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Meet the nutty Tennessee Republicans trying to kill police reform in Nashville
On the same day the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel Memphis state Rep. Justin Pearson and Nashville state Rep. Justin Jones, the Tennessee Senate waged its own assault on the state’s two largest cities. By a 26-5 vote, the body passed a bill that would force both cities to dismantle the civilian boards that oversee and investigate their police departments.
The vote, which was largely overshadowed by the expulsions, was merely the latest effort by the far-right, rurally dominated Tennessee legislature to impose its will on the cities that drive the state’s economy. It’s also an especially vindictive one.
The timing of the bill is telling. Sen. Mark Pody introduced the Senate version just a few weeks after the murder of Tyre Nichols, and just two days after the city of Memphis released the horrifying body camera footage of his death. The House bill was introduced a day before the footage was released, but even then, Memphis officials and Nichols’ attorneys had spoken publicly about the brutality it depicted.
So as the country recoiled from the gut-churning footage of police officers ruthlessly beating an innocent man to death as he pleaded for his mother, Pody and state Rep. Elaine Davis, the chief sponsors of the bill, went to work to make the Nashville and Memphis police departments less accountable and less transparent.
And a few months later, 85 percent of Pody’s Senate colleagues went along. The full Tennessee House has yet to vote on the bill, but it has now passed two committees by voice vote, and the Republican supermajority is expected to pass it by a comfortable margin.
The bill is mostly directed at Nashville. The city’s community oversight board, or COB, was created 2019 after voters overwhelmingly approved the idea in a ballot referendum. It wasn’t a close vote. It passed by 18 points.
It’s one of the most empowered, forward-thinking oversight bodies in the country. The COB has 11 members and 13 full-time employees (who serve as investigators and researchers), and its budget is written into its charter so it can’t be starved of funding. It has subpoena power, as well as an investigative and research arm. It can conduct investigations contemporaneously with the police department — it doesn’t need to wait for internal investigations to be completed. Of the board’s 11 members, nine are appointed by community organizations. The only power it lacks is the ability to impose discipline. But it can make recommendations, and given the wide margin by which it was approved and the buy-in from city officials, those recommendations carry some weight.
Despite all of this — or perhaps because of it — the board has been squarely in the crosshairs of police groups and the state legislature since its inception. Before it even made the ballot, the police union challenged the legitimacy of the petition signatures collected by board proponents. After the election, the union sued again. They lost both times.
In 2019, the state legislature tried to strip away the COB’s subpoena power. The courts intervened, but the legislature’s interference forced the city into a compromise — the board can now issue subpoenas, but only with approval from the Metro Council (the term for Nashville’s city council). Fortunately, the COB has enough support in the city that the police department has been cooperative, and at least so far, the subpoena power hasn’t been necessary.
But this new bill is an existential threat. Speculation around the city is that Republicans in the state legislature are upset that the Nashville Metro Council thwarted their bid to lure the 2024 Republican National Convention to the city. That sounds just petty and petulant enough to be true. But this legislature has a long history of bullying Tennessee cities, and the oversight bill comes as part of a nationwide wave of red legislatures forcing unwanted culture war policies on blue cities.
Of course, Republican leadership in Tennessee can’t admit to any of that. So instead, they’ve pushed an accusation just vague enough that it can’t be disproven. During committee hearings on the bill, Republican Sen. Richard Briggs claimed that Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) director David Rausch told him that members of city COBs have inappropriately crossed police tape and contaminated crime scenes after shootings by police officers.
“We’re the only oversight board in the state that doesn’t have to wait for a police investigation to finish before conducting our own,” says Nashville COB executive director Jill Fitcheard. “So that accusation could only be about us.”
But Fitcheard says she has no idea what Rausch is talking about. “When Senator Briggs said that, it was the first I’d heard of it,” she says. “No one on our board has ever been warned or cautioned about crossing police tape. We’ve never had a complaint. Nothing.”
Rausch has never made any such accusation publicly, and there’s no public record of any such incident. Fitcheard says she has asked Rausch’s office for more details, but hasn’t heard back. A spokesperson from the office confirmed to the news outlet Bolts that Rausch and Briggs did have a conversation about the bill, but wouldn’t confirm or deny the claim about contaminating crime scenes.
Fitcheard says she can only recall one somewhat comparable incident, and that incident played out quite a bit differently than what Briggs described.
“Shortly after one officer-involved shooting, the officer in question was allowed to walk onto the the scene with his FOP lawyer,” she says. “The TBI allowed them onto the crime scene while the deceased was still lying on the ground under a covering. I was floored. I’m a former police officer and a former defense investigator, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Fitcheard says she later brought the incident up at a COB meeting, which appeared to anger the TBI.
