How the Police Department Tells Us About Fatal Police Shootings

Chief John Drake addresses reporters following the fatal May 1 shooting of Jacob Griffin

On the evening of March 12, less than 12 hours after a shooting that left 31-year-old Nika Holbert dead and Officer Josh Baker hospitalized, the Metro Nashville Police Department released an eight-minute “video news release” featuring partial body-camera footage of the incident and narration from MNPD spokesperson Don Aaron. 

“You are about to see body-worn and in-car camera footage so that you can have a better understanding of what occurred based on what we know up to now,” Aaron says at the beginning of the video.

The release includes a little more than three minutes of uninterrupted footage from Baker’s body camera, beginning as Holbert hands over a backpack that Baker has asked to search for reasons that aren’t made clear. The shooting occurs after Baker tries to put Holbert in handcuffs. She circles the car while screaming as Baker pulls out his Taser and orders her to get on the ground. He deploys the Taser when she gets into the driver’s seat of the car. That’s when she allegedly picks up a gun in the car and fires at Baker — the gun is not visible in the video, but Baker can be heard screaming, “Ma’am! Put the gun down!” before a shot is fired and he falls to the ground. He returns fire and Holbert drives away. 

Aaron returns to inform viewers that Holbert drove about a block before wrecking her car and that she died soon after at a hospital. 

“In the coming days, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office will continue to investigate and analyze this incident,” Aaron says. “By policy, the MNPD will also be conducting an administrative review of the tactics and interaction you have just seen to ensure that they meet the high standards expected of our officers. Thank you for watching this video news release.”

A series of police shootings in Nashville this year — three of them fatal, including the Holbert shooting — has brought renewed scrutiny to how and when officers use force against civilians. But it has also put a spotlight on the way the MNPD talks about the incidents in which its officers do so, and raised questions about whether the department’s “transparency” is actually just an exercise in narrative control. The MNPD’s handling of these incidents has also concerned some other criminal justice officials, who have been working to change the process by which footage and information are released to the public after police officers fatally shoot someone.

Those decisions may soon be out of the department’s hands. The proposed language of a new memorandum of understanding between the TBI, the DA’s office and the MNPD would put the TBI and Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk in charge of what footage is released and the manner in which it is released following fatal police shootings. That would have to be agreed upon by all three parties, though. 

There’s no question that, since body cameras and dash cameras have been brought to the MNPD, Nashvillians get to see more of these incidents. That kind of footage wasn’t available in 2017, when Officer Josh Lippert shot and killed Jocques Clemmons, or in 2018 when Officer Andrew Delke shot Daniel Hambrick in the back as Hambrick ran away. Our understanding of what happened during those deadly shootings comes from grainy footage taken from nearby surveillance cameras. 

But the department’s approach to briefing the public on recent shootings, which were captured by officers’ body cameras, has highlighted new complications. Even though the Clemmons shooting prompted a new policy whereby the TBI investigates all fatal police shootings in Nashville, and the Hambrick shooting led to a crucial surge in support for the creation of the Metro Nashville Community Oversight board, it remains the case for now that the MNPD gets the first chance to frame the public’s view of shootings involving its officers.

After a separate March 12 shooting in which an apparently suicidal woman was shot by an officer but survived, Aaron released partial body camera footage at an in-person briefing, with MNPD training officials on hand to effectively justify the actions of the responding officers. A few days later the department released the full body-camera and dash-camera footage of the Baker-Holbert shooting. In April, after an officer fatally shot a man after a traffic stop, the department released footage that showed the man appearing to run at the officer with a knife in his hand. At a press conference the next day, Metro Police Chief John Drake told reporters that the officer “did everything he could, I felt.”

About a week later, when officers fatally shot an unhoused and mentally ill man named Jacob Griffin who’d been making violent threats to his mother, Drake gave a short statement to some reporters on the scene, saying that Griffin had fired “at officers” twice during an hours-long standoff. The next day, when the department released partial body-camera footage (as part of another video package featuring Aaron, this time called a “critical incident briefing”), it was not at all clear that Griffin had fired at officers, even if it did appear that he had fired his gun. On May 4, The Tennessean reported that the MNPD had declined a request to release the full footage from the Griffin standoff and fatal shooting, citing an ongoing investigation. 

This all inevitably raises questions as to how the MNPD decides what to release during an ongoing investigation and what to withhold. In an incident in which one of its officers was shot and critically wounded, the department released the full footage; but in the Griffin incident — in which Griffin was evidently experiencing a serious mental health episode and was ultimately shot while pinned to the ground by a police dog — it has declined.

In response to a question about how the department makes these decisions, Aaron sent the Scene the text of the department’s policy on “release of certain video in critical incident/officer involved shooting cases.” Reads the statement: “The Public Affairs Office of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, in good faith, will use certain video, in what would ordinarily be protected evidence in an open law enforcement investigation, to timely inform the community of the circumstances of a critical incident/officer-involved shooting.”

Aaron also cited a Los Angeles Police Department policy of providing “necessary context” along with body camera footage since “a video may not tell the whole story.” 

That’s true enough. But if we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that “necessary context” from the police often doesn’t tell the whole story either.

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