Nashville Police Chief John Drake is navigating a crisis just weeks after officially taking the helm of the department. His team faces criticism for how it handled a 2019 report that warned a local man was building a bomb in his RV — the same man who caused the massive blast on Christmas morning.
WPLN’s Samantha Max sat down with Drake on Monday, as he announced the department would be investigating its own response to that report. What follows are excerpts from their conversation:
Samantha Max: When police responded to a 2019 call about Anthony Warner, a middle-aged white man in Antioch, they knew he owned guns and had an elaborate security system. But they didn’t search his property. So, I wanted to know if Chief John Drake felt like his officers had missed any warning signs.
Chief John Drake: “Well, you know, in hindsight, you can always look and try to speculate. … In my opinion, you know, we had a patrol response to a suicidal person. They’ve had a couple of guns on the porch. They dealt with that. In the meantime, there’s a statement was made that this person was making bombs. The officers took it seriously. They knocked on the door, tried to follow up. … And and really to do more at that point would have been violating his rights because we had nothing else to go on.”
SM: “It’s my understanding that the bomb squad is predominantly, if not all, white males. Do you think that the lack of diversity … could have affected the degree to which officers consider the seriousness of this report?”
Drake: “I don’t think so. I think we’d be speculating into a mindset. … But when you look at the bomb squad or something like that, that takes a special person … to be a part of that. I’ve never wanted to work with bombs. I’ve never wanted to take a chance on being near them. I’d rather just set a perimeter and let the experts go in and pick them up and and defuse them or blowing up or whatever. And so, there’s not a lot of African-Americans that actually do that, want to be — even in the military, I’m not sure of a lot that want to be in that kind of work. But when you look at responding to this particular case, I don’t see an inherent bias at all. I just see a response. And it ran into a dead end.”
The chief didn’t provide any evidence that Black officers aren’t interested in joining specialized units like the bomb squad. The president of Nashville’s Black police union has told WPLN News in past interviews that he’s seen many Black officers passed over for special assignments. And he says that affects department culture.
Understanding the prior report
The chief says he wouldn’t have been notified about the initial Anthony Warner warning back in 2019, even though he was deputy chief over the bomb squad at the time.
But he struggled to provide details about the department’s discovery of the records once the FBI identified Warner as a person of interest.
SM: “Why do you think it took you so long to find out about this report?”
JD: “I think it’s pretty much, you know, we did as quickly as we could get it out to the public.”
Drake’s timeline has been inconsistent. Drake has previously said he learned about the 2019 report after officials confirmed at a press conference that Warner was the bomber. Now, he says he discussed the report earlier in the day with the department’s public affairs manager, Don Aaron.
JD: “He said, ‘Yeah, there’s a report out there potentially I’m checking into.’ And so, at that point, I just let them, you know, follow up on their investigation and see what was all in the report, who responded, what outcomes were. It was a lot involved and still, it’s still a lot more to look at.”
SM: “So, you’re saying you knew at least that a report existed before that press conference. And at that press conference, you had someone asking ‘Did law enforcement — was he on anyone’s radar?’ And I know it was the TBI who answered and said, ‘No, he wasn’t on our radar.’ … Why was this information not being shared to everyone? Because otherwise it does kind of look like it’s either a great bit of miscommunication or else that someone is, you know, not being totally transparent.”
JD: “Yeah, well, that’s what the after-action report is for, is to find out if there was any gaps. So, we’re committed to transparency. We want to make sure we’re being as transparent and as forthcoming as possible.
“When I was made aware of it, you know, even in a Monday morning cabinet meeting, I mentioned to all the department heads there may be a report out there. I still at that point had not seen a report. … But you know, really, there was more to be involved. Still looking at a lot of different aspects. We had an area that people were wanting to get into residences, merchant’s, business owners wanted to get there, making request for meetings from, you know, stakeholders. So, as far as me actually looking at the report, I mean, it’s just something that I couldn’t do at the time.”
Committing to transparency
Drake points out that his phone was affected by an AT&T outage that weekend, which made it difficult for him to keep up with emails.
He acknowledges that an after-action review might uncover mistakes the department made in the days following the bombing. He says he’ll share that information with the public.
JD: “And so, if people view that, you know, they were misled or have some distrust, then we’ll continue having that transparency. We’ll continue trying to do things as quickly as possible. We’ll review that process as well to see, you know, could this have been done more timely? Could this have been done better? And that’s all part of being a better police department. And so I think you’ll see my honesty and you’ll see that I’ll continue building toward that trust.”
SM: “Well, thank you so much for your time.”
JD: “Thank you so much.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.