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If Rausch or Republican lawmakers are indeed exaggerating or even outright lying to generate support for the bill, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nashville TV reporter Phil Williams has documented state lawmakers making provably false statements while debating bills and amendments.
The first thing the new bill would do is disband the oversight boards in Nashville and Memphis. Those cities — or any other city in Tennessee — could then re-form an “advisory” board. But as the name implies, the new boards would lack any real power to investigate.
But even an advisory board would still require a 2/3 vote from the city council. Bizarrely, the new law would require such a vote to be taken twice, in two separate meetings, on two separate days.
It’s an absurd hurdle, but the intent seems clear. Police interests could prevent the formation of even these toothless boards by winning over just a third of a city council. If they fail to round up enough opponents the first time around, they’d could still persuade— or perhaps coerce — council members between votes.
Second, board or no board, the bill would entrust investigations of police abuse and misconduct in any Tennessee city to the police departments themselves. That usually means the internal affairs division.
How might that work out? Currently, the Nashville Metro PD’s internal affairs division is led by a former prosecutor who was reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility in 2016 failing to turn over exculpatory evidence in a murder case. And we aren’t talking about a negligible piece of evidence. One of the state’s key witnesses against the defendant in this case had been arrested with the murder weapon.
This is who Tennessee’s legislature believes should be entrusted to investigate the next Tyre Nichols incident — whom they believe should be the sole fact finders after such events.
As a final insult, the new bill mandates that if a city does manage to set up a toothless, largely-symbolic, advisory board, all members of that board must be appointed by the mayor. The reason for this is clear: It puts the entire composition of the board in the hands of a single political official. This official can more easily be targeted, pressured, and retaliated against by the police union.
While the bill would immediately disband the Nashville and Memphis boards, it would grandfather in the police board in Knoxville. As it so happens, Davis represents Knoxville. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. The Knoxville board is only advisory, though the board, the city, and the police department had been working to give it more authority. Davis’s bill will almost certainly quash those efforts, too.
“This bill will kill the good will we’ve built up between the police and the community,” says Sekou Franklin, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University and member of Community Oversight Now, the activist group most responsible for building public support for the Nashville COB.
Franklin adds that the board isn’t just about disciplining police. “The COB makes policy recommendations, many of which have been adopted by the police department,” he says. The MNPD has adopted COP recommendations on issues like training on how to interact with the hearing impaired, policies on undocumented people, and investigating sexual assault in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize victims.”
Franklin says there have also been cases in which an officer unknowingly or unintentionally caused harm, and the board addressed a complaint not with discipline for the officer, but with guidance and advice on how to better handle similar situations in the future. “It isn’t always about punishing police officers,” he says. “It’s about building a better police department.”
Franklin also points to a benefit that’s less obvious but critically important. The Nashville is one of the few government entities in which the interests of law enforcement, prosecutors, racial justice and civil rights activists, the defense bar, and other typically antagonistic groups regularly interact and work together. “There’s value in having a forum in which all of these disparate groups can sit down, talk to one another, and work toward a common goal. It builds trust,” he says.
The Memphis board, called the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), has been around since the 1990s. It has been chronically underfunded and understaffed, and it only has the power to investigate incidents or complaints after they’ve first been investigated by the police department. The CLERB has subpoena power in theory, but subpoenas must be issued through a member of the board who also sits on the city council, and only the city council member can question the subpoenaed witnesses.
After Nichols’ death, some civic leaders in Memphis pushed to broaden the board’s subpoena power and provide it with more funding. This new bill would stop that from happening, too.
Davis claimed in a recent committee meeting that the purpose of her bill is to “strengthen the relationship between the citizens and law enforcement agencies.”
That’s exactly what the Nashville COB was doing. Now she wants to destroy it.
The distinguished legislators who know what’s best for Tennessee’s cities
At the heart of these paternalistic bills from red legislatures mandating policies on blue cities is the assumption that cities like Nashville and Memphis are incapable of governing themselves — that they require the wise counsel of season legislatures to temper the rowdy, socialist impulses of urban activists.
So let’s take a closer look at the august statespersons behind this effort to gut police oversight — the people who believe their own judgment should supplant the will of 60 percent of Nashville voters.
We can start with Sen. Mark Pody, the chief sponsor of the bill in the state senate. Pody represents Wilson county, directly east of Nashville. His district went for Trump by 37 points in 2020.
Pody is a proponent of Trump’s “stop the steal” lie, and personally paid for other right-wing Tennesseans to travel to Washington, D.C. to protest on January 6th. He is one of several state Republicans who tried to prohibit same sex-marriage in Tennessee by nullifying the Supreme Court ruling that such bans are unconstitutional. According to our local alt weekly, he "believes he’s on a mission from God to stamp out same-sex marriage." Pody has also introduced one version of the state’s various bills that would effectively prohibit transgender people from using public bathrooms.
