Nashville has chosen five finalists to lead the Metro Nashville Police Department after a monthslong, nationwide search. The candidates each have decades of experience in law enforcement, but their backgrounds and philosophies vary widely.
WPLN News took a deep dive into each finalist’s history, to get a better idea of how they might run MNPD. Here’s what we found:
John Drake: Interim Police Chief of the Metro Nashville Police Department
John Drake fits many of the characteristics that both supporters and critics of the police department have called for. He’s a Black Nashville native who has served with MNPD for more than 32 years. And, over the years, he has earned praise from faith leaders, community members and his supervisors at MNPD.
Department records show only two disciplinary reprimands in his file: one from 2013 for failing to review use-of-force reports in a timely manner and the other for missing a court date in 1991. On the other hand, they’re stacked with more than a dozen letter of commendation and appreciation.They thank Drake for his “selfless and courageous commitment,” “knowledge and ability to work well with others” and “wonderful response time and kind attitude.”
“The department appreciates officers like you who are proud of their profession and who want to see our department succeed,” then-Lt. Kay Lokey wrote in a 2010 letter to Drake, thanking him for his help with recruitment.
In an internal survey conducted by Metro’s consultant for the chief’s search, more than 60 MNPD employees suggested the mayor choose Drake for the position.
“He is the only person Captain or above that I have never heard a negative thing about from the Officers of the department. Everyone that has worked for him has had enjoyable experiences and truly enjoy working for him,” one wrote. “He is a drastic difference from the last administration and I think he would be the person to change morale and retain officers.”
But some activists worry that Drake is too entrenched in a culture that has been called toxic. Though no allegations of misconduct have been lodged publicly against Drake, he has risen through the ranks alongside others who have been accused of racism, misogyny and even sexual assault within the department. Drake has said he has “zero tolerance” for such behavior but also told Vice Mayor Jim Shulman during a community call that he thinks MNPD has “a good culture.”
Drake has already started to put his own stamp on the department in his first few months at the helm, by replacing proactive flex units with neighborhood engagement teams, cultivating a relationship with the Community Oversight Board and supporting new forms of public safety, like mental health crisis teams and Gideon’s Army’s Violence Interrupters.
Troy Gay: Chief of Staff at the Austin Police Department
Troy Gay is the right-hand man to Austin’s chief of police with more than 30 years of experience with the department. And Gay’s boss, Chief Brian Manley, calls him “a reformer.”
Manley says Gay works closely with local activists and takes the lead whenever a new project emerges to revamp department practices — from eliminating a juvenile curfew and reducing low-level marijuana enforcement to creating new protocols to protect undocumented immigrants arrested for minor crimes from deportation.
But, Gay’s role in the upper ranks of APD has also landed him in a negative spotlight multiple times in the past year.
Last December, Austin’s city council voted to investigate allegations of racism and homophobia within the police department, KUT reports. And Gay was one of the central figures in that investigation. An anonymous complainant accused him of having an “anti-gay mindset” and forcing his child to attend gay conversion therapy, which is banned in many states and has been criticized by the American Psychological Association.
Gay has denied all of the allegations and told investigators that he is a member of a group that supports lesbian and gay officers. Ultimately, investigators were unable to corroborate the accusations. But they also said they had “not gleaned a large number of answers to the questions asked at the start of this investigation” because officials failed to provide multiple documents and some employees were afraid to be interviewed.
Just days after the investigation was published, Gay was in the news once again. After police shot and killed a 42-year-old Black man while fleeing from officers in his car, more than 5,000 people signed a letter to the mayor urging the department’s leadership — including Gay — to step down.
“There is almost ZERO community trust in the Austin Police Department due to leadership of the aforementioned,” the authors wrote. “You must ask them to resign.”
“It’s unfortunate that he’s having to have this cloud over him,” Manley says. “But I have the utmost confidence in Chief Gay.”
Darryl McSwain: Chief of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police
Like Interim Chief Drake, Darryl McSwain is a Black chief who joined law enforcement in 1988. And he’s used his platform to speak candidly about racism in law enforcement.
At a virtual town hall a few weeks after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, McSwain said tears filled his eyes when he watched the video.
“They didn’t come to my eyes simply because I’m a public safety executive or a father of four, but just as a human being,” he said.
McSwain said it was a “great sign” that young people were protesting, just as they had done during the civil rights movement. And he said departments need to improve their recruitment standards to prevent another tragedy.
“We’ve got to put more emphasis on the hiring process, look for people who have greater empathy, are willing to work with community members who don’t look like them,” McSwain said, adding that departments also need to hire more women who can bring fresh perspectives and problem-solving skills.
According to Bethesda Magazine, McSwain spent most of his career at the Montgomery County Police Department in suburban Maryland, where he served in multiple leadership positions, including as director of the Special Operations Division. Shortly after assuming that role, members of the unit shot and killed a man carrying a gun and explosives who took people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters. McSwain told the magazine the standoff was “the longest four hours of my life.”
