How did a police chase in Mississippi end with an innocent woman shot in her bedroom?
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JACKSON, Miss. — Latasha Smith says she was lying in bed just after midnight on Dec. 11 when a bullet sliced through her bedroom wall, striking her in the arm.
Smith, 49, remembers dashing out of her apartment, wailing that she’d been shot. Outside, she saw Mississippi Capitol Police officers walking through the complex.
Three months later — with the bullet still lodged in her arm — she continues to wait for answers.
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol Police, has offered little information about what led an officer to open fire at Commonwealth Village apartments. The state has not given a timeline for releasing more details, including video from the body camera the officer was wearing.
The officer was initially placed on administrative leave after the shooting but has since returned to “active status,” Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said. The Capitol Police chief reviewed the findings of an internal investigation, which has not been made public, and determined that “there wasn’t any criminal conduct” that would warrant keeping the officer on leave, Tindell said.
In the absence of an official report, NBC News has obtained and analyzed more than 25 hours of the apartment complex’s surveillance footage, offering the first look at the seconds leading up to the shooting and the moment the officer appears to open fire at a person who is fleeing.
The videos do not contain audio, and they do not capture the initial car chase that led police to the complex. Eight policing experts — including two former police chiefs, two criminologists and a retired lieutenant who now trains tactical units — reviewed the videos for NBC News and said that based on the footage alone, they cannot determine whether the officer was justified in opening fire.
But the videos do provide a deeper accounting of an incident that has jolted Jackson’s predominantly Black community, at a moment when the Mississippi Legislature is weighing bills to expand the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction.
The incident began with the Capitol Police attempting to pull over a car that was suspected of being stolen, state authorities have said. A surveillance camera captured the conclusion of the car chase. The video shows a sedan speeding into the apartment complex 20 minutes after midnight, with a police SUV following closely behind.As the sedan comes to a stop and begins reversing, three people jump out and flee. Two of them, including the driver, run across the complex’s courtyard. A third person takes off from the car’s front passenger seat and heads toward a grassy pathway behind an apartment building.
The video shows an officer jumping out of the police SUV and racing around behind it. The officer emerges with a gun drawn and appears to fire at the third fleeing person.
A closer look at the footage shows several potential muzzle flashes from the officer’s weapon.
Five of the experts who reviewed the footage said they believed it showed the officer firing one to as many as five shots, though it was not possible to be certain. A sixth expert agreed that the video showed potential muzzle flashes but cautioned that light from the police SUV might be reflecting off the officer’s gun. The remaining two experts said they could not tell whether the officer fired, in part because of the poor quality of the video.
Smith’s apartment cannot be seen in the video, but the officer appears to be firing in that direction.
Two bullets hit the outside wall of Smith’s apartment. One whizzed through her 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom, crashed through an interior wall into Smith’s bedroom and hit Smith while she was lying in bed.
It is unclear whether the person the officer appeared to shoot at was armed. Another surveillance video from a different angle does not clearly show whether the person was holding a weapon or opened fire.
None of the experts said the video clearly showed that the person was armed. Only one expert said the person appeared to be gripping something in their right hand that may have been a gun. Three experts said the person appeared to be holding something, but it was unclear whether it was a weapon. The other four experts said they couldn’t make a determination.
The experts said they would need more details to determine whether the officer was justified in shooting a weapon in an apartment complex full of families. State authorities haven’t said whether the Capitol Police officers had reason to believe the sedan’s occupants were armed.
But in general, shooting at a person who is running away is “an absolute no-no,” said Theron Bowman, a former police chief of Arlington, Texas, whose consulting firm conducts independent investigations for police departments.
“That’s very dangerous,” Bowman said, especially in a case like this when the officer was surrounded by apartment buildings in which people were sleeping. “You’re putting a lot of innocent people in the line of fire.”
Robert Pusins, a former major for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department who has been tapped as an expert witness in police misconduct cases, agreed that officers must weigh the consequences of opening fire.
“Police have to consider the backdrop and have to consider where their bullets are going to go if they miss a suspect,” Pusins said. “That’s a critically important consideration.”
Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which trains police on handling potentially dangerous calls, said the officer’s frame of mind is key to understanding what happened.
“Did they feel in jeopardy? Why did they feel in jeopardy?” Eells said. “All of that is very, very important in determining how that sequence unfolded.”
In an interview last month, Tindell, the public safety commissioner, called the shooting “unfortunate.”
In interviews over the past two weeks, he declined to give more details about what unfolded, citing a pending review by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. He said he didn’t know whether the three people in the sedan had fired any shots, and he didn’t believe anyone had been arrested.
A news release from the bureau on the day of the shooting said only that “shots were fired” and that the officer involved was not injured, without mentioning Smith.
“I would tell the public we are committed to transparency, but the timing of it matters,” Tindell said recently. “At the appropriate time, those involved will get the updates.”
Mississippi Capitol Police’s expanding role in Jackson
- Last summer, the Mississippi Capitol Police launched a street-crime unit to police parts of Jackson far beyond government buildings.
- The agency has an unusual level of authority for a state capitol police force and has faced criticism for aggressive patrols in the majority-Black city.
- The Capitol Police’s use-of-force manual hasn’t been updated since 2006; state officials say they are now rewriting it and will release a new version soon.
Capitol Police officers are not widely equipped with body cameras, but some officers have them as part of a trial. Bailey Martin, a Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, said the officer in this shooting was wearing a camera and the footage had been turned over to the Bureau of Investigation.
Martin said video from the shooting would be released once the state Attorney General’s Office has decided on any next steps.
The Capitol Police, which once primarily provided security for state agencies, has expanded to patrol a nearly 9-square-mile zone in Jackson, to combat the city’s rise in homicides. Since last summer, Capitol Police officers have been involved in four shootings, including this one.
The Mississippi Legislature is now debating plans to give the Capitol Police the ability to patrol the entire city. The expansion has been promoted as a way to curb crime in a city where 1 in 4 residents live in poverty. Jackson set homicide records in 2020 and 2021 and its local police department, like many law enforcement agencies, is short-staffed.
Smith’s attorney has notified the Capitol Police that she plans to sue.
As Smith recently watched the surveillance footage from the night she was shot, she demanded answers on why the officer opened fire. Her apartment complex, like Jackson overall, is majority-Black, and she said she couldn’t picture the same shooting happening in a predominantly white neighborhood.
“I didn’t deserve to get shot. I’m human just like that man,” she said, referring to the officer. “What would he say if that was his mother? How would he feel?”