There’s no question about it: the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is busy. And not just managing the state’s three crime labs, tracking down fugitives or undertaking major investigations.
Since the beginning of the year, the state agency has already been called on to investigate 13 shootings by police officers. Four of those took place in just a matter of two days.
On Friday, the agency dispatched agents to Jonesborough, Tullahoma and Clarksville. They had already been involved with another fatal shooting by an officer the day prior in Nashville.
TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said that in 2014, the TBI was tasked with 44 use-of-force cases — which include police shootings. In 2017, the number of new investigations almost doubled, to 81.
The agency has what they call a “memorandum of understanding” with much of the state — including Nashville and Memphis. But even then, the TBI has to be “invited” by the district attorney, as was the case last year when the agency took on the case of Jocques Clemmons after he was fatally shot by Metro Officer Joshua Lippert.
While some cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga still handle most investigations locally, public pressure for an independent inquiry has led a number of police departments to move away from the practice of investigating themselves.
But with more cases come more challenges for the TBI — like getting the story right from the beginning. Because TBI agents arrive after an incident has already transpired, they have to work quickly to reconstruct what happened, all while under the pressure of public scrutiny. When there are no cameras or witnesses, the first account they hear usually comes from local police.
“It can be a little bit difficult because we realize the public expects these investigations will take priority and we want to do our part to make sure that they do,” says DeVine.
Getting it right is important, because the the first reports can alter public perception to come.
Shortly after Jocques Clemmons died last year, Metro Nashville Police Department issued a statement saying Clemmons had “body checked” the officer. They offered a surveillance video from a nearby building as proof. When another video emerged from a different angle, the police department recanted the account, saying the officer had never actually said he was shoved.
The public protested and eventually the TBI was asked to take over the investigation, promising citizens transparency and independence.
Shooting Narratives Evolve
Reports for two of Friday’s shootings have also been updated from their original versions.
In the Tullahoma incident, the agency reported that an altercation had ensued while police tried to serve a warrant on suspect James Shelton. But it turned out that local police had no warrant and were only there to question Shelton.
In the Clarksville incident, suspect James Vaughn was killed after a standoff with SWAT. A news release from the TBI originally said officers had breached the apartment where Vaughn was barricaded and found him holding two weapons, which the report says he pointed at the officers, prompting them to shoot. But an updated release now reports that SWAT never entered the apartment. Vaughn was killed in a breezeway nearby.
DeVine says the agency is doing it’s best to respond to these incidents quickly, mobilizing agents from across the state at a moment’s notice. While it can be a challenge to get all details in the beginning, he says the agency aims for transparency, updating the narrative if necessary when new information comes to light.
“Ultimately, we feel like it’s important to provide the public some understanding — albeit a preliminary understanding — of what the core set of events appear to be,” he said.
And information moves quickly. Cellphone video recorded by a bystander at the Jonesborough police shooting on Friday is already circulating
, causing some responses even as the TBI is just beginning its work.