In just the past month, Nashville’s new police oversight agency has launched three investigations into high-profile, use-of-force incidents.
And they’re testing the department’s powers.
First, news broke that a man had died just days after he was booked into jail. A co-defendant claims police used physical force when they arrested him.
Then, an officer shot a man during a domestic violence call. He was injured, but survived. And last week, three officers killed a man in a shootout, after he fired at an off-duty policeman.
Director Jill Fitcheard says these are the types of cases Nashvillians wanted the Community Oversight Board to investigate when they voted to create it. But she says her staff is struggling to get the information and public records they need.
“We are here because the Nashville community saw the opportunity and need for better communication, transparency and accountability,” she said at last night’s monthly board meeting. “I would like to get this records thing resolved as quickly as we can, so that we can move forward on the work that we have to do for this community.”
One major concern has been the emergency notifications Fitcheard and her assistant director are supposed to receive when there’s a critical incident, like an officer-involved shooting. She says nearly a month passed without a single alert from the Department of Emergency Communication, and when the man was injured during the domestic violence incident earlier this month, the notification she received never even mentioned an officer had shot someone.
DEC Director Stephen Martini says the agency wants to work with the board to find ways to improve its software, so that oversight staff can be kept in the loop.
“The bureaucracy — there’s people behind all that stuff,” he says. “Let’s take the red tape out and let’s have people sit down at the table and talk about how we can make it work. So, let’s figure out where the challenges are, the bumps are and where we can smooth them.”
Fitcheard says she’s also hoping to work more closely with the district attorney’s office.
Assistant prosecutor Jenny Charles serves as a liaison between the office and the oversight board, and Fitcheard says she’s also in regular contact with DA Glenn Funk.
But she hopes the prosecutor’s office can do more in the future to help her department carry out its investigations — especially when the police department denies its public records requests.
Accessing police documents has been an ongoing struggle for the oversight group.
The department has provided many of the records they’ve asked for. But state law prohibits law enforcement from sharing records when they’re part of an ongoing criminal investigation, even if they’re technically public.
However, exceptions are made for certain agencies, including the DA’s office and the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability, which conducts internal investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.
Several board members and staff say Community Oversight should be included in that list, too.
“It doesn’t really make sense that we’re treated as an outside organization, since we’re all within the Metro government,” says Todd Pinckley, Metro Nashville Community Oversight’s legal advisor.
He says the agency has reached out to Metro’s legal director to see if the local government could be re-structured in a way that would grant them the same access to records as the OPA. But if that proves too difficult, the board is considering turning to the Metro Council to start issuing subpoenas.
“If it’s a thing to where we have to constantly be subpoenaing them, I’d rather do that than to have to just keep talking to people over and over again to try to get the information,” says board member Jamel Campbell-Gooch. “I’d prefer to just constantly be doing that action, even if it’s annoying, and it’s pressuring people to do something. Because I don’t want to continually have to talk to separate bodies, when we’re supposed to be all in the same boat.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.