In a hearing for the COB bill, Pody claimed that because of oversight boards, police officers in Tennessee feel as if they are “under a microscope.” Prior to last January, the Memphis “Scorpion” unit had been subject to numerous brutality complaints. Those complaints went nowhere. So I suspect that Tyre Nichols would disagree with Pody that the officers who beat him have been unfairly scrutinized. Unfortunately, Nichols is unavailable for comment.
Next up is state Sen. Janice Bowling, a co-sponsor of the bill. She represents a south-central district of Tennessee that went for Trump by 52 points in 2020. In 2021, Bowling too tried to push a backdoor on ban on same sex marriage. It failed.
After Memphis — a majority black city — removed a statue of early Ku Klux Klan leader, slave trader, convict lessor, and massacre perpetrator Nathan Bedford Forrest a public space, Bowling introduced legislation to withhold state funding should any Tennessee city try to remove similar racist monuments in the future. The problem, according to lawmakers like Bowling, is that such removals are illegal without prior approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Two years later, when said historical commission recommended that a bust of Forrest be removed from its place of honor at the state capitol, Bowling led an effort to fire all 29 of the commission’s members.
Bowling too pushed Trump’s “stolen election” lie.” After the 2020 election, she tried to prohibit early voting. About 70 percent of Tennessee voters cast early ballots in 2020. It’s one of the few bright spots in a state that ranks in the bottom five for voter participation. But because Democrats may do slightly better in early voting than in Election Day voting, politicians like Bowling claim it must be corrupt.
Bowling is also a COVID truther, and has falsely argued that the vaccine causes “genetic modifications.” She even tried to prohibit Tennessee from vaccinating willing teenagers — and helped get a state public official fired over the issue.
Finally, remember that batshit bonkers story about schools providing litter boxes for children who “identify as furries?” That was Bowling.
Next: The final sponsor of the review board bill in the state senate is Sen. Joey Hensley.
You’ll want to buckle up for this one.
Hensley is a proud member of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans and, like Bowling, wanted to fire everyone on the historical commission over the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust.
Hensley was also a sponsor of Tennessee’s original “Don’t Say Gay” bill, making him something of a trail-blazer of bigotry. The bill was ruthlessly mocked by national media outlets, ten years ago, before this nonsense became a mainstream position of the Republican Party.
Hensley once sponsored a bill named for Milo Yiannopoulos, the racist, “formerly gay” right-wing firebrand moron who became a MAGA darling for his unrepentant bigotry, then fell out of favor when he kinda’ sorta’ endorsed pedophilia.
Hensley also sponsored a bill that allows mental health professionals to refuse to treat gay people (which is now law in Tennessee), and another that would have have terminated parental rights for non-heterosexual or unmarried parents of children conceived through artificial insemination (that one failed). He also once tried to create an exception for feminine hygiene products to the state’s annual income tax holiday.
Hensley, a stalwart defender of family values, has been married and divorced four times. One of his ex-wives briefly took out a protection order against him for domestic abuse after alleging he had hit her with his car.
I’ve sometimes made the joke on Twitter that one of the fun things about living in Tennessee is that when someone asks you about the elected Republican doctor who was having an affair with and illegally prescribing opioids for his mistress, you can plausibly reply, “You’ll have to be more specific.”
There are two elected Republican officials in our fair state who check all of those boxes, and Hensley is one of them. Hensley also checks two more: The woman with whom he was sleeping was one of his nurses, and also happens to be his second cousin.
(If you’re wondering, the other elected Republican doctor who was sleeping with and allegedly illegally prescribing opioids to his mistresses (plural intended) is Scott DesJarlais. In his case, two of the women with whom he had affairs were patients, three were co-workers, and one was a pharmaceutical rep. The adamantly pro-life DesJarlais was also recorded pressuring his ex-wife and one mistress/patient to get an abortion. DesJarlais has since won higher office — he’s now a member of the U.S. Congress.)
Hensley’s district went for Trump by 49 points in 2020.
Finally, there’s Tennessee state Rep. Elaine Davis, chief sponsor of the House version of the bill.
Davis was only elected last year, and thus hasn’t had yet had the chance to accumulate the sort of stellar record her senate counterparts have. But she’s off to a great start. Her campaign benefited in part from a flier the state Republican Party sent to voters in which a photo of her opponent was altered to make him look more Jewish.
Davis did introduce a house version of Bowling’s bill to eliminate early voting. But then, in a display of moderately good judgment that may handicap her ability to climb the ranks of the party, she quickly thought better of the bill and withdrew it.
These, good readers, are the elected officials who believe Tennessee’s cities are incapable of governing themselves.