Nashville, TN–Today (April 4), on the 50th observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, the Community Oversight Now coalition launches a petition drive for a charter referendum to create an independent Community Oversight Board (COB)with compulsory and investigative powers. The announcement will take place at a 5:30 pm press conference in front of the East Precinct police station, 936 E. Trinity Lane, Nashville, TN 37207.
Dr. King was an early advocate of Community Oversight Boards (also called Civilian Review Boards) and considered them an important instrument for addressing police misconduct and accountability. Nashville advocates have also pushed for oversight boards since the early 1990s. Renewed demands for a COB occurred in February 2017 after the killing of Jocques Clemmons by Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) Officer Joshua Lippert. The COB referendum is more pressing today given the nearly 700 civilian complaints filed each year against the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) from 2005-2015 (7,000 total), 98% of which were decided against the complainants.The “Driving While Black” report assessing 2 million MNPD stops, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, and Nashville’s District Attorney all found racial and institutional bias in MNPD practices.
The Nashville charter permits a referendum if petitioned by a percentage of registered voters, the number of which is based on the voter turnout in the previous local, general election. For this referendum, 4,300registered voters must sign the petition by the first week of August. Upon validation, the referendum will be placed on the November 6thballot. Since the charter referendum campaign will coincide with the August primary and November general elections, it can now be used to evaluate the candidates’ positions on police accountability.
Nashville urgently needs a COB to address police accountability and restore ethical governance. On January 23, 2018, the Metro Council voted against holding a public hearing on the COB proposal, although it had previously allocated an annual appropriation of $220 million to MNPD. The “No” vote eliminated any chance for residents to participate in a Council-sponsored public hearing about police accountability. By voting against a public hearing, the Council reversed an earlier promise made after the Clemmons’ killing for transparency and democratic governance. Council further rejected a resolution to create a Task Force for the COB despite the Mayor’s endorsement of the proposal last October.
In addition, we are encouraged by the Tennessee Attorney General’s legal opinion No. 18-07 issued on March 8, 2018. The opinion authorizes the use of subpoena power for civilian review/community oversight boards in most police misconduct investigations and policy reviews (pending criminal investigations are exempt). Section 18.10 of the Nashville charter grants boards/agencies equivalent power (or the power to compel) that would make the proposed COB one of the strongest in the nation.
The COB charter referendum demonstrates that Dr. King’s pursuit of nonviolence, liberation and justice is not just a dream or propaganda rolled out for anniversaries and commemoration ceremonies. The COB represents the best of Dr. King and the most significant step Nashville has taken to address police accountability.