Story and photos by Ashley Barrientos and WPLN
Last summer was undoubtedly an electric season of racial reckoning for the United States.
Residents of Nashville were especially instrumental in the mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement that shook the country’s bones. Thousands of protestors lined the streets of downtown Nashville throughout May, June and July, outfitted with posters, clenched fists, and resounding chants.
Many argued that the wrongful deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville were the catalysts for this movement.
But the issue hits closer to home than most realize. Police violence is not a new matter for many neighborhoods and families in Nashville.
For these communities, too many times has the death of an unarmed Black man by police given rise to a sense of anger.
According to the site Mapping Police Violence, a nationally recognized curator of data on police use of deadly force, Black people were killed at 4.7 times the rate of white people in Nashville. For Latinx, the rate was 3.5 times the rate of white people. Between January 2013 and December 2020, 13 people have been killed by members of the Metro Nashville Police Department.
Of those deaths, only one officer has been charged.
Using excessive force in Nashville
On July 26, 2018, Daniel Hambrick was shot and killed by Andrew Delke, a white Metro Nashville Police Department officer.
That summer evening, Delke had been assigned the task of searching for stolen vehicles in North Nashville. He developed suspicions about a white sedan and decided to follow the vehicle. The officer searched the vehicle’s license plate through the stolen vehicle database and found that nothing indicated that the car was stolen.
Still, he followed.
When Delke began to suspect that the car was deliberately trying to evade him, he pulled the driver over for a traffic stop. When the vehicle didn’t stop, Delke followed it through an alleyway and ended up in the John Henry Hale Apartments, a public housing complex.
Eventually, the car’s passengers abandoned the vehicle, and the driver—later identified as Hambrick—tried to keep up with them. But as soon as Hambrick spotted Delke, he ran the other way.
Delke then singled out Hambrick and began to chase him, calling out “54” over his radio, indicating that he saw a weapon on him.
As Hambrick was running away from Delke, whose gun was drawn, the officer stopped running, positioned his gun, and shot Hambrick in the back four times. The released video footage shows that Hambrick never reached for his weapon and was evidently running for his life when Delke shot him.
Many defended Delke’s usage of deadly force by claiming he was only just following his training, drawing concern and attention to what his police department’s training actually consisted of.
According to “Deadly Force,” a podcast created by WPLN reporter Samantha Max, MNPD officers are constantly reminded in their training of how police officers are faced with life-threatening situations. They are often shown different footage, stories, and scenarios in which police officers are shot and killed.
While the police department training curriculum also includes de-escalation, community policing methods and other tactics police reform advocates are calling for, Max says that “the philosophy in policing has been ‘your number one goal is to get home alive tonight.’”
Police officers have high-risk occupations, which may cause them to see the world as a place where every encounter is potentially deadly. This survival mindset was consequently drilled into Delke’s head on the night he chased Hambrick and shot him to death.
Max continues, “I think departments— at least the ones really trying to reform right now— are thinking, ‘How do we let officers know how important it is to be safe without stressing it so much that it puts others in danger unnecessarily?’”
Nashville’s heavy emphasis on acting first and reacting later is in line with other instances of police violence across the country. According to a Reuters investigation, the U.S. policing system as a whole is notoriously known for upholding this ideology within police departments, making it harder to hold police accountable when they are accused of using excessive or deadly force.
Reuters found that since 2005, courts have shown an increasing tendency to grant immunity in excessive force cases.
There is also the issue of implicit racial bias within Nashville’s police department.
Implicit racial bias can be described as a situation in which prejudice and racial stereotypes subconsciously affect one’s actions. These assumptions are ingrained into people’s brains and affect several aspects of people’s lives— including those in police agencies.
This implicit bias may be stronger in Nashville due to the South’s long and notorious history with racism. A research study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Kentucky revealed that states that were more dependent on slavery before the Civil War displayed higher levels of pro-white implicit bias today among white residents.
The results from this study support the notion that implicit bias is residual of past and present systemic racial inequalities in the U.S.
“No matter how committed we are to being anti-racist, when you are in a moment where you’re afraid your life is in danger, and you’re not thinking straight, you automatically go back to whatever connection has been made in your mind subconsciously,” Max says.
While MNPD addresses this reality through their training, it may be difficult to realistically dissolve all preconceived notions and racial stereotypes that have already been ingrained in officers’ heads.
“When you’re running for your life, someone’s got a gun, the situation is murky, and it’s dark…it’s very difficult to just go back and say, ‘‘Huh, let me think back to that implicit bias training.’”
Police culture in Nashville
The policing culture observed in Nashville is also different from other parts of the world, consequentially producing different effects.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, non-partisan research group, U.S. police kill civilians at much higher rates than other wealthy countries. Data from 2019 revealed that U.S. law enforcement killed a total of 1,099 people; Canada follows this with only 36 people killed by law enforcement.
This is an effect of the policies and practices that have been encouraged within U.S. policing departments for many years—including Nashville’s.
“Deadly Force” revealed that Delke was often rewarded for “proactive policing.”
One month, he was praised for conducting 82 traffic stops and 10 stop-and-frisks. These instances of “productivity” resulted in 13 fiscal arrests, 5 traffic arrests, two firearm seizes, and four drug confiscations, translating to $2,040 worth of fines.
