Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon is seeking a court’s permission to release bodycam footage from the shooting death by police of an Austin-East Magnet High School student.
The legal move pits Kincannon, albeit indirectly, against Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen, who wants to keep the footage secret until the TBI has completed its probe and she decides if the officers involved should face criminal charges.
It may be the most significant development thus far in the heated debate over whether the public should be allowed to see the videos, as it signals that the City of Knoxville — including the Knoxville Police Department — is willing to challenge Knox County’s highest ranking law enforcement official to ensure immediate public access to the footage.
“Right now, I am seeking legal clarification to the local court order. I believe in transparency and I want the body-worn videos from Monday’s Austin-East High School shooting released,” Kincannon said.
Anthony Thompson Jr., a junior at Austin-East, was shot and killed Monday during a confrontation with up to four KPD officers in a school restroom. The school’s Student Resource Officer, Adam Willson, was wounded by gunfire. The TBI initially said that Thompson shot Willson, but then reversed its initial findings and said it appears the round that struck Willson was fired from either his gun or from one of his fellow officers’ weapons.
Willson and three other officers involved in the incident — Lieutenant Stanley Cash, Officer Brian Baldwin, and Officer Jonathon Clabough — are on temporary administrative leave from their jobs, as is standard procedure after a shooting. Willson is recovering from his wounds at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
Thompson’s killing has strained relations between KPD and the Black community to a degree not seen since 1998, when public outrage over the deaths of four people — three of them Black — in confrontations with KPD officers over a seven-month period triggered the creation of a civilian review board as well as policy changes.
There have been protests, marches or vigils nearly every day since Thompson’s death, and some parents are even talking about boycotting Austin-East by not allowing their children to return this semester.
Allen called a press conference just before noon Thursday in response to the numerous requests filed by media organizations — including Hard Knox Wire — seeking to have the footage released.
Allen said that she is bound both legally and ethically to hold off on releasing the footage until doing so won’t affect the rights of anyone involved in the case. She also said the teen’s family will be allowed to view the footage before it’s released to the public.
Allen has instructed City officials to not release the videos, citing a 2019 order filed in Knox County Criminal Court that strictly controls the distribution of police videos to defense attorneys who seek copies as part of the discovery process.
Kincannon, however, told the City’s staff attorney, Charles Swanson, to find out if there’s a way around the court order. Swanson then filed a “petition for interpretation and clarification” Friday in Criminal Court in which he argued that Allen’s interpretation of the order is wrong.
KPD and City officials announced earlier this month that they’d finished the process of equipping each uniformed officer with a bodycam for the price of $5 million. The measure was designed to increase transparency and accountability, officials said.
Although the TBI is conducting the investigation into the shooting, all footage collected by the bodycams is stored digitally by KPD and/or its contractor, Axon Enterprise Inc., which then makes copies as necessary for the TBI, attorneys, or for the public and media. KPD should therefore have the digital footage in its physical control and can release it — if the Criminal Court agrees with the City’s position — regardless of the wishes of the TBI or Allen.
As of late Friday, the chorus of voices calling for Allen to release the footage had also grown to include three of the four officers involved in the shooting and Knoxville’s police chief.
Officers Cash, Baldwin and Clabough announced on Friday they want their bodycam footage made public. Their joint statement was made through criminal defense attorney Don Bosch, who said in a press release that he’s representing all three men.
“In the days following this tragic incident, there has been significant confusion over what occurred,” Bosch said. “In an effort to accurately inform the public, all three officers fully support the release of all unedited body camera footage related to this incident. As Mayor Kincannon has publicly expressed, she, along with these officers, agree that the public interest is best served by the immediate release of these videos.”
He added: “All three officers are cooperating with the investigation in this case and look forward to a prompt official disclosure and resolution of this difficult matter.”
The officers’ announcement came only hours after their boss, Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas, issued a public statement asking for much the same thing.
“Chief Eve Thomas wants and supports the release of the relevant body camera footage from the officer-involved shooting inside of Austin-East Magnet High School. Our officers want to see the video released and the community deserves it,” said KPD spokesman Scott Erland.
While Erland said that Thomas “has not personally asked the DA to release the body camera footage,” he stressed that both she and the officers under her command want the public to see the videos as soon as it can be arranged.
Thompson’s death was only the most recent tragedy in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost every corner of the city.
There were 37 homicides in Knoxville in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998. Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been at least 16 slayings in the city, all of them involving firearms, plus at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office.
Thompson was the fifth Austin-East student to be shot to death this semester.
.Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was killed Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died early March 11 at a local hospital, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville.
Two male juveniles have since been charged with first-degree murder for Freeman’s death and are waiting to learn if they will stand trial as adults. Police are still searching for the killers of Muhammad and Gillette.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published on April 17, 2021