that there should be a standard procedure for releasing information.
"They (law enforcement officials) feel like a lot of pressure is put on them to reveal the video right away, and so what we are doing is trying to set a consistent standard for releasing that information. The desire is to do that in a uniform manner."
While MBI will now release some evidence after any possible criminal charges have been resolved, experts in policing and criminal justice say that there's often little reason to wait to show footage to a victim's family members and then to the public.
A "toolkit" for prosecutors and communities dealing with officer-involved fatalities, produced by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with input from law enforcement and citizens from around the country, recommends prosecutors "meet standards of transparency, i.e. release video footage within 10 days."
Johnson's family members, friends and protesters in Biloxi had called for law enforcement to release video footage in the weeks after Johnson was killed.
Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and professor at John Jay College, said he saw little reason to withhold the tape.
"There doesn't appear to be any privacy issues with this video, and I would assume that the investigation should have been short and fairly precise," he said. "So I would think that the video in this case should be released relatively quickly unless there's some state [regulation or law] that prohibits that."
Tindell told the Sun Herald he believes the video of Deputy Bobby Jackson shooting Johnson proves the shooting was justified.
"I saw an officer trying to defend himself, and, you know, it's hard to watch," Tindell said. "It's heartbreaking to see and it's easy to play armchair quarterback and say he (the deputy) should have done this or he should of that, but it's a split-second decision.
"If it was somebody attacking me or one of my loved ones with a knife and I had an opportunity to defend them, I can't say I wouldn't have taken the same action this officer did," Tindell said.
(c)2021 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)