Davidson County voters are now set to decide this fall whether to create an independent board overseeing Metro Nashville Police, after the county election commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the referendum.
The decision represented a victory for Community Oversight Now, a local coalition that has been trying for more than a year to build support for a review board. But a tough fight is expected between now and the November election over whether a civilian-led agency should have the ability to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
Efforts to create a police oversight board in Nashville date back to a wave of activism in the mid-1970s. Then, as now, supporters argued that civilians should have a role in determining whether police have acted appropriately.
But law enforcement officials and organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police have generally opposed oversight boards. They say civilians lack the expertise to rule on police actions, so other officers should be involved in deciding their fate.
The board proposed by Community Oversight Now would have the power to investigate cases, but it wouldn't issue the final word. Instead, it could make recommendations on how police should be disciplined, as well as non-binding suggestions for institutional reforms.
Evidence of criminal actions would be sent to local prosecutors, a grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice.
A petition to establish such a board has been circulating since early this year, but the drive kicked into high gear after the fatal shooting late last month of Daniel Hambrick by a Metro police officer. Much of the push has come through local organizations, houses of worship and word-of-mouth.
"And we've been successful with that," says Theeda Murphy, an organizer. "So, you know we're going to go with what's been working. ... We already have a lot of community support."
The election commission determined that organizers had lined up well more than the minimum of 3,900 signatures needed to get on the ballot.
The Fraternal Order of Police, however, says a higher threshold should've been used. An attorney for the FOP says it plans to challenge the certification in court.
Backers of the oversight board expect there will also be a battle before the voters.
"We're not ruling anything out right now, and we're still formulating our (campaign) plans," says Murphy. "We're keeping all our options open right now, (but) we're a community group that doesn't have a lot of money, that's true."