Police Bodycam Meeting Raises Tough Questions For Nashville To Sort Through

Mar 1, 2017

After last month’s fatal police shooting, there’s been a groundswell of demand to equip Nashville police with body cameras. But the implementation is tricky. How is the footage stored, and for how long? When do officers turn them on? And what type of privacy is expected by those on either side of the camera?

To help answer some of these questions, Mayor Megan Barry created the Community Advisory Group on Body Cameras. Meeting for the first time on Tuesday, the room was packed with an array of stakeholders. They included the chief of police, the district attorney, the public defender, a juvenile court judge, the ACLU and more than a dozen community and faith leaders.

“I do believe that body cameras increase transparency. They also help build community trust,” Barry said. “But I also think it’s important to remember that they are just a tool.”

Despite the Mayor’s sentiments, it didn’t take long for the bigger, thornier issues to emerge — like the relationship between African Americans and the police.

“Before I can trust you, I need to not be afraid of you,” said Larry Craig, who works with Project Return, an organization helping ex-offenders get jobs. He said the fear cuts both ways: the public fearing the police and the police fearing the public. “I feel fear is a major component that we need to dissect and break down."

It was a sentiment echoed again and again by community leaders in the room. Clemmie Greenlee, who leads the local non-profit Nashville Peacemakers, said initially she wasn’t sure if the city was really committed to fixing what she calls the trauma between the police and the city’s young black men. “But sitting here now and seeing who is now in the room, I do have a glimmer of hope,” she said.

Beyond the overarching concern of the fractured trust between residents and police, others were concerned about privacy and the question of when not to record. Too many exceptions, some worried, could undermine the point of using body cameras in the first place. The city is looking at Chattanooga’s newly implemented body camera strategy for guidance.

Nashville’s Criminal Court Clerk, Howard Gentry, urged those in the room to remember who they’re serving and not get caught up in cross talk. “I’m not here to give anybody around the table answers. I’m here to create answers for the community,” he said.

Police union president James Smallwood offered his perspective. “I think that when an officer is eating lunch or using the restroom or having a personal conversation with a peer supporter or another personal officer, there is a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Smallwood said. “Now, when they’re dealing with the public that’s a different story.”

Smallwood’s comment was one of the few from police. When asked, police chief Steve Anderson gave his take on the plan to implement the technology. “There will be body cameras in Nashville,” he said. The question is, “do we do it today or do we do it next year?”

There are two more meetings this month on the issue of body cameras. In the spring, the mayor plans to present the Metro Council with an official request for funding.