Photos and story by Alexis Marshall / Reporter
The Tennessee House Criminal Justice Subcommittee passed a controversial bill to the next level Wednesday that would strip community oversight boards of subpoena power. Among others, Nashville Mayor David Briley attended the meeting to voice his opposition.
Sponsor Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson) said Tennessee law currently has no statutes regulating community oversight boards and that his bill is intended to set guidelines for the bodies based on best practices as outlined by the National Institute of Justice. Curcio has said his bill is not a reaction to Nashville’s referendum to create a community-led police oversight board in November.
In addition to regulations on subpoena power, the bill also specifies board members must be registered voters and that membership cannot be limited based on demographics, economic status or employment history. It requires them to submit annual reports to House and Senate Judiciary Committee chairs, and an amendment adopted yesterday would give existing boards one year to comply with membership rules if the bill is passed into law.
Critics of the bill said it would limit the ability of communities to govern themselves, while proponents argued the legislation would help defend civil rights and due process for law enforcement officers.
Briley said the bill “stands in stark contrast” to the state constitution, which establishes the people’s right to “alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.” Briley said that his constituents voted overwhelmingly to create a board to oversee police conduct as outlined in the November ballot measure.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) said the bill barring subpoenas overstepped the power of the General Assembly.
“Your authority as mayor is being squashed by the heavy foot of the Tennessee legislature, something that we loathe here when the federal government does it to us,” Parkinson said, addressing Briley.
“The people of my county have spoken,” Briley said, asking members of the subcommittee to “not interfere with the will of those people … ”
Briley argued that many issues to go before a community oversight board may not be criminal matters, but rather concerns about officer conduct. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) pointed out current policies that deal with police conduct, but Briley said “there is a sense that that is not sufficient.”
“If the policed do not trust those policing them, the entire system falls apart at the edges,” Briley said. “Adopting this legislation will further undermine my city’s ability to build trust between the policed and the police.”
House Majority Leader Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland) rejected that argument, saying the formation of Nashville’s community oversight board with subpoena power has only made things worse.
“If there is anybody that thinks the passage of this unelected tribunal and giving them subpoena powers has improved the relationship between community members and the police, they are living in a fairy-tale land,” Lamberth said.
Lamberth stood in fierce defense of the legislation and police officers in general. In an impassioned speech, he said, “They absolutely feel like (Nashville) has turned their back on the very men and women … that bleed for this city.”
Lamberth called Nashville’s charter amendment authorizing the community oversight board “very problematic.”
This proposed legislation comes as Officer Andrew Delke faces a murder charge for the fatal shooting of Daniel Hambrick while he was on duty in July of last year. Supporters of the bill pointed to that case as an example of police being held accountable without a community oversight board.
Among the supporters of the bill was Maggi Duncan, the executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. She said she and her organization were in “full support” of the bill, which she said would ensure due process to officers.
However, Knoxville Chief of Police Eve Thomas attended the meeting to voice her opposition to the measure. She said that subpoena power has been an important part of the tools available to Knoxville’s community oversight board.
Rep. Curcio pointed out that Knoxville’s board has never used that subpoena power in its 20 year history, but Knoxville’s Police Advisory & Review Committee Executive Director Clarence Vaughn said he thinks subpoena power on his board serves as a deterrent to keep incidents from occurring in the first place.
Thomas said that taking away that power would “cause an erosion in the relationship” that her city’s police have worked to build with the community. Thomas said that passage of the bill would make her community feel like something has been taken away from them.
The measure passed a voice vote in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee with Parkinson and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) voting against it. The bill has been placed on the House Judiciary Committee agenda for Wednesday next week. Its companion bill will be discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
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