What We Can't Know: Memphis Zoo Shooting Video



What We Can’t Know is an occasional series on what government officials hide from taxpayers.

Neither the Memphis Zoo nor, apparently, the city of Memphis will release surveillance video of a man shooting himself in the leg last month, as he tried to enter the zoo with a gun.

Guns are legal at the zoo but guests are required to check in at the front gate and present a gun permit. Zoo officials said last month the policy will change but haven’t yet said publicly how it will change.

Police said the man was walking across the parking lot, put his hand in his pocket, and his gun went off, hitting him in the upper thigh. He was taken to Regional One Medical in non-critical condition, according to a story from WREG.

At the time of the incident, Nick Harmeier, the zoo’s chief marketing officer, said the gun policy “would not have been looked at on the front end, but what happened this week definitely sparked us to say ‘hey this is something we really need to dig into.”

The Flyer requested a copy of the shooting footage the week it happened, but got no response from Harmeier. A week later, the Flyer emailed Harmeier asking, “do you have any intention of fulfilling my request for the video?” Harmeier responded, “we do not plan on releasing any footage.”

The Flyer asked a public information official at Memphis City Hall for guidance on the issue and, perhaps, for the video itself if it was, indeed, public record. On October 30th, Dan Springer, deputy director of media affairs in Mayor Jim Strickland’s office, responded to the request by saying, simply, ”checking.” Springer did not respond to follow-up requests in following weeks.

In February, Strickland publicly committed to transparency in government. At the time, though, he was launching a new city data site that offers information on city priorities like jobs, public safety, good government, youth, and neighborhoods.  

“Memphians deserve an open and honest government they trust, and when I ran for mayor, I promised that I would measure results of how we’re performing, share those results with the public, and hold the city accountable,” Strickland said.
Of course, public officials have latitude to make decisions on what information is shared with the public on a case-by-case basis, thanks to state law. A review of the state's open records law last year found 538 exceptions to the rule.

A legal exception is possible in the case of the video of a man shooting himself in the leg at the zoo, but neither the city nor the zoo offered any reason why the video was not made public.

Lee Pope, Tennessee open records counsel in the state comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel, said the “Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) provides that governmental entities must make public records promptly available for inspection to Tennessee citizens, unless otherwise provided by state law.” Apparently, state law makes a provision for the video of a man shooting himself in the leg at the Memphis Zoo.

“State law makes information and records related to the security of government property, including surveillance recordings, confidential,” Pope wrote. “That said, this state law exception to the TPRA does provide that segments of a surveillance recording may be made public when they include an act or incident involving public safety, security, or possible criminal activity.
“However, it is still within the discretion of a governmental entity whether to release such surveillance recordings that are otherwise made confidential under state law. As such, it appears the Memphis Zoo, which we believe is government property owned by the city of Memphis, may deny a public record request for access to government security surveillance recordings.”

While the shooting video has not been released, there is precedent in Memphis for releasing video involving public safety, security, or possible criminal activity. In July, public safety officials released two surveillance videos and the graphic, body-camera footage of the police shooting of Terrance Deshun Carlton. 

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