The People’s Plaza demonstrators have ended their weeks-long occupation across from the Capitol. But on Monday afternoon, they once again lined the steps of the plaza — this time in support of 25 current and former Metro Nashville Police officers who say they’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed.
Hana Behrs has been arrested twice while protesting with the group and says being handled by male state troopers has triggered past traumas. Her hands shook as she recounted multiple times when law enforcement officers had made her feel unsafe.
“When I was 13 years old, a group of grown men catcalled me, called me jailbait, following me through a parking lot. I made eye contact with an officer standing outside his patrol car, and he smiled,” she said, eyes glued to her cellphone. “I knew then that he did not keep me safe.”
That fear kept Behrs from calling the police four years later, when she says a friend sexually assaulted her. And it coursed through her yet again when an officer pulled over her mother and said he wouldn’t let her go until she agreed to go on a date with him.
“I had to pretend to have my father on the phone to get away,” Behrs said. “I knew then that they did not keep us safe.”
The demonstrators say the allegations of misconduct within the department highlight the same types of behavior they’ve been protesting since June. They say sexual violence at the hands of police — against both civilians and other officers — is endemic of larger patterns of abuse.
Emily Radigan thinks funding from the police department’s budget should be reallocated to services for survivors of rape and sexual assault, as well as alternative violence prevention programs.
“To fight to defund the police and stop sexual violence takes imagination and courage,” she said. “We must not only demand accountability, but we must imagine a world where the social norms of over-policing and sexual violence are not normalized and are not accepted.”
Former MNPD sex abuse detective Greta McClain first alerted Mayor John Cooper and then-Police Chief Steve Anderson to allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination within the department in late April, after women started reaching out to her, looking for help. The complaints weren’t made public until earlier this month, when McClain, who runs a nonprofit that supports sexual assault survivors, shared the initial findings of her investigation at a virtual press conference.
Interim Police Chief John Drake announced last week that the department was examining McClain’s report, and that one allegation had been forwarded to the TBI for further investigation. He said other claims had been already investigated internally and that action would be taken if they found any policies had been violated.
The mayor has also asked the city’s human resources department, the district attorney and the TBI to conduct their own reviews.
But for McClain and the protesters, investigations are not enough. They want the city to find a new way to keep people safe, no matter what the findings of the inquiries may be.
“These men abusing their power through state-sanctioned violence are nothing compared to the power of the people,” Behrs said, “and we will hold them accountable.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.