The work of a Jackson task force tasked with recommending how police shooting information should be handled has been knocked off schedule following protests from community members arguing the group’s scope is too narrow.

The 13-member task force, which Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba assembled in April, met at the Richard Porter Building downtown to work through final details of a recommended policy, which calls for the city to release the name of any officer in a shooting within 72 hours.

Since, conversations have included how to describe individuals whom police officers shoot while on the job — options have ranged from civilian and participant to subject and suspect. Debating language, as the task force has demonstrated over a summer’s worth of meetings refining the policy, has highlighted a tension between transparency for the sake of an often-skeptical public and what law enforcement officials say is the need to maintain independence in ongoing investigations.

“Is process more important than people? That’s the central question,” said Adofo Minka, a Jackson attorney and community activist, who arrived with several other Jackson residents midway through the Monday meeting.

Though the task force focuses on information release after a police shooting, members of the public — few had attended before Monday’s meeting — said the task force lacked input from family members of those shot by police, arguing that its focus is reactive and prioritizes police safety over the lives of those shot by police. In Jackson, which has an 80 percent black population, the overwhelming majority of people shot by police are African American. 

Joseph Jordan, another attendee, said the policy lacks community accountability and needs to focus on restorative justice, or a model in which parties are brought to reconciliation by way of community mediation.

I hear about compromising investigation,” Jordan said. “And I hear about allowing Antar (Lumumba, the mayor) and the chief of police in terms of deciding what is good for us to see and not good for us to see. But what about the families of people that are murdered by police? Where is their voice, and how much weight does it have in contrast to people who are pro-police: Antar, Antar’s minions, the chief of police, etcetera?”

The task force, originally formed after media reports — primarily by Jackson Free Press reporter Ko Bragg — ratcheted up the heat on the mayor’s administration for withholding the names of officers in police shootings, has spent the summer hearing from local stakeholders, such as Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, before modeling initial draft language after policies such as Seattle’s and the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s. 

Details of the proposed policy provide that:

The city would release the name of involved officers within 72 hours, “absent exigent circumstances such as a credible threat to the individual officer,” the proposed language reads. Exigent circumstances could include whether an officer was undercover at the time. Whether or not there was a “credible threat’ would be determined by a three-person panel, consisting of two municipal judges and a community member, selected by the mayor.

After notifying the families of both the civilians and officers involved, the city would issue a public statement on the investigation’s timeline and process.

The city would not voluntarily release any criminal background of any civilians shot by officers. Taskforce members have acknowledged in past meetings that such information is already public, and that the city cannot bar media outlets from accessing it.

The task force was in the process of hammering down another central point — how and whether to release any footage of such a shooting — when several Jackson residents entered the room and began to question not the policy’s language, but the substance and purpose of the policy itself.

“I think justice should be our ultimate goal,” said Eric Stanton, a Jackson police officer on the task force. “If releasing video that compromises an investigation moves us from that, that’s wrongheaded. We should most definitely do everything possible to release anything in the interest of transparency that would not compromise an investigation.”

Jordan, who took a seat at the task force’s table, asked if anyone in the room had family or close friends who had been brutalized or killed by the police. Both members of the public and of the task force raised their hands. Jordan proceeded to criticize the task force as an extension of Lumumba’s administration: yet another body that controls the narrative following an officer-involved shooting.

Soon, the meeting lost all form of order, as C.J. Lawrence — the task force chair and the mayor’s former law partner — made little attempt to shut down public comments (which usually are opened at the end of the meeting), noting that it was “important to hear where people’s frustrations lie.”

Side-conversations, shouted back-and-forths and more than one monologue occurred in tandem, all while the mayor’s sister and executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, Rukia Lumumba, who has also had a formative hand in shaping the draft policy so far, attempted to speak via conference call.

“We’re attempting to do something that hasn’t been addressed around the country,” Lawrence maintained to the room. “We’re not trying to be exclusive.”

As the meeting crept toward 8 p.m., its scheduled adjournment time, task force members attempted to debate whether or not releasing video could jeopardize an ongoing investigation, while Jordan, Minka and others held strong to the idea that such an investigation wouldn’t accomplish justice.

As a result, the release of the task force’s final report was rescheduled for Sept. 6.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.