It's been almost a year since 59% of Nashville voters approved a ballot measure to create a civilian body to oversee police. The 11-member Community Oversight Board was seated in January and has already launched multiple investigations into complaints of police misconduct.
But the board has faced its share of obstacles.
WPLN's Rachel Iacovone sat down with criminal justice reporter Samantha Max to talk about the challenges the board has faced, and what's at stake. You can read a transcript of their conversation below:
RI: So, the charter amendment to create the Community Oversight Board passed last fall. But the vote was a long time coming. What got us to this moment?
SM: Calls for citizen oversight of Nashville police actually date back to at least 1973, when a Metro officer shot and killed a 19-year-old black man in North Nashville. Momentum started building again with the Black Lives Matter movement, which put a national spotlight on police-involved killings.
Local activists had been petitioning for months to put the issue on the ballot. They got thousands of signatures in the week after Hambrick's death, just in time for the July 31 deadline.
Even after the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police spent half a million dollars fighting the ballot measure, the amendment passed with broad support. Residents were finally ready to see some changes in the department.
RI: That was a year ago. Now, after a rigorous interviewing process, we've got 11 board members with really diverse backgrounds — lawyers, activists, former officers. And the board is now also supported by its own Metro department. What have the past few months been like for them?
SM: Busy. They've launched 11 investigations into allegations of police misconduct, eight of which are still ongoing. And the group has really lofty goals.
Board members and staff definitely plan to look into people's complaints. But they also want to review department policies and make recommendations when they think there's room for improvement.
For instance, executive director William Weeden told me his staff hopes to delve into the department's use-of-force policy. Police have argued that the officer who shot Daniel Hambrick followed his academy training when he pulled the trigger.
So examining that policy could really illuminate why officers shoot, and whether the policy should be changed to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Weeden says the group also hopes to make community engagement a top priority. He's mentioned that he wants to spend every Friday in different neighborhoods around town, to keep residents involved in the oversight process.
RI: Not everyone has been supportive of the oversight board. The group has faced some pretty major pushback from the police department, especially Chief Steve Anderson. Would you say relations between the COB and Metro Police are off to a rocky start?
SM: From what I've seen, yes. The meetings so far between Director Weeden and Chief Anderson have all been behind closed doors. So I don't know exactly what the vibe in the room has been like.
But at a board meeting last month, Weeden said their first few meetings were pretty tense. And that tension has really gotten in the way of the board's progress.
The department initially denied multiple public records requests from oversight staff. They said it would take 150 years and millions of pieces of paper to complete. But then a staff member said that he'd filed nearly identical requests as a private citizen and received all the information at little or no cost. Days later, the department turned over all the files on a CD – for free.
Basically, it's been a lot of "he said, he said" and shifting of the blame between Weeden and Anderson. And board members have gotten frustrated. They want Weeden to be tougher on anyone trying to hold the board back from its mission. Here's Board Chair Ashlee Davis at a meeting last week:
"When you're doing good work, you're likely to get somebody unhappy with you. And, at least, my grandmama said, 'It's always good to have at least two people mad at you so you can keep working hard.' I'm OK with that. I welcome it."
RI: So what's the next step for the board?
SM: Well, the board just approved their proposed memorandum of understanding with the police department. It's a lengthy document they've been drafting for months. And it basically lays the ground rules for how the two parties will work together moving forward.
It gets into things like when oversight board and staff members can enter crime scenes, how many days the department has to respond to records requests and how they'll conduct investigations.
It's essentially a contract.
But the chief needs to sign off on it. And it's unclear what the negotiation process will look like, or what pieces of the board's proposal could end up on the chopping block. Ultimately, without cooperation from police, it'll be nearly impossible for the board to succeed.
You can find more of Samantha Max's reporting on the Community Oversight Board here.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.