Tennessee’s police oversight boards restricted by state laws

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Activist Constance Every (left, standing) criticizes Knoxville Police Department Sgt. Amanda Bunch during a PARC meeting in October 2021. Photo by Megan Sadler.

This article was written by Dulce Torres Guzman of Tennessee Lookout

Across Tennessee, police-oversight boards were created to play a role in mediating between a critical public and an often self-regulating police force. 

Each of the four largest cities in Tennessee have a police-oversight board, each with their own ordinances, bylaws and inception dates. Both Chattanooga and Nashville’s police-oversight boards were created in the last five years while Knoxville’s Police Advisory and Review Committee  was created in 1998. Memphis’ Community Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board .is the longest running citizen-run, police advisory board in the state, having been operational since 1994. 

But despite the public’s request for additional police oversight, outcomes are limited. 

The state passed several laws to limit the power of these boards. City ordinances can grant boards the fullest set of powers allowed under state law, but in 2019, legislators passed a law relegating police-oversight boards to advisory positions, preventing them from having the power to issue subpoenas or compelling witness testimonies, among other things. 

In 2021, another state law compels members of police-oversight boards to complete a police force’s academy course. Members who do not comply will lose voting authority on their respective board. 

The limitations mean that police-advisory boards are only as effective as they are allowed to be by city officials — the people who give the boards power and permit what data may be made available to the public — and local police forces, which are not required to be transparent. 

Not surprisingly, members of oversight boards often don’t agree with police. Nashville’s Community Oversight Board members protested a bill to allow license plate readers in Nashville, citing concerns of data-entry errors leading to false arrests and data being shared with immigration enforcement nationwide.

The day Nashville’s Metro Council was to vote on LPRs, Metro Police sent a letter to council members urging them to vote in favor of the resolution, which passed.

And even appointing strong advocates for police oversight to the boards can become controversial, as was recently the case in Nashville.  The Metro Council declined to reappoint Jamel Campbell-Gooch, an original board member, after council members questioned him in a heated interview about his calls on social media for the abolishment and defunding of police. 

As his tenure ended, Campbell-Gooch has continued to be critical of police officers and believes there can be no police accountability in Nashville due to a growing rift between community groups and city officials, including police.

“True oversight would allow an independent body to have access but we’re constantly having to have conversations around what access should look like instead of being automated,” he said. “Which I think is a telltale sign and indicative of what Mayor (John) Cooper and the rest of our elected officials, the 22 that voted for the license plate readers, on what their motives are.”

Photo: John Partipilo

 Metro Nashville Community Oversight Board

The Metro Nashville oversight board was created by public referendum after Metro Nashville Police Officer Andrew Delke shot a fleeing Daniel Hambrick, 25, in the back, killing him, in a 2018 incident. Delke was later sentenced to three years in jail after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. 

Davidson County voters approved the formation of a community oversight board by an 18% margin in November 2018 and by June 2019, the board’s bylaws were developed and approved. 

Metro Council awarded the COB the fullest set of powers allowed under state law, including power to investigate complaints of misconduct by Metro Nashville Police Department officers and to issue policy recommendations. After investigations are concluded, the board may recommend discipline based on MNPD policy, and when appropriate, refer allegations of criminal misconduct and civil-rights violations to the district attorney. 

Metro Nashville Chief of Police John Drake, seen here speaking an August 2020 protest rally in Legislative Plaza. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Metro Council votes on board members, who must belong to a community organization or be backed by a private petition with 50 signatures from Davidson County residents. The mayor’s office may also issue a nomination to the board.

Complaints about police officers can be mediated unless they allege severe misconduct. In those cases, the board forwards a report on findings to the Police Chief John Drake. Only Drake can discipline officers found guilty of misconduct, typically based on whether the officer violated MNPD policies.

In 2021, Nashville’s COB received 60 civilian complaints, with 26 leading to investigations.  Of those 26, 15 were closed due to unresponsive complainants and five were withdrawn, according to the board’s annual report.  

Seven, including allegations of unwarranted property seizures and unjustified detention and beatings, await response by Drake. One was rejected after Drake asserted he could not legally impose the board’s findings. 

