The Tennessee House of Representatives will soon vote on a bill that could strip the power of police oversight boards across the state, if members don’t complete training.
Some worry the measure could make it harder for citizens to hold officers accountable.
The bill (HB 374/SB 457) requires each member of a police oversight board to attend a citizens police academy within six months of joining. Otherwise, the entire board loses its authority.
One supporter, Republican Rep. Dan Howell of Cleveland, thinks all board members ought to learn about the profession — and the extensive training recruits endure to get their badges.
“For a citizens oversight community board, with no indication or no appreciation for what these officers go through and how well they’re trained, it’s offensive to me that they would sit in judgment of our law enforcement agencies who are — for the most part — are doing their level best to protect us,” Howell said a House Criminal Justice Committee meeting last month.
State Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, says he understands why some lawmakers want to ensure board members are informed. But he thinks state legislators have already set up enough “guard rails.”
“Memphis and Knoxville did great for years and ours is just started,” Beck says. “Everything’s going well.”
Beck calls the new bill “draconian.” He says he can’t vote for something that would shut down a whole community oversight board if a single member can’t complete training.
“It’s a poison pill to the whole community oversight process,” he says.
In Nashville, coordinating board members’ schedules for citizens police academy classes has already been a struggle.
The Metro charter requires members of the Community Oversight Board to complete the Metro Nashville Police Department’s citizens academy, or an equivalent program. But the board had to negotiate with MNPD to ensure members could make up classes if they have to miss a session.
The state legislation would override that local agreement.
“It’s dangerous. It could render our board ineffective, and we’d basically be at the whim of MNPD,” says Andres Martinez, chair of Nashville’s COB.
Martinez says members who joined last year wouldn’t have been able to attend classes in time, because the department canceled its spring session, due to COVID-19.
“That would have definitely put us out of service, if this bill were actually law today,” he says.
The House Criminal Justice Committee has suggested one change that would members give a bit more time to attend training. The committee has recommended extending the deadline from six months to 12.
Ongoing debate between state legislature and local boards
This isn’t the first time the general assembly has tried to set parameters for local oversight boards.
In 2019, legislators proposed a bill that set multiple limits on their power, including prohibiting boards from issuing subpoenas or restricting membership based on a person’s race, socioeconomic status or employment history. Some conservative lawmakers worried Nashville’s new Community Oversight Board — which was approved through a popular vote following two high-profile shootings by police — would be too overbearing.
House members discussed reopening that debate over oversight board composition with an amendment to the current bill that would set strict requirements on membership. It would require some members to have several years of law enforcement experience.
That prompted pushback from the sponsor of the 2019 bill, Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson.
“I am hesitant to go back to the drawing board completely and restructure the board,” he said at a committee meeting last month.
“You may not like these boards, for example, and I know we all probably have our own personal opinions about them and about whether or not they can be used for political purposes or not,” he said. “But, the fact is, if the boards are here, we want to make sure that we’ve got the best ones anywhere in the nation.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.