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Criminal Justice

What Happened to Jaylin McKenzie? His Mom Demands Police Transparency

More than 300 Black people have been killed nationwide by the police during a traffic stop, according to a database.

The mother of Jaylin McKenzie is pressing the Memphis Police Department for more information on his police-involved shooting death last December. (George Walker IV/Associated Press)

A week before Christmas last year, Jaylin McKenzie was visiting family in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was shot and killed by a police officer following a traffic stop. 

For nearly nine months, his mother, Ashley McKenzie-Smith, says she has been trying every avenue possible to get the truth about what happened to her only son on Dec. 16 beyond the two public statements released by the Memphis Police Department and the state’s Bureau of Investigation. She says she has filed public records requests for police reports, statements, audio recordings, a full autopsy report, and body and dash camera footage, and was denied three times. 

Now, the Memphis police’s account is being called into question.

An investigation by HuffPost revealed Nahum Dorme as the shooter, and that the Memphis Police Department has already given written reprimands to Dorme for violating numerous department protocols by not having his body-worn camera turned on during the traffic stop that resulted in the 20-year-old McKenzie’s death. 

“That night, he [Dorme] took my world … but we know he was not the only officer on the scene,” McKenzie-Smith. “I just want to hold everybody accountable.”

At a press conference in Memphis on Tuesday, McKenzie-Smith demanded that Dorme be immediately fired and prosecuted, as well as for law enforcement to turn over all documents, video footage, and audio recordings in connection to her son’s death. Black Lives Matter Grassroots, Black Leaders Improving Negro Development (BLIND), and Memphis community leaders joined McKenzie’s family for the press conference, followed by a rally and protest.

McKenzie-Smith, who is originally from Atlanta, says she has sent nearly 2,500 emails to elected officials and law enforcement seeking support and answers, to no avail. She says each trip she has made to Memphis has left her in disbelief and outraged. 

“Nobody knows about Jaylin. Nobody knows that this happened literally weeks before Tyre [Nichols]. It’s an outrage. And then I can’t even get real media attention because it’s like nobody wants to play it, like he doesn’t exist,” McKenzie-Smith said. “It’s a slap in my face, and it should be a slap in the Memphis community’s face because this could be your kid, this could be your brother, this could be your husband, and if y’all are not mad, then I don’t know what to say.”

Weeks after McKenzie’s death, five other Memphis police officers were fired and charged after being seen on surveillance and body camera footage beating Nichols to death following a traffic stop. The department and the city of Memphis are already under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Swift action happened with the officers in Nichols’ case because their body and dash cameras were turned on, as well as surveillance footage from the street. 

Traffic stop disparities

McKenzie is among the more than a 1,000 people who have been killed by police during a traffic stop in the last 10 years. Of the 1,155 killed, 464 identified as white, 327 as Black, 198 as Hispanic, 17 Native American, 16 Asian, and nine Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, according to an analysis of the Mapping Police Violence database that has tracked fatal police killings since 2013. The database was last updated on June 15.

Since Nichols’ case, grassroots organizations such as Decarcerate Memphis, have worked with city officials to pass ordinances that would limit traffic stops with police in Black and brown communities throughout Memphis, especially in the predominantly Black Hickory Hill neighborhood where McKenzie was shot. Coupled with the Justice Department’s investigation, Chase Madkins, a member of Decarcerate’s steering committee, says it’s still not safe to drive around while Black in the city. 

As an activist, Madkins says he has a larger target on his back that attracts harassment from law enforcement in Memphis. In May, Madkins says, he was pulled over for allegedly driving with stolen license plates, while his infant son was in the backseat. Months prior, Madkins was pulled over while driving his 12-year-old nephew home when another Memphis officer, dressed in tactical gear, ordered him to get out of the car for allegedly making an illegal turn and his license plate not being properly displayed because it was bent at the corner, The Associated Press reported. 

“It’s time to have an in-depth conversation about community policing … really making the conversation about what safety is and what safety feels like, because if policing worked, if it truly was effective, we would have seen the results by now,” said Madkins, 34. 

“We must hold them accountable, and we must get justice for Jaylin and for all of the other stolen lives. I will not stop until we do this,” McKenzie-Smith said.

What happened the day Jaylin died?

Hours after the shooting, Memphis police posted on Twitter that they tried to conduct a traffic stop of a “suspicious vehicle” when the car sped off, lost control, and drove into a park. 

McKenzie, who was an aspiring musician, was in the car with three or four other Black men who police said were dressed in all black, armed and fled on foot. 

The police reported that “one officer and the subject exchanged gunfire, resulting in the death of the individual,” according to a statement released by the state’s Bureau of Investigation at the time. 

“As our investigation remains active and ongoing, we cannot offer confirmation to any of your questions, nor comment beyond our statement,” Keli McAlister, a spokeswoman for the TBI, wrote in an email to Capital B.

McKenzie-Smith disputes the police account based on the small amount of information she has been able to obtain. She says her son was a passenger in a white Infiniti that was not stolen when they were confronted by officers at a gas station. 

A foot pursuit ensued and McKenzie was shot five times. One of the bullets hit the back of his leg, shattering his knee. He also broke his leg, which McKenzie-Smith suspects may have happened as he was running away from Dorme. Another bullet entered his chest from the front, she says. 

“Why did you shoot him in the chest?” McKenzie-Smith said as she tried to fight back tears on Tuesday. “Officer Dorme says he thought that his life was in danger, but why? Is it because MPD has trained him to see all Black males as a threat?”

There was also blunt force trauma to McKenzie’s face, which his mother questions if he was also beaten after being shot. None of the statements from investigators mentions recovering a gun or shell casings from the scene.

Capital B has reached out to the Memphis Police Department for comment.

An attorney for the McKenzie family says McKenzie’s autopsy report did not indicate any gunshot residue on his body. McKenzie-Smith says she has made several requests to the medical examiner to conduct the autopsy again to test for gunshot residue, “but they keep sending back the same report” that doesn’t indicate it was found on her son’s body.

Capital B has reached out to the Shelby County medical examiner office to request a copy of McKenzie’s autopsy report.

McKenzie-Smith said that she has requested for a full autopsy report that would include an examination for gunshot residue, but “they keep sending me back the same report” that doesn’t mention it. Police say her son was killed by a Memphis police officer after he shot at them first. She says she has made several requests with the medical examiner to do a full autopsy that includes testing for gunshot residue, to no avail. 

“The MPD cannot cover up what happened to my son. I’m holding everyone accountable,” McKenzie-Smith said.

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