Long before Nashville Police Officer Andrew Delke stands trial on a murder charge in the 2018 fatal shooting of Daniel Hambrick, a tug-of-war is underway to try to shape public perception of the case.
Across the country, trials for officers have shown that some amount of spin is to be expected from attorneys and activists. But efforts to sway public opinion can make it harder to seat a jury and hold a fair trial.
In Nashville, where there’s never been a murder trial for an on-duty shooting, the Fraternal Order of Police has been escalating efforts to sway opinion.
Fiery comments have become the norm from FOP President James Smallwood. He often criticizes District Attorney Glenn Funk as being “politically motivated” for charging Delke.
And last month the FOP launched the online ad campaign and website truthaboutdelke.com.
“We’re going to be spending probably thousands of dollars on every ad to try and get the truth out there to the community,” Smallwood said.
The website tells the FOP’s version of the shooting, emphasizing that Hambrick was a convicted felon with a loaded gun.
And the website claims Hambrick pointed the gun at the officer. That part isn’t supported by available video, but it’s what Delke told investigators.
“If we’re going to operate on the presumption that police officers aren’t telling the truth when they give statements, then I think we need to change the way that we do business completely,” Smallwood said.
The website quickly drew an angry response from Hambrick’s family, and widespread news coverage.
But the site’s tone and scant information undermines its credibility, says Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C.-based private investigator and the managing editor of Homeland Security Today, which covers law enforcement.
“'Brash' would be a word. It’s very in your face,” she said. “I would expect it to have a little more content.”
Johnson was surprised the site is a single page, without links to records or news coverage. And while its leading claim is that Hambrick pointed the gun at Delke, the site doesn’t do much to make the case.
“We, of course, don’t have proof of him pointing it at the officer, or else that would have been on their website, I’m sure,” Johnson said.
Policing Opinions Differ
The FOP is trying to tap into a sentiment — found in national polling — that a “war on the police” is underway. Almost two-thirds of Americans (61 percent) reported feeling that way in a 2016 poll by the Cato Institute.
Almost as many also said they believe police officers use force only when necessary.
Yet that same poll also found that 46 percent think police officers aren’t held accountable when there is misconduct.
These clashing views often surface in the battle for public opinion ahead of police trials. In Chicago, activists and attorneys have often held dueling press conferences — and the police union there has a long history of shaping the narratives of police shootings.
In Baltimore, prosecutions of police led to intensely personal exchanges about the motivations of the prosecutor.
Impact At Trial
All of this matters because there’s a chance the bluster will spill into the courtroom, says Jeffrey Urdangen, director the Center for Criminal Defense at Northwestern University. He saw the battle play out during the trial for Chicago officer Jason Van Dyck.
“A lawyer should not engage in that type of conduct if it would pose a serious threat to the fairness of the proceeding,” He said. “Lawyers are bound by certain ethical rules.”
Attorneys in the Delke case have traded some barbs, raising the possibility of more serious conflicts.
Urdangen says it’s up to the judge to keep them in line. The biggest risk, he says, is that pre-trial fighting and news coverage makes it harder to find impartial jurors.
“You’re probably going to have to ask three or four or five times the number of citizens to appear for jury duty for this case, because there are going to be so many people who have heard about it,” he said.
Or, if the jury pool gets tainted, the trial could be moved to another county — although Urdangen says that’s rare. It’s logistically complicated and takes time and money.
“[The judge] is going to be loath to go to another county to preside over a case which would be so much more efficiently brought where the case is charged,” he said.
Already, there are efforts to tamp down on pre-trial publicity in Nashville. Judge Monte Watkins sealed all court filings in the run-up to trial, which will limit what potential jurors know beforehand.
That decision doesn’t, however, prevent all the sniping.
Just this week, the Fraternal Order of Police sent its latest missive — an open letter to District Attorney Glenn Funk. It linked to his 1982 yearbook photo, which included a Confederate flag.
The FOP implied Funk doesn’t understand the concept of bias, and they invited him to the police academy for a free lesson.