COB Shut Out of MNPD Body Camera Policy

Officer Shelby Hughes, Crime Prevention Officer, South Precinct, wearing a Watch Guard body camera at the Music City Center Tuesday, February 25, 2020. Police officials showed an instructional video to the Press and members of Metro Council. They were invited to sit in a new police cruiser outfitted with the new cameras that will be deployed by mid-March.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – Following a traffic stop in East Nashville, MNPD Officer Joshua Lippert killed Jocques Clemmons on February 2017. Metro Council approved $15 million for bodycams and dashboard cameras in June 2017.

It’s taken nearly three years, but MNPD demonstrated the new cameras at Music City Center this week. Twenty-three cars and police officers equipped with cameras will finally hit the streets by mid-March. Twenty-five more will follow in May. (See Body Cameras).

“I know it’s been a long process but we’ll start with 23 officers in our traffic division: our traffic division investigators, the DUI squad, the fatal crash investigation team, and the aggressive driver team. The camera installation in those cars will begin next week,” said Police Chief Steve Anderson.

A panoramic camera mounted in a police cruiser.

Anderson said each patrol car will have three cameras, two facing forward and one backwards. Each officer will be assigned two body cameras and eventually those cameras will be replaced with models that use interchangeable batteries.

Officer Andrew Delke shot and killed Daniel Hambrick on July 26, 2018. His death catalyzed a petition drive and then a referendum vote in November 2018 approving a Community Oversight Board(COB). Efforts to establish a citizen review board date back to at least the 1990s following a long history of abuse and distrust between blacks and a mostly white police force.

The 11-member COB board was selected in January 2019; COB Executive Director William Weeden started work in April 2019. The Tennessee State Legislature quickly dashed hopes for civilian oversight of Metro’s police force.

In May 2019 Gov. Bill Lee signed a measure sponsored by Dickson Republican Michael Curcio. It stripped the COB of the power to issue subpoenas or compel witness testimony anywhere in the state of Tennessee. That pretty much relegated the COB to making policy suggestions. Anderson rejected Weeden’s attempts to work out a cooperative plan to work together to investigate police misconduct.

Weeden told WPLN that Anderson refused every document request from COB investigators. The two men publicly clashed and Weeden abruptly quit in November 2019 after just seven months on the job. Jill Fitcheard succeeded Weeden as Executive Director in December 2019.

In its 2019 Annual Report, the COB listed 33 complaints. Seventeen concerned events prior to April 2019 or did not involve a MNPD officer, so they were not investigated or they were referred to other agencies. In nine cases, investigations were started but not completed. The complaint may have been withdrawn or investigators were unable to reach the respondent, or the officer resigned. Seven cases (21%) were still open for investigation as of January 1, 2020.

A number of cases the COB would like to investigate have been stalled by MNPD. The two agencies were at loggerheads until Mayor John Cooper stepped in.

Cooper convened a task force in November 2019 to get past the stalemate between MNPD and the COB. For COB’s negotiator, Cooper chose Phyllis Hildreth, a COB board member, American Baptist College Vice-President, and a Professor of Conflict Management at Lipscomb University. She is married to another prominent member of Nashville’s black community, Dr. James Hildreth, President of Meharry Medical College.

Hildreth met seven times with Metro Police Deputy Chief Mike Hagar, Metro Law Director Bob Cooper, and John Buntin, Mayor John Cooper’s Director of Policy and Community Safety. The group finalized an 8-page Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Dec. 30, 2019.

Among its highlights: COB board members and staff will get police training, MNPD and COB will show good faith to resolve any disputes, COB investigators will be notified promptly in use-of-force incidents and will get crime scene access. COB investigators can contact MNPD employees for interviews and MNPD will encourage them to cooperate.  “When feasible” MNPD will share information with COB investigators.

The inside of a new patrol car with rear-facing camera.

COB’s Executive Director will have a seat and a vote in all Force Review Board meetings. Policy recommendations and responses to COB investigation reports will get a written response from MNPD  “within a reasonable time”. Although vague, the MOU terms could move along COB investigations that have been stalled for months.

“Mayor Cooper was pleased that the COB and MNPD were able to work out an MOU, and he is heartened to see a working relationship developing between the two organizations,” said Cooper spokesperson Chris Song.

“What we agreed in the MOU is that the chief would read a proposed resolution report and within a reasonable amount of time give us a response,” said Jill Fitcheard, COB Executive Director.  She would have preferred to hear back from MNPD within 45 to 60 days. In short, MNPD has rejected any fixed deadlines to respond to COB investigations of complaints against police officers.

Perhaps the most hopeful news in the MOU is an agreement to use mediation and restorative justice programs in response to allegations of police misconduct.

Concerning mediation, Section VII of the MOU states: “If accepted and completed by the parties no further investigation of the Complaint will be made. The purpose of such remedies is to enhance police-community trust, relationships, and understanding.”

No cases have been mediated yet but one or more of the seven open cases could be resolved that way. If so, the MOU will have shown some positive results because it has shown none so far.

On February 25, the same day MNPD showed off the body cameras, the department published its 21-page video policy on the MNPD website. Nowhere does it mention the COB.

The United States Attorney’s Office, the Office of the District Attorney for Davidson County, and the Metropolitan Department of Law will have unrestricted access to police video. Everybody else, including the COB, will have to make a public records request.

Have you had involvement from the COB in your deliberations?” asked At-Large Councilwoman Sharon Hurt. “Any member of the community can give us information and we could incorporate it if it would improve the policy,” Anderson said.

Hurt pressed him. “Is there some responsibility to include the COB?” she asked.“Certainly as the charter said, the COB can make recommendations and we welcome those recommendations,” Anderson said. He didn’t say if they would be followed.