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TBI report: Most people killed by law enforcement in Tennessee in 2021 were armed


Thirty-one people died at the hands of law enforcement in Tennessee last year, according to a new report.

While the circumstances varied from case to case, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation analysis revealed some common trends.

Most of the people killed by law enforcement were men (84%) and about a third were Black (32%). Given that less than one fifth of Tennesseans are Black (17%), that means they were killed at a higher rate.

In many cases, officers said they fired their weapons because the other person was resisting arrest. Five people reportedly attempted to escape custody, seven did not comply with commands and five directed a car at police or someone else.

The majority of deadly force incidents involved someone who was armed. That was the case in Nashville, as well. In 2021, local police shot a record-setting 10 people — seven fatally. Most of them had a firearm. All were armed with some type of weapon.

Last year, the state legislature passed a bill that made it legal for nearly anyone who is 21 or older to have a gun — even though many in law enforcement warned the measure could make their jobs more dangerous. Lawmakers are currently debating a bill (HB1735 / SB2291) that would bump the age down to 18, making it even easier for Tennesseans to carry a firearm.

The bill has passed through several committees in both the House and Senate. There are still a few more votes to go before it could land on the governor’s desk.

Analysis based on agencies self-reporting numbers

The TBI has signed agreements with both Shelby and Davidson counties to investigate all fatal shootings by law enforcement. Many law enforcement agencies have made it normal practice in recent years to call in state agents to conduct independent reviews of shootings by law enforcement, as well as in-custody deaths. But, this data analysis is based on figures reported by law enforcement and correctional agencies — not information that is independently gathered.

The report also outlines trends in prison and jail deaths. According to the TBI, there were at least 245 deaths in correctional facilities last year. The agency notes that private correctional companies are not required to report their deaths, which means that number is likely an undercount.

At least about half were due to illness, though many autopsies are still pending. Six people were reported killed in custody. Drugs or alcohol caused at least 36 deaths, and the same amount were the result of an accidental injury or suicide. Tennessee Department of Correction data obtained by WPLN News uncovered an even higher count of drug-related deaths in prisons — 49 — in 2021.

The majority of in-custody deaths occurred in state prisons, where people have already been convicted of a crime. However, at least 32 people had not yet been found guilty of a crime when they died, according to the TBI. Five had gone home on parole or probation but had been returned to custody for violating the conditions of their release.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and
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