Nashville Mayor Resists Demand For A Civilian-Led Police Oversight Board

Apr 24, 2017

Following the February shooting of a man at the hands of a Metro Police officer, demands are mounting to create a civilian review board. It would oversee and arbitrate complaints leveled against the Nashville police. A coalition of grassroots activists is beginning to draft a plan, and council members are weighing their support. But Mayor Megan Barry says she’s not interested.

Barry says she has yet to be sold on the concept of an oversight board.

“The results nationwide have been mixed when it comes to their efficacy,” Barry says. “I think the goal is to create a well-disciplined, professional police force, and there are other ways to do that.”

Chief among those ways, she says, is the plan to outfit officers with body cameras. It’s a big ticket item with a proposed cost of $50 million.

But it’s only one piece of the law enforcement puzzle, says Arnold Hayes, a member of the grassroots collective NOAH. Hayes is helping draft the legislation for a civilian oversight board. He says an independent body is critical to rebuilding the relationship between residents and police.

“How much trust is the community going to have for the police to investigate their own police?” Hayes asks. 

In its nascent form, the Nashville proposal calls for a 13-member volunteer board with paid support staff and subpoena power. It also prohibits any active or recent members of law enforcement from serving on the board.

Matthew Barge is the co-director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which helps departments across the country on reform initiatives. He says the push for an independent body to oversee police behavior has become part of modern law enforcement, especially in a post-Ferguson landscape. There are now more than 200 such agencies across the country, in cities like Austin, Denver, Memphis and St. Louis.

“There has been growing recognition over maybe the last 10, 15, 20 years that policing is the most effective for everyone when the community is partnering with the police department,” Barge says.

However, Mayor Barry doesn’t see how wresting power from the police with an independent oversight board is the best way forward for Nashville — at least right now.

“I think that we need to have a comprehensive program that approaches a well-disciplined professional police force,” Barry says. “And I think that’s what we’re doing.”

After the February police-involved shooting of Jocques Clemmons, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it would investigate all fatal police shootings from here on out. But that doesn’t include citizen complaints. And as it stands, a small percentage of complaints against officers result in any discipline.  A board like this, says Arnold Hayes, would investigate those complaints and issue rulings. 

“It gives the community a place where they can go if they feel they’ve been done wrong,” Hayes says. “And there may be cases were the board rules that they haven’t been done wrong.”

Hayes estimates the board would cost Nashville $1.8 million a year. And the police have already voiced their displeasure with the idea.