By Rosetta Miller Perry
Police misconduct and brutality have long been a major problem in this nation, one that disproportionately affects people of color, and in particular has resulted in the deaths of several Black citizens. All too often in these cases there are cover-ups where evidence is lost, statements are changed, and officers who have done heinous things get off totally free. But what is even worse in controversial cases is when misinformation gets widely disseminated, tensions increase, and communities continue to lose confidence in the ability of those entrusted with authority to fairly and objectively do their jobs.
Thus far in the Tribune’s view, much of what has happened regarding the investigation into the shooting of Jocques Clemmons by police officer Josh Lippert has been by the book and properly conducted. Police chief Steve Anderson has held press conferences, taken hard questions, and hasn’t made any prejudicial public statements regarding the situation. District Attorney Glenn Funk is the person entrusted with deciding what will be done here, and his office is currently going over a lengthy set of statements, transcripts, and various other documents. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is also conducting an investigation, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been monitoring the case and the investigations.
But unfortunately, there are some people who are continuing to inflame tensions with stories and information that is either totally or mostly inaccurate. For example, there is a myth being circulated that there are no Blacks involved in any phase of the investigation, when actually there are Blacks who’ve been involved in both the police department investigation and the District Attorney’s offices’ monitoring of the situation. Detective Charles Robinson is a veteran investigator and part of the Homicide-Cold Case Team conducting the Clemmons investigation for the police department. District Attorney Glenn Funk has utilized the services of a diverse team to examine the evidence being gathered. The group includes Deputy District Attorneys Roger Moore and Amy Hunter, and Assistant District Attorneys Ed Ryan, Byron Pugh and Marcus Floyd.
This does not incidentally negate the necessity for the creation of a Citizens Review Board with oversight authority, one that is empowered to separately examine controversial police shootings. Most major cities already have something like that, no matter what they call it, and even Knoxville has had such a body since the late ‘80s.
However that’s another story. The more pertinent and important matter concerns the fact one of the biggest problems the Tribune sees in this case has been the tendency for both media and individuals to constantly make inaccurate public statements that are then accepted as truth by far too many people. For instance, in the earliest days of the case, there were media reports that Lippert was merely returning gunfire from Clemmons. Yet to date, if Clemmons did have a gun, no one has produced it. There were reports about Clemmons’ past record, as though that had anything to do with what happened to him that day. It turned out later that Lippert had an equally bad, if not worse, track record of questionable encounters with others regarding traffic stops, and was far from a model officer.
It is very important that there be transparency at every step of this process. There have been too many times when Black communities have watched police departments, in conjunction with District Attorney’s offices, eventually either totally absolve police officers for questionable shootings or simply give them administrative penalties. While the Tribune has no interest in pre-trying Lippert or this case, it is important to point out that thus far there is absolutely no evidence to support any notions of a gun, or the necessity for Lippert to shoot in self defense. The fact that Clemmons was shot multiple times in the back is both a matter of public record and something that is deeply troubling. Still, we recognize that this case is now part of an ongoing investigation, and we want to respect that process by not jumping to any conclusions.
We ask that everyone else out there do exactly the same thing, and that everyone who is issuing public statements on the case, be they an organization or just a private citizen, be ABSOLUTELY certain of what you are saying before you say it. This is a very volatile case, and there are many folks out there who are at the boiling point because they see this incident as one more in a long line of situations where police at minimum exceeded authority, and at worse shot and killed an unarmed person without provocation. It wouldn’t take much to start an explosive response, and trigger something that would result in more injuries, property damage, and further hurt the already shaky relationship between the police department and the local Black community.
No one wants to see justice done more in this case than the Tribune. We’ve seen more than our share of these incidents over our 25-year history, and we definitely are tired of them. We recognize and understand the need for a police presence, and we have no love for nor justify the action of criminals. But you can’t fight crime by imitating the tactics of criminals, and people are suspects until they are proven guilty in a court of law. Regardless of the charges, every person deserves their day in court, and that includes Josh Lippert.
So once more we implore everyone, be they media, community activists, or just private citizens, to exercise restraint, good judgment and common sense regarding what you say and do about this case. Don’t repeat something that you hear without knowing if it’s true. Don’t assume that everything someone says about the case is accurate, and don’t jump to premature conclusions. When the investigation’s results are released, the Tribune will make sure that they are totally and thoroughly presented.
If we feel at that time that a cover-up has occurred, or the truth has NOT been told, we will most certainly say so, and very loudly. But until that time, we will also work very hard to make sure that misinformation isn’t being spread, and that people aren’t being inflamed due to inaccurate and misleading statements and material.