Phyllis Hildreth, J.D., left and Atty. Bob Cooper

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Mayor David Briley was against it. Former Mayor Megan Barry sabotaged it. The City Council voted it down. Police Chief Steve Anderson hated it. The Fraternal Order of Police spent half a million in TV advertising trying to sink it. The Chamber of Commerce opposed it. 

Just about everyone with any real swag in this city didn’t want it. And yet, a ragtag bunch of religious leaders and community activists would not give up. They organized, they held meetings, they knocked on doors, they made flyers, they built a website, they collected signatures. When they went to City Hall to submit their referendum petitions to put a Community Oversight Board (COB) in front of the voters, the city clerk hid from them. 

(See City Clerk Disses Petitioners; Cooper Calms Angry Crowd, August 1, 2018)

Amendment 1 to the City Charter proposed a citizen board to oversee the Metro police. Much to some peoples’ surprise, the COB passed 59 percent to 41 percent. The votes for it were 134,135: votes against 94,055. 

“I wasn’t surprised. The margins would have been higher if we hadn’t been so outspent,” said Arnold Hayes, one of the COB architects and a lead organizer in the grassroots push to pass the referendum.

The Oversight Now coalition canvassed neighborhoods during the signature-gathering campaign and they knew people who supported a COB were not just in the black community. 

The Mayor has already selected his two picks for the 11-member board. They are former Attorney General Bob Cooper and American Baptist College administrator Phyllis Hildreth. They are respectable choices, if not inspiring ones, and will probably get approved by the city council. 

The council needs to select the remaining nine members from a pool of nearly 200 applicants. Some were nominated by community organizations, some by petition. The amendment calls for the COB to be set up by January 31.

After that the board must hire an executive director who will select the six staffers to investigate complaints and review police policies and procedures. There will be two research analysts, a legal advisor, three investigators, and one community engagement liaison. The COB will have an annual budget of $1.5 million. 

By conducting investigations and opening its operations to the public, the COB hopes to improve trust between the community and MNPD. The COB’s architects want to change police culture away from a “Code of Silence” towards one of more accountability and mutual respect.

COB investigators will have access to police files and can interview witnesses, including police officers. The COB will send its reports with recommendations to MNPD Chief Steve Anderson. Those recommendations could be counselling or something stronger like a letter of reprimand, suspension, or even firing.

Anderson is required to respond to the COB but under the City Charter he retains authority to discipline members of MNPD. While the COB’s powers to investigate are considerable, it’s power to enforce any resolution to a particular complaint or enact policy changes remain advisory.

“Shedding light on what is secret is its strength,” said Sekou Franklin, a longtime advocate of a civilian oversight board. He once filed a complaint with MNPD but never heard back from the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), MNPD’s Internal Affairs Department.

“We don’t know who most of the bad actors are in MNPD. There is wall of silence surrounding complaints,” Franklin said. 

The success of the COB depends upon whether the police and the public come to view its operations as fair and impartial. Right now, there are suspicions on both sides and without building trust things will not improve and could even get worse.

“Ultimately we have to agree on what is reality, what are the facts of the situation, and that is a huge step in the right direction for having an effective COB,” said Melissa Cherry with Community Oversight Now.

She said the OPA has consistently dismissed citizen complaints and Chief Anderson has consistently minimized them. She said police misconduct has eroded the public’s trust in their ability to serve and protect.

“We’ve seen it over and over. We saw it with the Policing Project. We saw it with the Driving While Black report. We saw it all the way through the hunt for a COB, the Chief consistently saying ‘oh that’s just disingenuous and we’re not going to pay any attention to it’,” said Cherry.

She hopes that when Chief Anderson gets a COB report he doesn’t take the same stance he has in the past. Even if he does, Cherry said the he will no longer be able to control the narrative. 

“Nashville has said we trust implementing this process to know what is really happening to people who don’t directly experience it,” she said. 

MNPD Chief Steve Anderson and FOP President James Smallwood could not be reached for comment.