Analysis: Cooper weighs strong internal candidate or ascending star for police chief

Mayor John Cooper at an Oct. 14 meeting of the policing policy commission. (Photo: Nashville.gov)

The long, multi-committee process to name a new Nashville police chief has played out, and the decision now rests with Mayor John Cooper who must decide between the favored internal candidate or an impressive outsider viewed as a rising star within the law enforcement community.

Interim Chief John Drake, a veteran of the Nashville police department, is the safe selection and for that reason may be the most likely pick. Drake rose through the ranks of the Metro Nashville Police Department, from beat officer to executive leadership. Notably, he has the backing of the local police union.

Interim Police Chief John Drake (Photo: Metro Nashville Police Department)
Interim Police Chief John Drake (Photo: Metro Nashville Police Department)

But, the selection process revealed a strong batch of outside candidates as there was intense interest nationally in the Nashville chief job. And among the four finalists from outside the department, momentum seems to be building behind Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman, according to sources.

Just 47 years old, Ziman is active on social media, maintains her own blog and takes a proactive approach to engaging with her community in Aurora. That would be a stark departure from former Chief Steve Anderson, a more behind-the-scenes bureaucrat who relied heavily on his media relations department led by veteran Don Aaron and was careful about speaking out on issues. Ziman’s blog and tweets often read like progressive proverbs, especially on issues of race and racial biases.

“I don’t know who needs to hear this but race is a socially constructed system of categorizing humans largely based on observable physical features, such as skin color, and on ancestry,” Ziman tweeted on Oct. 28. “There is NO scientific basis for discernable distinction between racial categories.”

Ziman, who is white, emerged as a national voice on gun violence following a mass shooting in Aurora in which several officers were shot. Following the shooting, Ziman attended President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019 as a guest of U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat. Ziman did not respond to an email sent through the Aurora department seeking comment for this story.

“We are committed to serving our community and making Aurora among the best places to live in the State of Illinois,” Ziman said at the time. “Our department is indebted to its workforce and will always remember the five innocent victims killed during the mass shooting on February 15th, 2019. I am honored to take their memory and the stories of the men and women of the Aurora Police Department to the nation’s capital for the State of the Union address.”

Ziman has also been well-vetted before. She was one of the final three candidates for the Chicago chief of police job. Since Nashville is a place where problems with racial biases in policing have been identified by multiple studies, Ziman’s view on the issue is worth considering.

Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman (Photo: aurora-il.gov)
Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman (Photo: aurora-il.gov)

She told the Aurora Beacon-News in 2016: “The fact is, there are gaps in this community when it comes to how we deal with the Hispanics and African American population. We have a bridge to build. I want to change the hearts and minds one contact at a time.”

Although Ziman may be the top outside candidate, the other contender who distinguished himself during the interview process, according to sources, was Larry Scirotta, a former assistant chief for the Pittsburgh police department.

Besides Drake, who is the interim chief in Nashville, Ziman is the only other candidate with experience as a chief, another factor in her favor and perhaps a key advantage over Scirotta. Although she would be an outside hire, Ziman was complimentary of the Nashville police department during the interview process and didn’t give indications that the department needed a dramatic overhaul.

Metro Councilwoman Emily Benedict, who has been outspoken on criminal justice issues, said she believes the chief search yielded strong candidates.

Benedict said she appreciated the diversity the five finalists represented.

“Chief Drake has done a good job,” Benedict said. “He has some good advantages from being inside the department. I don’t want to say it needs to be someone from outside the department, but I think there’s value in taking that into consideration.

“My hope is there’s one great candidate who’s clearly the best. But, if it’s a tie between two great candidates, I would hope it would go to the outside candidate.”

Drake has tremendous support from the rank and file Nashville police officers as well as the union. In fact, it’s safe to say that fences would need to be mended with the department if Drake is passed over.

Drake has also expressed a willingness to implement change, including improving relations with the Community Oversight Board.

  Our feeling within the activist community that has been following (the search) closely is that they're just going through the motions and are planning to pick Drake. The other ones, they really just haven't distinguished themselves.   – Theeda Murphy, police reform activist

In that sense, there’s not tremendous separation between Drake and Ziman in terms of how much reform each finalist feels is needed in Nashville. Neither plans to strip the department to the studs and start over, but both are open to making some changes.

Cooper told the Tennessee Lookout during an interview to mark his first year in office that he believes he was hired by voters to “fix stuff,” but it’s unclear if he believes the department is so broken it needs to be “fixed.” 

Does Cooper have the appetite to face the necessary distraction that would come from hiring an external candidate, upsetting the union perhaps leading to the departures of some senior MNPD staffers?

Theeda Murphy, one of Nashville’s most prominent activists for policing reform and organizer for Community Oversight Now, said her sense is that the process was designed for Drake to win. 

The Community Oversight Board was represented on the important six-person committee that interviewed the finalists in the form of chairman Andrés Martinez.

“Our feeling within the activist community that has been following it closely is that they’re just going through the motions and are planning to pick Drake. That’s how we feel,” Murphy said, adding she doesn’t feel any of the external candidates distinguished themselves from the others to this point. “The other ones, they really just haven’t distinguished themselves.”

Murphy acknowledged that Ziman is “overtly liberal,” but added, “From what I’ve been able to see, just about everybody in Nashville politics considers themselves progressive and liberal and look at the issues we have with them. Nothing we’ve seen through my limited searches makes me think she’d be any different than them. The mayor and all those people would like her because she talks and acts like them, but I just don’t think she has the depth of understanding to be someone who can come and relate to us with our problems in our community.”

Screen shot of Chief Kristen Ziman's Instagram.
Screen shot of Chief Kristen Ziman’s Instagram.

Metro Councilwoman Jennifer Gamble, who chairs the council public safety committee and served on Cooper’s policing policy reform advisory committee, said that although she felt there was a sense within the community that it was time for Anderson to retire, she does not see a demand for the new chief to come from outside the department.

“I think people felt there needed to be a change,” Gamble said. “I think there was some sentiment with Chief Anderson there was time to get someone new. But as far as who would replace, or who would come in, I haven’t heard any specific suggestion that it should be someone from the outside.

“I think as long as it’s someone who is qualified and willing and able to implement this blueprint that the commission has worked so hard to provide in moving our city forward, and making those policing reforms.”

Ziman is the kind of candidate who could bring some changes to the department and improve community relations while not trying to tackle major departmental overhauls to such a degree that it became a distraction for Cooper, who must remain focused on the pandemic and the budget. Drake is receptive to change as well, but has the backing of many within the department and would be the smoothest in terms of transition of power since he already has the job on an interim basis.

If Cooper wants to hand the reins of an MNPD to a competent deputy chief who won’t rock the boat too much, Drake will be the pick. If Cooper believes a fresh face is needed and his administration prefers an outsider, then expect it to be Ziman with perhaps Scirotta as a dark horse.