This is What Democracy Looks Like

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Keith Caldwell and Kyle Mothershead talk about legislation to create a COB in Nashville.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN –Like the abolitionists and freedom riders before them, they began their meeting with a prayer. About 150 people came to the Gordon Memorial UMC on Herman St. last week to talk about a police department that treats too many people like criminals.

NAACP officials, members of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) and members from a half-dozen other community groups want to create a Community Oversight Board (COB) to investigate allegations of police misconduct. The mayor, police chief, half the city council, and most of the city’s business leaders are dead set against it.

“We definitely need one because you can’t expect the police to police themselves,” said Benny Overton, Vice-Chair of NOAH. It is a faith-based group that works on housing, economic equity, and criminal justice issues.

“The system is flawed and that’s just due to racism. The systemic fix will be an unbiased entity that the people can trust,” he said.

“There’s a lot of opposition from people who don’t take seriously what people are experiencing in the community,” said Councilman at Large Bob Mendes.

“I’ve been pulled over many times in my own neighborhood. I’ve been roughed up by the cops. I’ve been falsely arrested so this is a personal issue for me,“ said East Nashville Councilman Scott Davis..

Mendes and Davis said they planned to sponsor legislation to establish civilian oversight of the Nashville police department perhaps this Fall.

But there is a lot of work to be done if the COB draft proposal stands a chance of passing in the city council. Mendes said people in power don’t believe what’s going on is real.

“That is the advocacy challenge: to talk to enough people to convey that the experience on the street is real and it’s not disingenuous; it’s not a lie, it’s not a tale we tell. It’s true and something needs to be done about it,“ Mendes said.

The council could create a civilian review board with 27 votes or the city charter could be amended by referendum. Either way, for the first time in a long time, there is hope even anticipation that it could happen here and soon.

“The last attempt to get an oversight board in this city was in the 1990s. We have to make a strong push now. If we don’t, we are talking another 20 or 30 years” said Dr. Sekou Franklin, an MTSU Political Science associate professor.

Franklin noted that civilian police review boards are nothing new. The first one was established in 1948 in Washington D.C. Dr. Martin Luther King proposed one for New York in 1964 and he asked Mayor Richard Daly to create one in Chicago in 1966.

According to the Seton Hall Law Review, 100 U.S. cities have citizen review boards. But twenty-six of the fifty largest police departments in the U.S. do not have a COB. Of the remaining 24, the mayor or police chief appoints the majority of the COB members.

Not how many members, but who picks them and what powers they have, determines how effective civilian oversight boards can be.

Only nine COBs have non-mayoral majorities. They are Dallas, Miami-Dade, Las Vegas, Detroit, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Miami, Newark, and Albuquerque. Nineteen COBs have subpoena power but only 6 have the power to discipline police officers for misconduct. Those are in Chicago, Washington D.C., Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Newark.

The Nashville city charter gives the police chief the authority to discipline his officers. The civil service commission and the police union also play a role when police officers are disciplined.

The police Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) investigates civilian complaints against Nashville police officers.

“There are over 700 complaints filed with the OPA and zero percent are found for excessive force or for things we know the people experience, so we see that the process in place now isn’t working,” said Andrea Flores Burroughs from Black Lives Matter. Burroughs recounted an assault on a Metro schoolgirl by a metro police officer. The girl was taken to General Hospital without her mother’s consent.

“What we are proposing is to establish an independent office outside of the police department that can fully investigate these types of claims,” she said.

Burroughs and Terrance’Akins facilitated one of four breakout sessions that discussed the same three questions.

They were: why do we need a COB? How does it work? And what would you like the COB to do?  There was a Q&A session for the entire assembly afterwards.

Barbara Gunn Lartey moved from Philadelphia to Nashville seven years ago. She wanted to know if the COB would be just smoke and mirrors. “Is it something with teeth? How would it work here in Nashville?” she asked.

“Two things that a review board needs to have,” explained NOAH’s Arnold Hayes. “They have to be independent from the police department. If they report directly to the police department they usually don’t work,” he said.

“They have to have funding. They have to have money to operate.”

Arnold said most successful review boards have budgets in excess of $1 million. He said that they have professional staffs that take care of day-to-day cases

As the meeting wound down, Hayes urged the crowd to talk to others about a COB, to make phone calls, talk to the city council, talk to the mayor, and attend town hall meetings to build support for a COB.

“We need as many people on board as possible. The powers that be expect us to fizzle out and go away. We’re not going to fizzle out,” said Jackie Sims who is with Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities. “No one can offer a good reason to people in this room why we should not have a community oversight board,” she said.

The next step happens in City Hall Monday July 17 at 3 p.m. There is a finance and safety committee meeting with members of the council’s minority caucus.  “This train is moving. It’s not stopping. I’m with Jackie, we’re not giving up,” said NOAH’s Arnold Hayes.

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