Police oversight boards in Tennessee will not be completely stripped of the ability to issue subpoenas. But they won’t be able to exercise the power without a little help, according to a compromise reached Monday by state lawmakers.
At issue in recent weeks is how strong local police oversight boards should be, and specifically the power to subpoena testimony and records.
Some Republican legislators worry boards like the new one in Nashville will be too aggressive toward police when investigating misconduct. But the House and Senate arrived at different proposals — the House would have blocked subpoena power altogether — prompting a special committee meeting to reconcile the options.
On Monday, the group decided that oversight boards must send each subpoena request through its local city council, which already has such authority. Subpoenas will be carried out if a majority of the local council votes in favor.
“And we will be watching closely,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland. “Because if they abuse this subpoena power if they’re granted this, then I certainly will be back — and whether or not a majority support me or not, we’ll find out — but it’s something I just hope they are very, very careful with.”
Lawmakers pegged their vote as a compromise, noting that many of their peers are leery of granting any subpoena power to oversight boards.
Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari was the lone dissenter Monday, arguing that the legislature is trying to “address a problem that doesn’t exist.” She cited prior testimony in which none of the state’s existing oversight boards reported any disputes over subpoenas.
She also said that routing subpoenas through a city council could “get political.”
A similar thought came from activist Jackie Sims, who helped create Nashville’s board as part of Community Oversight Now.
“Having to go the route of the council is a little bit disturbing … because they were not completely on our side, initially,” Sims said.
The compromise still needs to be approved by the full House and Senate before going to the governor.
The bill will also change the criteria governing who can serve on a local oversight board, stating that boards, “shall not restrict or otherwise limit membership based upon demographics, economic status, or employment history.”
This change could directly affect Nashville, which required some members to come from economically distressed communities and which banned police officers from the board.