State lawmakers took an early step Wednesday toward reducing the strength of local police oversight boards. The proposal would strip the subpoena power from the new Community Oversight Board in Nashville, as well as the longstanding board in Knoxville.
But leaders from both of those cities spoke forcefully against what the state is considering.
Nashville Mayor David Briley told lawmakers that his residents clearly voted last year for a powerful board with diverse members — and that they don’t deserve meddling from distant lawmakers.
“This bill rejects the will — rejects the will — of the voters of Nashville and Davidson County,” he said. “It silences those individuals who are subject to policing in our county, and undermines the effectiveness of a board.”
And Briley said the board will play an important role by examining police conduct that may not warrant criminal charges, or get close scrutiny elsewhere.
Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas agreed, saying the board in her city isn’t adversarial and ultimately builds trust between the department and the community.
“We can’t afford to have that relationship eroded,” she said.
But House Republicans, including William Lamberth, R-Portland, worry that police are under attack. He says Tennessee needs to set statewide “guardrails” for local oversight boards.
“If you don’t have this, then you can absolutely have a non-elected tribunal run roughshod over the rights of police officers, and they are citizens and Tennesseans as much as the rest of us,” Lamberth said.
Briley and Lamberth also fueled a testy 15-minute back-and-forth that revealed a wide gulf.
The lawmaker charged that anyone who believes relations between police and community will improve with a new oversight board are living in a “fairy-tale land.”
“[Police] are demoralized. They have been knocked down. They feel like this city hates them,” Lamberth said.
“I do take offense, chairman, at any sense that the citizens of Nashville, the residents of Nashville, don’t respect, honor, and care for their police. They do,” Briley responded. “That doesn’t mean they have to agree with them about everything.”
The bill easily passed out of the subcommittee but is still early in the legislative process.