Nashville is just weeks away from hiring a new police chief, after former Chief Steve Anderson abruptly retired this summer. And the change in leadership comes as the city — and the country — grapple with growing distrust in law enforcement.
But it won’t be easy to find a candidate who pleases everyone.
Several months have passed since demonstrators flooded the streets of downtown Nashville to protest police brutality. But city officials say they’re using the search for a new chief as another opportunity to reimagine public safety, and that means a lot of listening.
In virtual town halls hosted by the Community Oversight Board, residents have expressed a wide range of priorities for the department’s next leader.
One person said he wanted a chief who would work closely with the community. Another said it was important for him or her to have a strong relationship with the COB.
“I’d like someone who is transparent, willing to just have open and honest dialogue,” one woman said.
“As a survivor of domestic violence,” another woman said, “we need a chief that’s gonna put that topic back on the table.”
Those are just a fraction of the hopes for the next chief that more than 1,000 residents have shared in town halls, surveys and calls with community groups. And some common themes have come up time and again.
“People really want to see meaningful community policing and neighborhood engagement,” says John Buntin, who’s overseeing the police chief search for the mayor’s office. “People were concerned about public safety, about reducing crime, as well.”
City leaders seem to have a pretty clear vision for what they want. They’re looking for someone who fits the mold of what they call a “21st century chief”: forward thinking and willing to make bold changes, but also experienced enough to drive down crime.
The market for such a leader is tight.
Eighteen of the 69 departments that make up the Major Cities Chiefs Association are looking for a new top officer, according to the Wall Street Journal. And several chiefs that have earned national praise for their reforms were among those who have retired, resigned or been forced out in recent months.
“It’s a challenge to be searching for a chief when so many other cities are also looking for police chiefs,” Buntin says. “That said, there is no city in the country — I truly believe — better positioned than Nashville.”
57 people have applied to lead the Metro Nashville Police Department, including Interim Chief John Drake.
Drake is a Black Nashville native who’s been with the department for more than three decades. He’s garnered the support of many community leaders, as well as members of the rank and file.
But others want an outsider — especially as accusations of racial bias and sexual misconduct rile the department.
‘Change what needs to be changed’
The city hired one of the leading consultants to help recruit a diverse group of candidates. Gary Peterson, CEO of Public Sector Search & Consulting, says a new generation of leaders is stepping up, with plenty of fresh ideas.
“Very talented folks who are progressive want to be able to impact their organization and change what needs to be changed, keep the practices and policies in place that are working and have been updated but make things better,” he says
Peterson himself is a former police chief who has helped more than two dozen law enforcement agencies pick their next leader. And his searches emphasize minority recruitment — something many Nashvillians say is sorely needed in a department that’s 82% white and 89% male.
Peterson says no candidate will make everyone happy. But his goal is to make sure they’ve been heard.
“You include everyone. You get the different perspectives,” he says. “And then, ultimately, at the end of the day, we hope we can convey that to the hiring authority, so that they can make the best decision that’s in the interest of the community.”
That means including both residents and experts in the process.
The mayor’s office started by soliciting feedback from a wide swath of the community. A small review committee then chose five finalists. Later this month, those finalists will meet with the mayor and a panel of law enforcement officials and community members.
Come November, Nashville’s new top cop will already have an agenda waiting. The mayor’s Policing Policy Commission is drafting a detailed set of recommendations to move the department in a new direction.
“This is a moment in time that’s going to be remembered,” Peterson says. “I mean, change is upon us.”
But that change will take time — no matter who is at the helm of the police department.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.