Talk of widespread police reform swirls around Nashville in wake of George Floyd protests

Activists want less talk, more action enforcing already-approved policies

Metro Nashville Police in riot gear stand on Lower Broadway during a recent Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Alex Kent)
Metro Nashville Police in riot gear stand on Lower Broadway during a recent Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Alex Kent)

The death of George Floyd and protests that followed in Nashville have paved the way for a series of policing reform proposals and an unprecedented oversight challenge of the police department by the Metro Council.

At least two bills aimed directly at Metro Nashville Police Department policies have been filed in recent days. Mayor John Cooper has committed to former President Barack Obama’s challenge that cities undertake broad review of their departments.

Councilman Colby Sledge filed a bill to curb use of force by officers in response to the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms, which the department supports, according to a Nashville police department spokesman. Councilwoman Sharon Hurt filed a bill that would ban Nashville from hiring police officers who were fired by previous departments for inappropriate use of force.

Sharon Hurt, (Nashville) Metro Councilmember at Large (Photo: Metro Council)
Sharon Hurt, (Nashville) Metro Councilmember at Large (Photo: Metro Council)

And stakeholders ranging from activists to lawmakers are researching legislation and model policies that may make sense in Nashville.

“That’s the unrest we are feeling right now with George Floyd,” Hurt said. “The mural they have with all of these names of black people who have been killed across the country speaks volumes to me. I think it’s sad. We have to show we do value people’s lives. I know they say all lives matter and they do. But, what we mean when we say black lives matter is that black lives matter, too.”

There is no doubt that momentum is building for policing reforms in Nashville. But, stakeholders caution that there is also a sense of fatigue from debating policy without real action and point to the disagreement between Chief Steve Anderson and the Community Oversight Board as proof that there has been too much talk and not enough action.

Police chief sets policy in Nashville

The way Floyd’s death reverberated in Nashville is similar to what happened in other cities, where activists have seized on the public outcry to push for policy changes. Sledge said council members have been told in the past that setting policy for the police department falls under the purview of the chief.

Sledge said the Metro Charter requires that policies set by the chief must abide by applicable ordinances passed by the council. That means the legislation filed by Sledge and Hurt will be a test case in whether the council can regulate the department or set policy.

Sledge’s bill is modeled after suggestions from the national nonprofit Campaign Zero, which offered eight policies to reduce use of force by police. A Nashville police spokesman said that in most cases, the department already uses the model policy. Spokesman Don Aaron said the “8 Can’t Wait” policies are well received by the department.

Nashville Chief of Police Steve Anderson (Photo: Metro Nashville Police Department)
Nashville Chief of Police Steve Anderson (Photo: Metro Nashville Police Department)

Hurt wants to ensure that any officer fired by a previous law enforcement agency for use of force can’t be hired in Nashville. Aaron said the department’s existing vetting process is thorough and officers fired by other agencies for that reason already would be prevented from earning a job in Nashville.

When he was still president, Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which led to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights producing a report and toolkit, including an array of model policies and legislation.

Councilman Freddie O’Connell said he is interested in researching if one of those model policies, requiring legislative approval when the police department accepts excess military equipment from the federal government or purchases “military grade” equipment, makes sense in Nashville.

Aaron said that through the federal program, Nashville has accepted four Vietnam War-era helicopters, one helicopter gearbox and rifles used for ceremonial purposes. 

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said the General Assembly has made progress on improving transparency for law enforcement related deaths.

“I think there is room to build and expand upon that to ensure openness,” Yarbro said, adding he is also interested in other model bills suggested by the Obama-backed report. “One priority should be to ensure the state has quality de-escalation training resources sufficient for each and every officer. I also think it is worth ensuring that we have an appropriate policy and a careful process when it comes to the acquisition of certain military equipment.”

Anderson, who was hired by Mayor Dean as police chief in 2010 following the departure of Chief Ronal erpas, is facing perhaps the harshest test of his leadership. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship and more than a dozen council members have called for his resignation.

Aaron told the Tennessee Lookout that Anderson welcomes a continuing discussion of policing in Nashville with the community.

Too much policy debate, not enough action

Hurt said it’s important for Metro Council to ponder new policies, but she expressed frustration that existing laws and policies aren’t being enforced. She pointed to the ongoing dispute between Anderson and the Community Oversight Board as evidence of why some stakeholders are frustrated.

  We're at the point now that reforms aren't working. It's really a waste of resources to keep giving police more money for the same results.   – Gicola Lane

“The problem I have in all of this is we already have legislation, but there’s a lack of enforcement in Metro,” Hurt said. “We put (legislation) in there, we get it and for that moment everybody is good. We say, ‘Oh that’s good. That’s good legislation and we’re going to make a change.’ Then nothing ever happens from it because it’s not enforced. I think that’s a huge problem for us.”

Gicola Lane, one of Nashville’s leading activists on police reform issues and a former candidate for Metro Council, echoed Hurt’s frustration. Call it policy fatigue after years of talk and not enough action.

Gicola Lane (Photo: Facebook)
Gicola Lane (Photo: Facebook)

In 2017, a report by Gideon’s Army found a disproportionate number of black Nashvillians were the subject of police actions. A 2018 report Policing Project report commissioned by then-Mayor David Briley came to similar conclusions.

And earlier this year a report from the 37208 Committee, which was formed to address the disproportionate number of residents in that zip code that were sent to prison, offered a series of  ambitious goals and policy reforms.

In response, Lane said the city needs to reroute funding that has been going to the police department and spend it instead on social services and other investments in minority neighborhoods.

“We’re at the point now that reforms aren’t working,” Lane said. “We have talked police reforms. We’ve been back and forth with the chief. It’s really a waste of resources to keep giving police more money for the same results.

“What we’re trying to do now is divest some of the money we’ve spent in trying to reform the police department, who has proven it cannot be reformed, and invest in our communities specifically black and indigenous communities who have been intentionally neglected and under-funded forever.”

George Floyd protests give rise to political engagement

While much of the political discussion rising out of the protests over Floyd’s death has focused on policing, there is also hope the protests will lead to increased civic engagement.

Perhaps Nashville’s largest protest was organized by a group of teenagers – a fact Obama himself pointed out in a tweet on Thursday.

Tequila Johnson, co-executive director of the Equity Alliance, said she hopes the protests lead to young people registering to vote and casting their ballots in the important upcoming elections.

Tequila Johnson, co-executive director, The Equity Alliance.
Tequila Johnson, co-executive director, The Equity Alliance.

“No one can really predict what will happen, and I think that’s because we are living in new times. We are in very unchartered territory,” Johnson said. “People are very excited and motivated to try to change this system as much as possible. I hope to see an influx of new voters on the rolls and an influx of voter turnout that will put a fire under the necessary people to begin to change those policies, to eliminate some of the power that the police department has.

“I think any type of movement around people getting involved in civic work, or involved in how our lives are governed is so inspiring. It’s especially inspiring knowing that the youth vote will make up one out of 10 voters. So to see the 25-and-under youth on the front lines of these protests, marching, fighting, demanding that people in power hear them, that within itself is so inspiring. It’s pushing me to stay up all night fighting, working, researching, studying, building.”