Complaint demographics were 48% Black, 30% white, 11% two or more races and 11% Asian. More than half of the complainants were women. 

Nashville’s board also made four policy recommendations that the MNPD accepted, including MNPD reporting the use of officer-restraint techniques without weapons and extending hiring procedures, such as evaluating whether applicants have any prejudice that could impact job performances and increasing diversity among police personnel. 

MNPD also accepted the COB’s recommendations for reevaluating policing in Nashville, including implementing a pilot program that pairs mental health clinicians with MNPD officers to help escalate encounters with those experiencing mental health crises. 

Chattanooga Police Advisory and Review Committee

Efforts to create Chattanooga’s police-oversight board began in 2019 and the Police Advisory and Review Committee did not become official until July 2020, when it was approved unanimously by the Chattanooga City Council.

In order to serve on PARC, members must be nominated by council members, allowing for one person to represent each of Chattanooga’s nine districts. Volunteer board members must be residents of Chattanooga and can serve up to two terms.

PARC members must also complete a citizen’s police academy, a procedure lasting two months. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, training was delayed and PARC members were not able to review complaints until October 2020. 

The board receives complaints either through citizens or internally, including requests by the Chattanooga Police Department to review whether an officer violated police protocol.

Complaints are then reviewed by a chain of command or internal affairs, depending on the severity of the alleged misconduct. 

If a complaint is initiated by the police, the investigation goes through the officer’s chain of command, eventually leading to the police chief making a formal recommendation. The PARC then receives the complaint with the completed investigation, and according to Kay Baker, spokesperson for PARC, members have access to anything they want, such as body cam footage. Members then review the investigation during meetings attended by the assistant police chief, who presents the case and answers any questions.

PARC’s current ordinance allows them to request additional investigations, but  according to Baker, they haven’t needed to.

PARC members then vote whether officer violations are sustained, not sustained, exonerated or unfounded. The final recommendation is then sent back to the police chief, who makes the ultimate decision. 

Officers can request a hearing, and because of this and other lengthy investigations, complaints can take several months to reach the PARC. Complaints initiated by police can also be resolved internally by the time they reach the PARC. 

“Can’t put a deadline on an investigation if you want it done well,” said Baker. 

The PARC has made a few policy recommendations accepted by the police chief, including making the loss or damage to police firearms more severe and having the police chief send a memo if they disagree with the PARC’s findings  which can lead to investigations taking several months to reach a conclusion. 

If the police chief rejects the PARC’s findings, PARC members are unable to do anything else beyond raising their concerns with the city council.

“We are not the chief’s boss, we are an advisory board,” said Baker. 

Chattanooga police have a cooperative relationship with the advisory board, having disagreed with the PARC in only 11 out of more than 100 cases. 

According to Baker, diverse membership helps the PARC to be more effective. The group  includes a volunteer with a police background, a stay-at-home mom, a retired union worker, a radio station owner, a public utilities worker and a non profit representative. 

Chattanooga recently approved their first Black female police chief, Celeste Murphy, and Baker looks forward to the department’s continued cooperation, noting that the police are more likely to hold their own to higher standards.

“Is it perfect? No, no government agency is, but I can’t think of anything to make it better,” said Baker, whose term ends this summer.  

Knoxville Police Advisory & Review Committee

Knoxville’s PARC is the state’s longest running police-oversight agency, having been in operation since 1998. 

In the late 1990s, Knoxville residents were growing increasingly distrustful of the Knoxville Police Department following a perceived lack of information from police on rising crime rates and police misconduct. Former Mayor Victor Ashe created the PARC on Sept. 22, 1998 by executive order.

PARC is composed of a 7-member volunteer committee and a full-time executive director, who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council to serve a term of three years, two terms at the most.  The group has quarterly meetings, allowing citizens to learn about data and issues being addressed by the committee. Citizens are also able to voice their concerns with the police department, which are eventually relayed to the police chief and command staff. 

Tiffany Davidson

A ransomware attack in June 2020 destroyed much of the public data PARC accumulated.

