NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Federal officials on Friday agreed with a state decision not to prosecute a white Tennessee police officer who fatally shot a black man after a traffic stop.
A U.S. Attorney’s Office statement said it worked with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice in reviewing investigations by the Nashville Police Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and determined that no further action or investigation of the fatal shooting of 31-year-old Jocques Clemmons is warranted.
The announcement bolsters the decision in May by Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk not to seek charges against Officer Josh Lippert. But it frustrates African-Americans in the city, where the NAACP, some clergy, Clemmons’ family and other community members have challenged the official investigations.
“I think they violated his civil rights, for a man to be shot down like a dog, be shot down in the back, and shot multiple times,” said Ludye Wallace, president of the NAACP’s Nashville chapter.
But Funk said the officer’s actions met the legal definition of self-defense, and that a witness backed the officer’s statement that Clemmons carried a gun during the confrontation in February.
“We appreciate the diligence of the FBI and the Department of Justice in their review,” Nashville police spokeswoman Noelle Yazdani said in a statement.
The U.S. Attorney’s statement didn’t say whether federal officials did any independent interviews of the people involved. At the state level, the investigation rested largely on the original police interviews. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation did not re-interview the woman who backed the officer’s account of the shooting, citing guidance from Funk that “if a previously conducted interview was sufficient and covered all questions that would have been asked by TBI personnel, then it was acceptable to rely on the (Nashville police) interview.”
The witness told Nashville police investigators that she was watching from her car in the parking lot where the confrontation unfolded, and at one point saw a gun fall to the ground, perhaps from Clemmons’ hoodie or pants pocket. She said the officer tried to kick it away, but Clemmons grabbed it and ran. She said she heard three shots fired, but didn’t see the shooting itself. Lippert shot Clemmons twice in the back and once in the hip.
Funk said the woman’s account was key, because without it, “we would have had the officer’s statement and we would have had a (surveillance) video that would not have clearly established that what was in his hand was a gun.”
According to Lippert, after Clemmons recovered the gun, Clemmons started turning toward him until the gun faced his direction.
From interviews and surveillance video, Funk determined that Clemmons held the gun in the officer’s general direction, but “never drew down on the officer and pointed it at him.”
The Clemmons family’s lawyer, Michael Hoskins, has contended that Clemmons wasn’t armed; the family has raised doubts about a gun Lippert said he recovered at the scene.
Lippert told investigators that Clemmons had a “me or you look in his eye” after picking up the gun. He said he fired when he saw the barrel of the pistol turning his way.
“I’m sorry and I feel, you know, terrible and I mourn the loss of this man,” Lippert told investigators. “It’s at my hands. I know that. But he was a lethal threat to me. And without a doubt, I’m telling you, if I didn’t do what I did, you’d be burying me.”
Clemmons was convicted of a cocaine felony in 2014, and thus was prohibited from possessing the pistol under state and federal law, police said.
Critics of Lippert have also called for him to be fired. They have cited his disciplinary record, which includes nine suspensions over his five years on the force, including a case in Oct. 2015 when Lippert used unnecessary physical force to remove a black driver from a car during a traffic stop.