On Feb. 10, Sheila Clemmons Lee spent the day visiting her son’s grave.
Four years earlier, Jocques Clemmons had been shot by a Nashville police officer after he was pulled over for running a stop sign. Clemmons Lee wanted to spend some time with the son she’s thought about every day since, in a place where finds peace.
But when she got home, her phone rang. There had been another shooting.
Suddenly, Clemmons Lee felt herself spiraling out of control.
“Now, I get upset anytime that there’s a shooting,” she says. “But, when it involves MNPD, it messes with me very badly. Because all I am seeing is my child all over again.”
A 21-year-old was dead. He’d shot himself — maybe accidentally — during a foot chase outside the J.C. Napier public housing complex. Surveillance footage showed him crumple to the ground as two officers ran behind him. The Metro Nashville Police Department later confirmed that no officers had fired their weapons.
That was one of four shootings involving Nashville police this year, all in less than a two-month span. And the spate of violent interactions comes at an inflection point for policing in the city: a new chief, a stronger-than-ever Community Oversight Board and mounting questions about the future of policing.
In late January, officers shot and injured a robbery suspect they’d cornered with unmarked police cars. Then earlier this month, one officer killed a woman in a shootout following a traffic stop. And just hours later, another shot and wounded a woman threatening to kill herself.
Investigations are ongoing. But police officials have defended officers’ actions in each case.
After the January shooting, a police spokesperson said the officer fired because he saw a gun in the man’s hand and thought he was going to get shot. In the mental health call, the director of the training academy said the officer discharged his weapon “in defense of self or others.”
In the case of the traffic stop, Chief John Drake told reporters the officer “de-escalated as much as possible” and that “he tried to use less lethal force.”
Officers who shoot someone are placed on desk duty, while the department, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Metro Nashville Community Oversight each assesses whether any policies or laws were broken. MNPD says all employees will also complete additional use-of-force, duty-to-intervene and de-escalation training this year.
‘Clearly it’s not working’
MNPD data show that shootings by police ebb and flow, with none in some years and at most three or four in others. The most recent surge has occurred just as Chief John Drake has announced multiple reforms. Yet some activists say more radical change is needed.
“I really believe that he thinks he’s doing what’s best. I really, really do believe that,” says Rasheedat Fetuga, founder of Gideon’s Army. “But clearly it’s not working.”
The nonprofit, which works to prevent violence through restorative justice, has embedded a team of violence interrupters in Cumberland View, a public housing complex more commonly known as “Dodge City” because of its frequent shootings. Not a single person has been shot there in the past 10 months, according to police.
“No shootings. No homicides,” Fetuga says. “We’re unarmed. And it’s people in the community who are the violence interrupters. It’s people who were born there, raised there, who are credible messengers and have relationships with people.”
She says empowering people within their neighborhoods to keep one another safe works better than sending in armed police officers.
Drake has created new community engagement teams to patrol areas like Cumberland View, where many residents distrust police. But when the officers come, Fetuga says she sees the children who live there run and hide.
“What they don’t bring when they come into the communities is an understanding that there is an entirely national context to them being there,” she says. “They represent the officers that killed George Floyd. They represent the officers that shot and killed Breonna Taylor. They aren’t policing in a vacuum. And so, they have to go above and beyond in making people feel safe.”
Early steps toward reform
Still, under Drake’s leadership, Fetuga feels like she has a voice within the department. Last month, Drake created an Office of Alternative Policing Strategies, which will support groups like hers. The mayor’s office has also just announced a $3 million grant to support community-based programs to keep people safe.
And the civilian group tasked with improving the department from within also has strong support from police leadership for the first time since its creation in 2018. For years, the independent agency struggled to gain access to the records and information it needs to conduct investigations and review policies. But when Drake took the helm, he promised to support the board and assigned a liaison to address any issues that may emerge.
Chief John Drake just signed the MOU enhancing the relationship between the MNPD & Nashville's Community Oversight Board. pic.twitter.com/SirJGbIULo
— Metro Nashville PD (@MNPDNashville) December 2, 2020
Community Oversight Board Chair Andrés Martínez says the more cordial relationship with MNPD will make it easier for the group to recommend ways to prevent shootings in the future.
“Since our policy is to automatically investigate any police officer-involved shooting, we get to look into it and determine whether police officers were following department policy when they used that force,” he says. “And while we may find that there were no policy violations, it’s an opportunity for us to maybe identify places where policy needs to be changed.”
But Martinez says policy recommendations will only go so far. He says it’s incumbent on city leaders to reimagine ways to decrease crime — beyond traditional policing.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.