The PARC is in the middle of rebuilding their databases using physical copies and continues to review police complaints, said PARC Executive Director Tiffany Davidson. 

In 2021, the PARC reviewed 33 cases, all but one of which were closed. 

Both white men and women reported equal amounts of police misconduct, more than other racial groups, with Black women comprising the second largest number reporting misconduct. 

According to Davidson, the purpose of a police-oversight group is to help give the public an understanding of police procedure while allowing a public platform for their concerns to be addressed. 

Otherwise, police-oversight agencies are not responsible for restoring the public’s trust in police departments. 

“(We) can’t apologize for the police. They have to do that themselves,” she said. 

PARC members have to be strategic in what they push when confronting police departments.With state laws limiting the power of police-oversight boards, PARC members have to “be mindful of the hill to die on,” since the board is not always protected from legal troubles or potential lawsuits from suspended officers. 

Investigations can also go through different sections in police departments, which can’t all be held responsible for misconduct in another group.

“It’s a really huge challenge, because no one can sing off the same sheet of music,” said Davidson.

Knowing this, Davidson believes the police need them more than they need the police, considering that the public needs to trust that the police will treat them fairly in the event of an emergency situation. 

“Because we are in distress, we are in a tough, vulnerable situation, and we don’t want to be treated by the personal bias that a police officer has against that community,” she said. 

The Memphis Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board

Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board was formed in 1994, following a period of officer-involved shootings of civilians but was on hiatus 2011-2016 because of a lack of funding.

CLERB has 13 members, including someone with a law enforcement background, a clergy member, a medical official, an attorney and a citizen appointed by the Memphis city mayor, according to CLERB’s ordinance. 

The board meets once quarterly to review complaints and are required to produce annual reports and analysis on all cases to be forwarded to the police director, mayor and city council.  

Complaints are to be investigated by the police before reaching CLERB, provided that internal investigations are completed within 45 days. 

CLERB’s ordinance also creates a “complaints received” section, in which databases are to be publicly available. As of 2021, information on complaints is not available.

According to CLERB spokesperson Briana Mason, CLERB received 56 complaints in 2021.

Members were unable to meet regularly during the COVID pandemic and complaints piled up. The board is currently considering hearing several cases a month, adding another investigator to the staff and having a monthly report from the Memphis police department on the number of complaints and the dispositions. 

“We are asking to randomly select two to three cases quarterly to review to ensure oversight. We are also asking for a review of policy and changes in policy that deal with citizen contact and arrest,” said Mason.

When asked, Mason said they currently have open communication with the current Memphis police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, who recently told members she would personally oversee communication with the group. 

“If the board is discussing a matter and feels our concerns need the ear of the chief or the mayor, those  concerns are forwarded to them both,” said Mason.  

Still, she notes, restoring trust in Memphis police continues to be a systemic issue since the city’s majority-minority population has historically clashed with police officers. 

“Stories are powerful, and when the story of a loved one who was pulled over by the police and talked to in a dehumanizing manner is told, it echoes loud, awakening all of the past’s wrongs,” said Mason. “There is a history in Memphis that has a lot of hurts that are often overlooked. It is hard to heal and move on from the past when police misconduct continues to happen with little repercussion.” 

In discussing police reform, police advocates and their critics have long argued whether the key to police reform is less or more police officers. 

In Memphis, Davis plans on tackling high rates of violence by hiring the maximum number of police officers, whose presence in troubled areas could be enough to deter criminal activity. 

In Nashville, Campbell-Gooch plans to become more involved with the Black Nashville Assembly, which believes that the key to police reform is tackling the societal problems that cause crime, such as poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of healthcare and food deserts. 

Erica Perry, spokesperson for the group, says that since the COB and its siblings in other states are all appointed by city officials, there’s a divide between the public, and police-oversight boards tend to favor funding police departments instead of communities. 

“Even in years when there’s been increased police-involved shootings and increased complaints, we still hear and see police getting more funding. I think that’s at the root of the problem, that the funding they continue to have is at the cost of our own communities not getting the housing we need and deserve, not getting the transportation we need and deserve or the healthcare healthcare, and not even fully funded education,” said Perry.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.