Darrius Stewart, the 19-year-old Memphis man who was shot and killed by Memphis Police officer Connor Schilling, was a passenger in a car pulled over for having a headlight out.
The driver of the vehicle reportedly got off with a ticket, but police on the scene put Stewart in the back of a squad car while running a check for active warrants. The police account of what happened says that, when Schilling opened the squad car to handcuff Stewart, the man kicked the door and tried to attack the officer. Shortly after the warrant check, police reported that Stewart had been shot and an ambulance was called for. Stewart later died at The Med. Some have questioned whether or not the police should have even been checking on warrants for a passenger.
When asked if the Memphis Police Department (MPD) had a policy in place on dealing with passengers during traffic stops, MPD spokesperson Karen Rudolph said no set policy exists.
"There is no policy in place that says to or not to check passengers in a vehicle; however, it is common practice for officers to identify those they come in contact with during a traffic stop or while on the scene of any other type of call. The person may be requested but not compelled to provide identification or other information," Rudolph wrote in an email to the Flyer.
In a press conference Wednesday morning, Memphis chapter NAACP president Keith Norman said they were looking into the rights of passengers in traffic stops.
"We have questions about what are the rights of a passenger under the rule of law during a mere traffic violation," Norman said. "Should officers have the right to question everyone in the car? This can lead to inappropriate contact with citizens who have not committed a crime."
On Wednesday afternoon, Mayor A C Wharton released a statement on the need for a clear policy on questioning, searching, and detaining passengers in cars at traffic stops.
“I’ve not gotten a clear answer,” said Wharton. “I have asked Director [Toney] Armstrong to do a thorough review and make sure we immediately get a clearly understood policy as to when it is standard operating procedure or permissible to question, detain and search a passenger. Police stops are made every day and officers need to know this.”
“This not just about the Stewart case. We have heard assertions about ‘driving while Black’, now we hear questions about ‘riding while Black’. The public wants to know what the courts say about their rights as passengers, what MPD policy is, and what’s being taught in the police academy. These are the questions I’m being asked and that we need answers to," Wharton said.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is currently looking into the case. Schilling has been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the investigation.