Memphis police union defends advice for officers not to talk to TBI investigators

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Police Association says it's all for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation looking into officer-involved shootings — they just don't want its officers to talk to TBI agents.

Some say that hurts the overall goal of being more transparent, but the police union says it's just about protecting the rights of officers.

“We don’t want it to appear that the Memphis Police Association doesn’t want to be cooperative or are trying to hinder the process — that’s not it,” said
Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams.

“As the Memphis Police Association, it’s our job to protect the rights of the officers and that’s simply what we’re doing.”

More city and county leaders are pushing for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations to take over all officer-involved shooting investigations in Shelby County.

The police association, however, is advising officers not to do interviews with TBI during investigations. Instead, Williams recommends officers give statements to the union, which are then reviewed by attorneys and possibly submitted to TBI.

There's also a supreme court ruling requiring public workers like police officers to give statements to Internal Affairs or Human Resources but prevents them from being used against them in criminal proceedings.

He says the fear is, some of these officers are inexperienced and cannot take back anything they say in interviews. The union also can’t have representatives there with them.

Officers could face criminal charges in TBI investigations, so Williams says like anyone else, they have Fifth Amendment rights.

Williams' son was involved in an officer-involved shooting last month. His son didn’t pull the trigger but was one of three officers who turned their cameras off at some point during the incident. TBI is investigating.

“This has nothing to do with that particular incident," Williams said. "They already have the statement that my son did, so it’s not that.”

Besides the criminal investigation, the city also conducts its own internal investigation. That’s when employment decisions are often made.

“They are two distinct investigations run by two distinct groups,” Mayor Jim Strickland said.

Officers are required to give statements during these investigations, but those statements can’t be used against them in criminal investigations.

But some argue officers need to be as forthcoming as possible in order to maintain integrity and accuracy.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway says officers themselves complain when community members won’t engage in investigations, so it hurts trust in the community for them to do the same.

“I don’t want anyone giving up their constitutional rights, but I think you have some responsibilities in terms of your job to make sure investigations that can protect the public safety go forward,” Hardaway said.

Hardaway says he plans on introducing legislation in the next session for TBI to take over all officer-involved shootings. He’s also pushing for TBI to get more resources to do so.

The TBI said the police union's policy makes their investigations more complicated and, in an "unprecedented move," even extends to officers who witness incidents or arrived to the scene later but weren't directly involved.

"We certainly respect the legal rights afforded to officers who are directly involved in use-of-force incidents and understand the caution in respect to those officers," the TBI said in a statement.

"Fundamentally, however, the investigative process relies on independent witness statements. Any delay – from a citizen or a law enforcement witness – has the potential to negatively impact the outcome of an investigation. For this reason, MPA’s guidance to Memphis officers has the unfortunate potential to complicate our future efforts with cases in Memphis.

"The public expects a certain degree of cooperation between local agencies and the TBI in these types of cases, and we would hope – in that same spirit – that the Memphis Police Association, and the individual officers who constitute its membership, would reconsider its position regarding witness officer statements."