Legislation that would strip police oversight boards of their subpoena powers has passed the Tennessee House of Representatives.
But the fight is not over. Significant differences with the state Senate remain.
House lawmakers voted 66-26 to approve HB 658, which was proposed after Nashville voters decided last year to create a civilian-led board capable of investigating allegations of police misconduct. Republicans in the House have worked to remove its subpoena power because they say an appointed group should not have that much authority.
Supporters of community oversight boards say the ability to subpoena records and call people to testify is crucial to their effectiveness.
Nashville’s board would not be the first in the state, or the first to have investigative authority. Knoxville’s 30-year-old board, for instance, has that power. But Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn notes it’s never used it.
He was among the few Republicans to vote against the bill.
“I just think of the analogy — if you have a child and they are making straight A’s and they are doing everything right and then suddenly you come in and say, ‘We are going to take your cell phone away because something might happen,’ there’s some injustice there,” Dunn said during the debate onthe House floor Thursday.
But bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Michael Curcio of Dickson, said the reason why the Knoxville board has worked so well is because they haven’t used their subpoena power.
He said that if they do, things could change.
“What we’ve seen from best practices across the country is that when a board of this nature uses a subpoena power like that, it undermines their ability to get their stated work done,” Curcio told reporters after the House vote.
The Senate version of the bill would allow subpoenas as long as an independent investigator hired by the board, or law enforcement, asks for them. The decision whether to issue a subpoena would ultimately be made by a judge.
Jack Johnson, the Senate majority leader, told reporters he is aware of the possibility that the measure will go to a conference committee — a negotiation committee between both chambers. But he said there’s consistency between the lower and upper chambers.
“Is not uncommon for us to have different versions of the bill,” Johnson said. “I think we are closer than some people might think in terms of what we are trying to do.”