Chief Anderson to retire, will help Nashville pick next chief

Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson (Photo: Metro Nashville Network)
Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson (Photo: Metro Nashville Network)

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson will retire in the coming months, bringing an end to a career that spanned 45 years including the last decade at the helm of the department.

Pressure mounted in recent weeks on Nashville Mayor John Cooper to ask for Anderson’s resignation. Police reform activists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship and at least 15 Metro Council members said Anderson should go.

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

Although it’s unclear if Cooper asked Anderson to retire in response to the pressure, the details of his departure paint the picture of a chief who has the mayor’s continued support. Anderson will remain in the post at least through the presidential debate at Belmont University in October. Anderson will also provide consultation on the hiring of his replacement. Those courtesies would not be extended to a chief being shoved out the door.

Cooper has repeatedly complimented the police department’s response to a series of protests over the issue of police brutality.

The Tennessee Lookout broke the news of Anderson’s retirement shortly before Cooper’s regular Thursday morning press conference about the COVID-19 pandemic. During the press conference, the mayor confirmed the news, but declined three times to say whose decision it was.

“I am grateful to the Chief for his service throughout his 45-year career, and for providing continuity and a smooth transition during a national search,” Cooper said.

Although critics said Anderson stayed on too long, the irony is he didn’t want the top job in the first place. Anderson was named interim chief when his predecessor Ronal Serpas abruptly left for the top post in New Orleans during Nashville’s flood recovery in 2010.

Anderson initially said he didn’t want the chief’s position, but was talked into it by then-Mayor Karl Dean. Anderson earned the support of the mayors that followed Dean, though he butted heads with Mayor David Briley. According to multiple sources, Briley unsuccessfully pushed Anderson to retire.

The job of police chief has civil service protections that prescribe a strict legal process for removing them from the job. Those protections make it difficult for a mayor to simply fire the chief and Anderson outlasted Briley, who lost last year’s election.

Outside of navigating the city’s political waters, Anderson’s department has enjoyed broad community support. A recent Vanderbilt University poll, which showed the department had an approval rating of 86 percent.

Anderson, who has a law degree, worked his way through the ranks, giving Nashville a home-grown police chief. He lacked the television charisma that other police chiefs possess, but has been praised for his calming demeanor and organizational skills. He led various divisions of the department, including the administrative services bureau, the investigative services bureau and the field operations bureau.

Cooper said his national search would not exclude internal candidates, and insiders say Nashville has several top-ranking police officials who are well positioned to eventually run major city police departments.

During his time leading the department, Anderson was frequently criticized by the police officers’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police, for internal issues, such as benefits, quality of life and human resources disputes. The union wasn’t the only group critical of Andeson.

Until recent years, Anderson avoided sharp criticism from reform-minded activists, and even earned national acclaim for his handling of a peaceful protest in which officers passed out coffee and hot chocolate to protestors blocking a major downtown interstate.

Anderson has garnered tremendous respect among the city’s criminal justice leaders, including Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall, who pointed out that Anderson has partnered with the sheriff’s office to reduce arrests in favor of citations over the last few years.

Like other large cities, scrutiny on Nashille’s police department is at a fever pitch. Nashville has had two officer-involved shootings that brought about vocal demands for more oversight of the department. One of the most controversial incidents was the 2018 fatal shooting by Officer Andrew Delke, who is white, of Daniel Hambrick, who was black. Delke was criminally charged and faces trial for that incident.

On the heels of the officer-involved shootings, a push for a Community Oversight Board gained momentum. The civilian board, which is utilized in other cities, investigates incidents when police officers use force and offers policy recommendations. Voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of the board in November, 2018.

Most recently, a number of policing reform proposals have swirled around Nashville, including at least two pieces of council legislation that would increase legislative oversight of the police department. Anderson said earlier this month through a spokesman he welcomed those discussions.

Earlier this month, Cooper said he had identified funding necessary to immediately begin implementing mandatory body cameras for Nashville officers, a long-sought measure. There have also been multiple reports in recent years, including by Gideon’s Army, showing racial disparities in Nashville’s policing.

A drastic budget amendment to take funding away from the department and send the money to social service agencies was easily defeated during the council’s budget debate this week. But, the broader discussion about policing reform and funding is certain to escalate in the coming months.

Anderson has garnered tremendous respect among the city’s criminal justice leaders, including Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall, who pointed out that Anderson has partnered with the sheriff’s office to reduce arrests in favor of citations over the last few years.

“Chief Anderson is a consummate professional,” Hall said. “He cares deeply about our city and its police department. His steady hand has been invaluable as we have faced many unique challenges over the past 10 years. I wish him nothing but the best.”

Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell, who joined the group of members calling for Anderson’s resignation, applauded the chief’s efforts to reduce violent crime in recent years.

Metro Nashville Councilmember Freddie O'Connell (D19) (Official Metro Council photo)
Metro Nashville Councilmember Freddie O’Connell (D19) (Official Metro Council photo)

“Chief Anderson brought a new professionalism to (the Nashville police department),” O’Connell tweeted. “His tenure, which helped develop new leadership, coincided with a measured drop in violent crime. I thank him for his service to Nashville. Now we must look ahead to a new era of continued progress in public safety.”

As the focus shifts to a replacement, an internal candidate likely to receive consideration is Deputy Chief John Drake, who was recently promoted. Like Anderson, Drake, who is black, has spent his entire career in the Nashville police department.

But, some advocates are already pushing for an outside hire. Community Oversight Now, a grassroots coalition that backed the formation of the oversight board, tweeted on Thursday, “This system is broken. Any replacement must suggest A Radical Departure from anything that’s been trained at MNPD in the last 45 years.”

Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.