The incentivized push for proactivity within law enforcement has contributed to the culture of policing in Nashville. Being part of a system that rewards officers for seeking crime in order to prevent it is likely linked to the large number of police killings of civilians in the U.S.
Natasha Senjanovic, a freelance reporter producing a Pulitzer Center-backed project, comments on the ways in which she has witnessed different policing cultures in Italy— where she lived for 16 years— in comparison with her observations in the United States.
As a resident of a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in Nashville, she often speculates on whether or not people of color in the U.S. would feel safe walking through her neighborhood without being perceived as a criminal threat.
“When white people tell me they don’t really understand why racism is really that big of a deal…I always ask them, ‘Can you tell your Black or Brown friend or co-worker that they can jog at midnight through your neighborhood and nothing will happen to them?’”
The relationships between police and communities of color in different parts of the world are radically different. Although Italy experiences its own battles with racism, they are known for having police that rarely use force and also specialize in community policing efforts.
Over-policing in Black, Brown and low-income communities
This heavier presence of police in Black and Brown neighborhoods can also be attributed to the overall effects of police violence observed in Nashville.
The residential patterns of Black-white neighborhoods are reflective of the city’s racially segregating zoning laws, redlining, and gentrification. These aspects of modern segregation have also contributed to profound differences in poverty rates, quality of education, and exposure to crime.
The Community Impact Newspaper released a report detailing that the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation used security maps to rate Nashville neighborhoods in the 1930 and 1940s, ranging from “hazardous” to “best.”
Neighborhoods in predominantly white and middle-class areas—such as Green Hills and Belle Meade—were exclusively considered “best” areas, while neighborhoods east, north and southeast of downtown—mainly occupied by Black residents—were considered “hazardous.”
The effects of redlining in Nashville can be seen through recent policing tactics.
According to the Driving While Black Report published in 2016, MNPD conducted a majority of its traffic stops in predominantly low-income, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The report attributes this disproportionate conduction of traffic stops to implicit bias in racial profiling and MNPD’s deliberate decision to distribute more officers into these high poverty, communities of color.
Additionally, MNPD department had relied on a decades-old policing handbook until 2017— the book included racist prejudices, warning officers to be aware of increasing minority populations, which are “disproportionately associated with criminal violence.”
Attitudes like this have perpetuated implicit bias for years, which has ultimately led to over-policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
“This idea that people in our communities are dangerous— that people in our communities need to be watched more closely…it’s complicated because there are higher crime rates. But the real issue to me is why are there higher crime rates? It isn’t because Black people or Latinos are inherently more violent or more prone to violence,” says Julieta Martinelli, an investigative reporter and producer at Futuro Studios. “They just don’t have access to the same systems.”
She discussed how several resources for communities of color experiencing poverty, poor education quality and increased crime are not as accessible as they are in white, middle-class neighborhoods.
“When the excuse becomes ‘there’s more crime in these communities,’ or ‘there are more [police] calls in these communities,’ I think the real question is: What can we do besides bring in a police officer or SWAT team or someone with a gun?”
Nashville Mayor Cooper’s latest budget has allocated approximately $362 million for police and courts— this is $70 million more than what is being allocated towards health care, social services, affordable housing, transit, infrastructure and parks combined.
Many argue that redirecting more funds to law enforcement rather than social work services plays a role in prolonging cycles of police violence in Nashville. Police workers are often first responders to issues of mental health crises, homelessness, domestic violence, and substance abuse emergencies.
According to the National Association of Social Workers, the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the United States, police respond to 240 million 911 calls each year on average. Estimates show that at least 10% of calls involve people with serious mental illnesses, and a third to a half involve those with some type of disability. These calls often lead to harmful escalation instead of peaceful resolution, particularly when people of color are involved.
The lack of funding to community support and social services in Nashville may result in police officers having to respond to more social issues they are not adequately trained for.
Bright spots in Nashville police reform
While different aspects of police reform are still underway in Nashville, there are moments of progress birthed from social justice advocates repeated calls for change after several police shootings in Nashville.
The Metro Nashville Community Oversight Board (MNCO) is an independent body created in 2019 to investigate allegations of police misconduct and civil rights violations.
“Nashville’s communities of color have historically been over-policed. And, because of that, the Oversight Board is especially important to those who feel their needs and desires have gone unnoticed and unanswered,” says Jill Fitcheard, the Executive Director of MNCO. “It is set up to help the police department do their job in a way that bridges the gap between them and the community.”
After several months of negotiations, MNCO and MNPD have recently finalized agreements to collaborate and coordinate with each other on issues of police misconduct—this collaboration includes MNCO’s granted access to police records, the ability to review crime scenes and conduct interviews within their offices.
Fitcheard also notes that most important aspect of police reform in Nashville is transparency.
“It takes away the secrecy and shines a light upon the inner workings of what decisions are being made regarding public safety. Transparency shows the community their concern is respected and that the police agency is acting in good faith.”
The perpetuation of police violence in Nashville can arguably be attributed to the culture of Nashville policing, a heavier police presence in communities of color, and the continued allocation of funds away from social work and community services.
“This will be a slow process because of the damage and trauma that has already been inflicted upon marginalized and vulnerable groups,” Fitcheard says. “I believe having an Oversight Board has made a significant amount of progress to decreasing instances of police brutality. The fact that there is an independent agency with authority to investigate police instances of use of force is in itself a huge step in the right direction.”
To contact Lifestyles Editor Ashley Barrientos, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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