The Metro Nashville Police Department has a new leader after a months-long, nationwide search that ultimately isn’t venturing far for the selection.
Interim Chief John Drake is dropping the word “interim” from his title, Mayor John Cooper announced Monday. Drake has run the department since former Chief Steve Anderson retired in August.
“John Drake is someone that can start on day one to make us a greater city,” Cooper said in a press conference. “He knows what to do.”
Drake is a native Nashvillian who joined his hometown department in 1988. He is only the second Black officer to lead MNPD and one of a select few to have risen to leadership.
That background could help Drake run a department that has been accused of systemic racism by residents. His predecessor, Steve Anderson, left on the heels of widespread protests against police brutality and calls to cut the department’s budget.
In his first few months as acting chief, Drake has pledged to earn the trust of community members.
“People are scared of what they don’t know,” Drake said in a televised interview with the mayor’s Policing Policy Commission co-chair last month. “If people don’t know officers, and officers are just coming in and making arrests, making traffic stops and leaving, then that creates a void.”
Drake has already taken steps that he believes will help fill that void. He’s replaced proactive enforcement units with community engagement teams, hired the department’s first chief diversity officer and worked to strengthen MNPD’s relationship with the Community Oversight Board. The board and department negotiated a new memorandum of understanding earlier this month after the original agreement signed under Anderson’s leadership failed to resolve several ongoing disputes between the agencies.
On Monday, Drake said his priority is to diversify the department. He also talked about creating a crisis intervention team, consisting of plain-clothed officers who are expected to respond to those with mental health issues.
“This is my hometown,” Drake said. “I love this city, I really care about it.
“I believe in change and, in fact, I embrace change. … I’m here to tell you change is coming. Our changes — my changes will be grounded in collaboration and community-based strategies.”
But some activists are wary of a leader who has spent decades within a department they say has repeatedly resisted reform, even after high-profile shootings of Black men, disproportionate traffic stops of Black drivers and overwhelming support from Nashville voters to create a civilian-run police oversight group. They worry the practices and attitudes instilled under Anderson’s leadership will be too difficult to shake.
“That can’t be fixed by anyone that the chief has appointed to a senior level,” Community Oversight Now member Sekou Franklin told WPLN News in August, shortly after Drake was named interim chief. “It’s not a personal issue with Drake. But it’s just that there needs to be an outside person to even try to fix that.”
Several former employees who left the department under Anderson’s tenure after facing discrimination have told WPLN News that they’re worried Drake won’t do enough to change the culture his predecessor built.
Choosing an insider
Mayor Cooper defended the decision to hire the only internal candidate in a pool of more than 50 applicants from across the U.S. He said Drake was the best candidate and that he knows the community better than many.
“Because he’s your own, doesn’t mean that he’s not fantastic,” Cooper said. “Anybody who’s been in the process, I think, would agree that the committees did a fantastic job, and the five finalists were each extremely able individuals and no doubt will be fine chiefs in other departments in other cities in the future.”
The other four finalists for the job included the chief of staff at the Austin Police Department, the chief of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, the former assistant chief of professional standards at the Pittsburgh Police Department and the chief of Aurora, Ill.’s police department.
All five finalists — comprising three Black men, one white man and one white woman — preached progressive philosophies in their televised interviews and cited a history of reform.
But Drake’s status as an insider likely worked in his favor among officers who are reluctant to transform the department too quickly or too drastically.
More than 100 officers asked the mayor to appoint Drake or another insider in an internal survey conducted by Metro’s consultant for the chief’s search. Only one other MNPD chief, Ronal Serpas, has come from afar.
“I honestly believe, in my 21 years of service, that current Interim Chief John Drake is the best person for the job,” one wrote. “Chief Drake has always strived to make this department a better place for all to work. He takes his commitment to the profession and his service to the community seriously.”
“If the Mayor goes outside of the department to find the next Chief of Police, it is a big morale killer,” another wrote. “If the Chief of Police is not found within the department, what does it give the younger officers the inspiration to do?”
Unlike the four other finalists chosen for chief, Drake also had more than two months to establish himself as a leader. He used that time to start making adjustments and set himself apart from the previous administration.
Drake created a centralized homicide unit, implemented stricter protocols to approve search warrants and started a hotline for officers to report sexual misconduct.
WPLN’s Sergio Martínez-Beltrán contributed to this story.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.