Policing referendum in Nashville | 2018

Nashville considers an independent police oversight board

In the wake of a Nashville police officer shooting and killing Jocques Clemmons, a Black man who was running away, community groups have put a referendum on the November ballot to create an independent board empowered to investigate police misconduct. Clemmons’s mother led the group of activists who submitted the referendum petition to municipal officials.

“The community has been pushing for this for at least 40 years,” Theeda Murphy, an organizer with Community Oversight Nashville, told me. She said Clemmons’s shooting sparked renewed urgency. In July, days before organizers filed their petition, Officer Andrew Delke fatally shot another Black man, Daniel Hambrick, while he was running away. Delke was charged with homicide in September. The officer who shot Clemmons, Joshua Lippert, faced no charges.

The federal Department of Justice investigated Nashville’s broader policing practices in 2017. Its report recommended that the city consider creating an independent oversight board. In 2016, a group of researchers published Driving While Black, a report on police stops in Nashville that documents aggressive tactics and disproportionate targeting of people of color.

The Fraternal Order of Police and the Davidson County Republican Party are mobilized against the proposal; they argue that police officers are already held accountable through internal investigations and external offices like the district attorney. David Briley, Nashville’s Democratic mayor, says that he supports the idea of an oversight board but not this initiative, in part because of insufficient police input. “The current leadership of the police department under Chief Anderson has been extremely resistant to being accountable outside of the police department,” Murphy said.

Oversight boards elsewhere differ greatly in terms of what independent power they possess. Nashville’s proposed board would get to conduct a “full and complete and independent investigation, outside the purview of the police department,” Murphy said, because it would have the power to issue subpoenas and thus compel witnesses. This is a power that some boards lack.

There is also variation about what is done with the investigations. “Who is going to be the final entity who is going to be supportive of them, because they will be challenged?” Liana Perez, the director of operations of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, told me. Nashville’s would be an advisory board. It would issue recommendations to the police department and the mayor. But “the police department will have to provide a rationale” if “they choose to not follow recommendations,” Murphy said. In addition, the board would get to research issues beyond individual cases and provide policy suggestions to the mayor.

The initiative also provides that four of the board’s 11 members need to live in “economically distressed neighborhoods.” “We wanted to make sure that we went beyond” people who tend to already be represented, Murphy said, and achieved “significant representation from people who are left out.”