After months of disputes, the relationship between the Metro Nashville Police Department and the Community Oversight Board is starting to thaw. Interim Police Chief John Drake told board members Wednesday night he wants to be a resource to the agency — not get in the way of its work.
“I’m here because it’s important to have a good relationship with the COB and have good rapport,” he said during the group’s monthly board meeting. “I really and truly want this to work, and, really, the community expects it to work. They voted for this, and it’s just — it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we do what the citizens want.”
The meeting was the COB’s first since Drake was named interim chief, and his presence marked a shift. His predecessor, former Chief Steve Anderson, declined multiple invitations to speak to the board.
Drake said both the COB and community members could expect to see major changes under his watch. He promised to work through past points of tension with the board, including disagreements over public records, crime scene access and poor communication.
The interim chief also outlined his plans to rebuild trust with Nashvillians, with help from a new chief diversity officer.
In his first few weeks in charge, Drake has already disbanded the department’s controversial “flex units,” which proactively seek out criminal activity rather than responding to calls, and replaced them with community engagement teams. He said the department is also launching a mentoring program, a special unit to support individuals experiencing homelessness and a new partnership with the Juvenile Court and the school system to address underlying factors that could be driving teen crime.
Drake said officers should be guardians, not warriors. And that he hopes people can see the police in a different light.
“I realize that a lot of the things we deal with are inherited from 40, 50, 60 years ago. And things that are still occurring today, it’s really bothersome and troubling to a lot of people,” he said.”It’s going to take a little time to change all that, but we’re in it to do it. And we know we can’t do it with just police officers; we have to have civilians.”
Drake’s leadership under a microscope
The oversight board responded with enthusiasm to Drake’s words. But it’s unclear how long he’ll have to cultivate a relationship with the COB. Drake is in the midst of what Mayor John Cooper has called the interim chief’s “audition” period.
The city recently launched a nationwide search to fill the top spot at the police department. And when the next chief is chosen — whether it be Drake or an outside candidate — he or she will be expected to follow an agenda set by Cooper’s new Policing Policy Commission.
The group, which includes a mix of business leaders, community advocates and law enforcement officers, is expected to study the police department’s strengths and weaknesses and write a report, which the mayor says will serve as a “blueprint” for the new chief.
But many COB members have expressed concerns about the task force. They spent about an hour of their meeting discussing what they consider to be a lack of transparency and an ineffective model to establish meaningful change.
Several said they feel like the commission, which is made up of more than 40 mayor-appointed members, is duplicating the work of the COB. And unlike the oversight group, which has made community engagement and transparency a central focus, board members feel the mayor’s office hasn’t been completely honest about the mechanisms of the commission, or the COB’s role in it.
“The reason that the Community Oversight Board was created by the people, through a charter amendment, was to do the very serious work of police oversight — work that became important because the people determined the executive branch of government, the mayor’s office, had fundamentally and systemically failed in that job,” said board member Phyllis Hildreth. “We have a tremendous mandate, we have our own power, and I am terribly concerned that we may be falling for a distraction.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.