NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The governor has signed a piece of legislation local advocates say guts their ability to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.
Gov. Bill Lee signed SB 591, which requires any “police advisory and review committee, community oversight board or other similar police oversight body” formed prior to July 1 to reform into new police advisory and review committees under new guidelines or be abolished entirely.
The legislation, introduced by Lebanon Sen. Mark Pody and Knoxville Rep. Elaine Davis, sought to “ensure the timely, fair, and objective review of citizen complains and to make recommendations concerning such complaints,” according to the official legislative summary.
But local leaders say the measure was another anti-Nashville bill used to usurp local authority.
According to Metro Nashville Community Oversight Executive Director Jill Fitcheard, the law will “completely and drastically” change the way police accountability is sought in Metro Nashville. She previously told News 2 the move would give the mayor’s office “complete control” over the board while also shrinking the size of the committee to just seven members. The current board has 11 members.
“The majority of the board members are selected from the community, from community organizations or self-nominated,” Fitcheard said. “What [the law] does is it puts the power and authority strictly in the mayor’s office to be able to make this selection for the entire board.”
Nashville has one of two Community Oversight Boards in the state, with the other one located in Memphis. Both boards were formed following police violence incidents in the two urban cities. Nashville’s COB was implemented through a ballot initiative in 2018 with more than 135,000 people opting to form the entity.
Current board members say the new committees have virtually no power and only give referring capacity, not oversight. Essentially, they said it can refer complaints to law enforcement but do nothing about it, leading to law enforcement overseeing itself.
The text of the law only allows the new advisory committees to refer complaints to the internal affairs unit of the police force, rather than allowing the groups to independently investigate the complaints.
The legislation moved swiftly through the legislature, with Republicans calling the measure one to make oversight uniform across the state and Democrats saying the measure eliminates citizens’ ability to hold their police forces accountable.
“We’re always telling the public, ‘Trust the process,’” Rep. Harold Love Jr. (D—Nashville) said. “Here we have a situation where the process was completely taken away.”
While the measure passed the legislature at the beginning of May, the governor waited a few weeks to sign the legislation. Some advocates for COBs were hoping to use that delay as a galvanizing point to convince the governor to veto the bill.
With or without the governor’s signature, the law will take effect July 1. Metro COB will have 120 to comply with the new parameters set out in the bill or be dissolved.