U.S. attorneys in Memphis announced on Monday that they will conduct a federal investigation into the July 17 shooting by police of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart, an unarmed black man killed after a traffic stop.
U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton and the FBI special agent in charge for Memphis, Todd McCall, announced the probe at a news conference.
Stewart had been in the back passenger seat of a friend’s vehicle during the traffic stop, and was detained after Memphis police officer Connor Schilling, who is white, requested photo ID from all passengers and found two active warrants under Stewart’s name. Stewart was placed in the back of a patrol car. He was not handcuffed. Schilling’s attorneys have said that Stewart then kicked open the door and attacked the officer with a pair of handcuffs — prompting Schilling to shoot and kill him.
A local grand jury declined to indict Schilling, but the family’s attorneys as well as several local members of Congress had called on federal authorities to investigate the case.
“This office, along with the Criminal Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are reviewing the incident which resulted in the death of Darrius Stewart to determine whether the facts and circumstances of the case constitute a prosecutable violation of federal law,” Stanton wrote in a letter sent last week to one of Stewart’s family’s attorneys which was obtained by The Washington Post.
An attorney for Schilling could not be immediately reached for comment.
“The family is very pleased, this is something we had always hoped for,” said Carlos Moore, an attorney for the Stewart family. “We believe because of this there will be justice for Darrius Stewart eventually.”
“I respectfully urge the Department of Justice to open an investigation immediately,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said in a statement after the November announcement that Schilling would not be criminally charged. “We need to know whether any federal civil rights laws have been violated, and only the federal government has the resources, expertise and independence to give this matter the full, fair and public review it deserves.”
There have been more than 920 fatal police shootings this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking all on-duty shootings by police officers in 2015. Those shot and killed have included 32 people who, like Stewart, were both black and unarmed.
The Department of Justice has the power to investigate individual use of force incidents by police officers to determine if the officer involved violated an individual’s civil rights — a high bar that rarely leads to federal charges. The DOJ did not bring federal charges against officer Darren Wilson after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the department’s probe of the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York Police Department officers remains ongoing.
But Moore said Stewart’s family is confident that this case will meet the standard for federal charges, and that they hope the DOJ will also investigate the patterns and practices of the Memphis Police Department more broadly.
“We believe the evidence will support federal charges for the officer, so this is a major day for the family,” Moore said. “They are elated, and we’re just hoping that the truth comes out in the end.”