More recently, as assistant chief in Montgomery County, McSwain partnered with the National Institute of Justice to help implement the “Montgomery County Model,” which brought together law enforcement, religious leaders, trauma-informed counselors, government officials and community members to prevent the “domestic radicalization” of kids and teens.
McSwain sits on the Montgomery County Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, and has also served on the board of GateWay Second Chance Foundation, an organization that supports teens in the foster and juvenile justice systems.
Larry Scirotto: Former Assistant Chief of Professional Standards of the Pittsburgh Police Department
Before retiring in 2018, Larry Scirotto spent 23 years with the Pittsburgh Police Department, eventually working his way up to assistant chief. During that time, he served in a variety of units, ranging from narcotics to canine, according to the South Pittsburgh Reporter. The local paper reports that Scirotto also taught classes at the training academy, including ethics, cultural diversity and sex crimes investigations.
Scirotto earned both praise and criticism when he defended the department’s decision to put rainbow “pride” decals on police cruisers during Pittsburgh Pride in 2017. When some officers made discriminatory remarks against LGBT people, a local TV station reports that Scirotto told lieutenants and sergeants in an email, “This is not acceptable & I expect each of you to remedy this issue.”
That same year, Scirotto collaborated with the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice to update department policy as part of a pilot program to cultivate trust between police and community members. Recommendations included better training and protocols for de-escalation and more transparency measures to keep the public informed on department policy.
But even as Scirotto was working to improve the Pittsburgh Police Department as assistant chief, he was looking for new opportunities to make an impact elsewhere. Scirotto has applied for at least five police chief positions since 2017 and has made it to the final round in at least three cities.
When he was a finalist in Grand Rapids, Mich., Scirotto told a local TV station that he was committed to “organizational change.”
“My leadership team has to believe that there’s a value in community-police partnerships, and the newest recruit has to believe there’s value in those community-police partnerships, so that it’s intentional,” he said. “When you have the opportunity to engage, you don’t prioritize law enforcement functions and crime enforcement over community relations and the opportunity to build a relationship with one of the members of our community.”
Kristen Ziman: Chief of the Aurora Police Department
The sole female finalist for Nashville’s top cop is used to being the only woman in a roomful of male police officers. Kristen Ziman is the first woman to lead her hometown police department in Aurora, Ill. She’s been the first in nearly every leadership position she’s served in since joining the department in 1991.
At first, it was a label Ziman resented, according to a video podcast she recorded with the West Aurora school superintendent in in 2018. But, when she realized she was setting the path for a new generation of law enforcement officers, Ziman said she changed her mindset.
“Now I understand the importance of being a role model,” she said.
But it’s not just her gender that has set the Aurora chief apart. Ziman describes herself as a “loudmouth girl who doesn’t fit the stereotype of a cop let alone a leader of cops.” And she shares her opinions openly on her blog, a public Facebook page and a column in the local newspaper she started writing in 2008, according to her department bio.
Ziman regularly uses those channels to communicate with her constituents, including a letter to the Aurora community that she posted on her Facebook page after George Floyd’s death . Though she defended her department and said most of her officers “understand that treating people with human dignity and respect is the cornerstone of our values,” she also committed to listening and making policing better.
“Law enforcement as a whole has failed our black and brown brothers and sisters, and it shouldn’t have,” Ziman wrote. “As a leader in the law enforcement community, I am sorry for injustices and pain that some in our profession have caused individuals and their families nationwide.”
Days later, Ziman announced on Facebook that the department was expediting its rollout of body cameras. “Honestly, it can’t happen fast enough,” she wrote.
Ziman was named one of three finalists for police chief in neighboring Chicago this spring. The city’s mayor ultimately chose someone with more experience leading a large city. (Chicago’s population is 2.7 million people, compared to Aurora’s 200,000.) But, while she was still in the running, Ziman wrote that she felt ready to take on a new challenge and bring the same “culture of respect” and “compassion” she had cultivated in Aurora to a new police department.
“The reason I get out of bed every day is because I love policing,” she wrote.
“Taking a risk is never a safe option but for me, the safe option is almost always the worst option. I have come to understand that opportunities come in with the tide and sometimes you’ve just got to get on and see where it takes you. I’m doing just that.”
Next Steps in the Chief’s Search:
A panel of six community members and law enforcement experts will interview the five finalists on Thursday and Friday, according to the mayor’s office. The candidates will also meet with Mayor John Cooper, public safety employees and local leaders.
The mayor’s Policing Policy Commission, which is preparing a report and recommendations for the department’s next leader, will provide additional questions for the finalists to answer. Those responses will be broadcast on Metro News Network Thursday at noon.
The mayor plans to select the next chief some time in November.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.