Early Wednesday morning, two officers shot a man in the hand while responding to a domestic violence call. The shooting wasn’t fatal.
But it’s the third time that officers have fired at a black man since mid-May. Now, Nashville’s Community Oversight Board is investigating.
As demonstrators across the country protest police use of force, Metro Nashville Community Oversight Director Jill Fitcheard says she sees the same systemic issues right in her backyard. She thinks the police department needs an “overhaul.”
“The time to do something is today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not the next shooting incident or the next fatality,” she says. “They need to handle this today.”
The oversight group’s latest call for reform comes after Fitcheard says she and other oversight staff waited at the scene of Wednesday morning’s officer-involved shooting for two hours, without being granted access to the crime scene to conduct their own investigation. The police department contests some of the details.
And, yet again, two government agencies that are supposed to work together to ensure police officers keep residents safe are at odds. They’re arguing over narratives while Nashvillians take to the streets and clog up the Metro Council’s phone lines, pleading with local officials to rethink the way the city polices its citizens.
Residents voted in 2018 to create the oversight board after two high-profile shootings of black men by white Nashville police officers. But calls for civilian oversight date back to at least 1973, when police shot and killed a 19-year-old Tennessee State University student as he was running away.
The board and the Metro agency that supports it are tasked with investigating claims of police misconduct and making policy recommendations, to ensure the department is following best practices.
But in its first year and a half, the group has struggled to build trust with law enforcement. The board spent months negotiating an agreement with Metro Police to determine how the two departments would work together. Talks repeatedly stalled, and the oversight agency’s original executive director resigned, claiming board members hadn’t given him the autonomy he needed to work out a deal.
The two sides finally signed a memorandum of understanding in early January, after Mayor John Cooper convened an emergency task force.
But board members and staff have repeatedly raised concerns about their access to police records and crime scenes.
A Two-Hour Wait
In this case, Fitcheard says they were never taken behind the yellow tape. She says she waited on the edge of the scene for two hours, without receiving any information, before ultimately deciding to leave.
The oversight board’s agreement with the police department states COB personnel are to be granted access to a crime scenes once “the scene is stabilized and secured and access to the scene will not compromise a criminal investigation, and to the extent legally permissible.”
A police spokesperson says “every effort was made” to keep the oversight director informed after the latest shooting, and that oversight staff would have been briefed at the scene had they stayed longer.
Separately, the Office of Professional Accountability’s director, Kathy Morante, said in an emailed statement that she never crossed the crime scene tape, either. Morante’s unit conducts internal investigations into allegations of police wrongdoing, including officer-involved shootings. Like COB members, she is not a sworn officer.
Morante said investigators invited oversight staff back to the scene for a briefing, once detectives had walked through the area, and that they chose not to come back, instead asking to be briefed over the phone.
But Fitcheard says investigators from the police department should have offered information earlier — or at least acknowledged her presence while she lingered in the street.
“MNPD has to cooperate for this to work. We have had three police shootings in four weeks, and this is unacceptable,” Fitcheard says. “I’m frustrated, and I’m angry, because this process should not be this difficult. We have tried to triage in the last two incidents, and it is not my responsibility to continue to try to figure this out for them.”
In a statement, the board urged the mayor to direct the police department to follow the guidelines set forth in the MOU.
‘We Can’t Wait’
The latest breakdown between the COB and police comes amid growing criticism of the department. Council members, criminal justice reform advocates and immigrants’ rights groups have condemned a new partnership between law enforcement and the health department, which provides the names and addresses of individuals who test positive for the coronavirus with first responders.
A spokesperson for the mayor says Cooper “strongly supports deploying body-worn cameras” and that officials hope to start phase two of a pilot program “as quickly as possible.”
Activists and lawmakers have also called for changes at the police department. In a newsletter to constituents earlier this week, Council Member Freddie O’Connell recommended updates to MNPD’s use-of-force training. And after three straight nights of curfews, in response to a mostly peaceful protest against police brutality that ended with parts of the Metro Courthouse set on fire, Council Member Bob Mendes called for new leadership at the police department.
…This means that long-standing talk about policing issues needs to become action. One example: it’s clear that MNPD and the Community Oversight Board still don’t see eye-to-eye. We all know that’s mostly the Chief not wanting to play ball. Remove him now.
— Bob Mendes (@mendesbob) June 2, 2020
At a press briefing on Monday, Chief Steve Anderson said there’s always a strain between law enforcement and communities — particularly African American communities.
“A lot of it is based on past history. I try not to dwell there,” Anderson said. “But, certainly, we want to take advantage of every opportunity we can to work together, to … tear down the fences between any community, to make sure we have the relationships that we want.”
The mayor’s office says it has no plans to change leadership at the police department at this time.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.