Nashville's Community Oversight Board Faces Its Greatest Challenge Yet: A Contract With Police | Nashville Public Radio

Nashville's Community Oversight Board Faces Its Greatest Challenge Yet: A Contract With Police

Oct 2, 2019

Nearly one year has passed since Davidson County residents voted by a sweeping margin to form a citizen-run police oversight board, potentially transforming the inner workings of the Metro Nashville Police Department.

But tensions between the Community Oversight Board and police are already running high. And after months of fraught meetings, miscommunications and delayed public records requests, the COB is preparing for what could be its greatest challenge yet: negotiations over a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with police.

The board will vote on the proposed contract Wednesday evening.

But it's up to Metro police to decide whether to accept it. Without a formal agreement, it could be nearly impossible for the oversight group to do its job.

At a recent COB meeting, William Weeden, the board's top staffer, said police officials had shied away from collaboration.

"The lack of participation was more of a roadblock for us," Weeden said. "To not participate in the process was making it more difficult than it needed to be."

A written agreement sets the foundation for a working relationship between the police department and the COB. It would lay out a step-by-step process for the group's research projects and probes into allegations of misconduct.

Pressure is mounting on the COB and its staff to succeed. The board is the culmination of decades of local activists' calls for more oversight of the police department.

Activists celebrate the passage of Metro Charter Amendment 1, which established the Community Oversight Board, last fall.
Credit Martin B. Cherry / Submitted

Metro police, like law enforcement agencies across the country, have faced heightened scrutiny in recent years. And the vote to form a COB came just months after a young black man was shot and killed by a Nashville police officer — the second in two years.

That's why several members have spent months meticulously drafting an MOU they hope will pave the way for a smoother relationship with police.

Inside the writers' room

It's 4 p.m. on a Friday in mid-September, and the COB's Bylaws and Rules Committee is crowded around a conference table cluttered with stacks of paper, laptops, three-ring binders and pens. The group is parsing through the latest draft of the MOU.

A nine-page markup of the agreement, which one committee member refers to as "this document of many colors," is filled with strikethroughs and additions from multiple rounds of edits over the course of four months.

During this final meeting before the committee presents its proposal to the full board, the group is working through the last lingering sticking points. They spend 14 minutes debating whether police should have 45, 50 or 60 days to respond to COB reports after the board completes an investigation into alleged officer misconduct.

Sentences are phrased and rephrased two, three, even four times. Members inspect every misplaced semi-colon and unnecessary capitalization. They joke about refining long-winded, jargon-filled sentences.

"Athleticize that box," one board member says.

"Tighten it up a little bit, you know what I'm saying?" another chimes in. "Some crunches, push-ups, pull-ups."

A few chuckles muffle the hum of the fluorescent lights overhead.

Every detail matters in this document. The final version approved by Chief of Police Steve Anderson will determine just how much – or how little – access the board and its staff will have to department records, crime scenes and officers under investigation.

Since May, the committee has carefully drafted each line, drawing from templates used by civilian oversight boards in other cities and input from community groups that have advocated for policing reform, like Project Return and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The board knows all too well how difficult it can be to function without clear communication and open cooperation with the police department.

In its initial months, the COB and its staff have been operating on a case-by-case basis, navigating relationships with other Metro agencies without formalized protocols. At times, agencies have been eager to assist as best they can. The district attorney's office, for instance, recently assigned a liaison to meet regularly with Weeden and help his staff obtain documents and information for their investigations.

Other interactions have been trickier.

Conflicting narratives and shifting blame

The COB waited four months to be added to Metro's emergency communications system, which alerts the police and fire departments when a critical incident occurs, such as a police-involved shooting.

Weeden blamed Anderson, saying the chief could have authorized the move whenever he wanted, and chose not to. Anderson, however, shifted the blame back to Weeden, saying it would've been as simple as asking in writing or with a phone call.

"I assumed that you would follow through with this," Anderson wrote in an email to the director last month, "so I did not intervene in the process."

There's a lot riding on the Community Oversight Board's agreement with Metro police. "I think that's a big first step toward building that spirit of trust," executive director William Weeden told WPLN during an interview in late August.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

Conflicting narratives have also emerged regarding the oversight group's requests for public records. Metro Nashville Community Oversight – the new government agency that assists the COB with its investigations and policy reviews – has filed 10 public records requests. When the board last met two weeks ago, only half had been fulfilled.

In several cases, MNPD cited excessive labor fees and hours needed to complete the requests. One inquiry, Anderson wrote in his September email, "would require months of research, retrieval, review and reproduction. This would virtually cripple our Records Division and limit or curtail our daily service to the public."

Two requests in particular drew the department's ire. The MNCO asked for access to databases containing all incident and arrest reports dating back to 2001. In a statement, Metro police said releasing those records would require staff to print, read through and redact more than a million pieces of paper.

"Assuming all these reports were readily available and no archival searches were required, to review and redact, at the blistering pace of 2 minutes for each report, that's 26,311,652 minutes or 438,527 hours," the statement said. "So if someone worked on this nonstop for 8 hours a day, 365 days a year, it would take 150 years."

At an hourly labor rate of $20 an hour and 10 cents per page, the statement went on, the request would likely cost more than $10 million.

But MNCO staff researcher Peter Vielehr doesn't buy it.

He said at a recent board meeting that he'd sent nearly identical requests while co-authoring the 2016 Driving While Black report with the community organization Gideon's Army. As a private citizen, Metro police gave him access to MNPD databases at little or no cost.

"Saying that it would take a million pieces of paper is, frankly, ludicrous," Vielehr said.

MNPD told WPLN it has since completed the additional five requests "by providing elements of the reports that are considered publicly releasable under existing protocols for release of data."

But the group's rocky start has caused some to worry.

'We owe it to the community to be honest'

Internal miscommunications within the oversight organization have sparked concern. Board members have criticized Weeden, the organization's executive director, for failing to alert the board sooner about the unfulfilled public records requests.

"This is the type of issue that the board needs to know about when it occurs," COB member Matthew Sweeney said at an August meeting. "When there's pushback for what we need for us to work, that needs to come up to you, Mr. Weeden, and you need to know the details on it, and you need to have a recommendation or a proposal, or whatever, as to how to address it."

COB Chair Ashlee Davis echoed Sweeney's words at a later meeting.

"We owe it to the community to be honest about where we can do better," she said.

COB members hope the confusion will be sorted out once the memorandum of understanding with Metro police is set.

Still, it'll be up to the police department to decide what stays in the final agreement and what goes.

"I'm always remaining optimistic, till proven otherwise," Weeden told WPLN. "I hope there's a spirit of cooperation, a sincere spirit of cooperation amongst all parties. I know there is on our part."

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.