Tag: community oversight

I’ll vote in favor of the community oversight referendum

The Election Commission voted today to put the Community Oversight Board referendum on the upcoming November 6 ballot. I’ll vote in favor of the referendum.

Nationally, community oversight and advisory boards comes in many shapes and sizes. All have strengths and weaknesses. There probably are not any examples that make everyone happy.

If you want to learn about the different approaches and models, and their pros and cons, you can start with this PBS Frontline article from 2016. From there, just google something like “community oversight board strengths and weaknesses” or “civilian review board effectiveness,” and you’ll zero in on the basic arguments for and against the several predominant models. I think this is useful background information for everyone to have in thinking about the referendum.

It is important to me that there is broad consensus that Nashville should have some kind of civilian community board. On November 8, 2017, in an email to Council members, the FOP told us: “The Fraternal Order of Police is not opposed to some manner of an advisory board that is compliant with current law.” At a major NOAH event on October 29, 2017, Mayor Barry also said that she would support a community oversight board if it resulted from a discussion among all interested groups. And now Mayor Briley has also supported the concept in general.

Of course, now we have a specific proposal and it will be on the ballot. The language is here.

Is the referendum compliant with current law? I guess we will find out if a lawsuit is filed, but I think it is. This referendum language fixes several previous legal objections. For example, a complaint made about the legislation that was before the Council last year was that the scope of the subpoena power was unlawfully broad. The current referendum language definitely defeats this objection. The referendum does this by making the power to compel evidence and testimony a part of the Metro Charter. And advocates also are now armed with a Tennessee Attorney General Opinion from March 2018 that suggests the referendum language about compelling evidence is legal.

There was a second significant legal objection to the prior legislative version. The bill the Council considered last year would have required in some instances that the police department follow the direction of the oversight board. This was potentially in conflict with the Metro Charter, which gives the police chief wide discretion and authority to run the police department. To address this concern, the referendum would only allow the proposed oversight board to issue recommendations and reports. Under the referendum, the police department would not be required to accept the oversight board’s recommendations.

There are a few other factors to keep in mind. Civilian oversight of our protectors – locally or at the state or federal level – is a core principle of democracy. Metro already has civilian oversight of the police department. While the police chief has wide latitude under the Charter to run his department how he wants, that power is limited by civilian control. The Charter explains that the police chief “…shall make regulations, with the approval of the mayor and in conformity with applicable ordinances, concerning the operation of the department, the conduct of the officers and employees thereof, their uniforms, arms and other equipment for their training.” Nashville has about doubled in population since the Charter was drafted. It’s not unreasonable or anti-police to add another layer of formality to the existing civilian oversight of the police department. To the contrary, we should all be able to agree that sunlight, transparency, oversight, and checks and balances lead to better results.

Finally, it is Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail that most compels me to vote for the referendum. His words have as much meaning today as they did in 1963. Here’s the key point:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Any “yeah, but…” argument that the referendum language could be better just furthers the “myth of time” that Dr. King exposed in his letter. The better path is to embrace modernizing Nashville’s civilian oversight as an important step forward for the city.

Statement about shooting video

The video released today of the officer-involved fatal shooting of Mr. Hambrick is troubling. The video appears to show Mr. Hambrick being fatally shot in the back while running away from the officer. I will reserve final judgment until the investigation is complete and all of the evidence is released. But, this video suggests that MNPD’s active interdiction policies led to a traffic stop for “erratic driving” which in turn led to a fatal shooting in the back.

Nashville prides itself on coming together as a community to solve difficult problems. I call on Mayor Briley and Chief Anderson to not just conduct a policy review, but to immediately, openly, and transparently examine whether MNPD’s interdiction policies are having a racially discriminatory impact in Nashville. I call on Mayor Briley and Chief Anderson to immediately support the creation of a community board to participate lawfully in police policy-making and in reviewing officer discipline matters.

America is an experiment in democracy. America strives to be a more perfect union. Nashville has been and remains an active part of the experiment. Just as America wrote slavery into her Constitution, Nashville from the beginning was built on the backs of enslaved people. In the 1800s, the institutions of Nashville’s government allowed enslaved people to be sold on its public grounds and to be hung from its bridges. From the Hermitage to Belle Meade to Ft. Negley to the State Capitol, forced labor, bondage, and slavery literally built Nashville.

When the Civil War ended slavery, prejudice held fast. We know it took another 100 years before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. Did legal desegregation end all systemic government discrimination? We know intuitively that it did not.

Beyond intuition, we know that the 2016 Gideon’s Army report documented that African Americans in Nashville are pulled over for traffic stops more frequently than white drivers. The claim by some is that this difference is entirely due to policing strategies that focus on high crime areas. But talk to black Nashvillians. I won’t recount their stories here, but know that they get pulled over more often and in more places than I do.

This is a difficult topic. For black citizens, it is husbands and sons, and wives and daughters, being pulled over. For officers, the perceived implication that there might be intentional bias is insulting. For all, it is intensely personal and further evidence of a need to unite everyone by creating just policies and review.

Everyone agrees that active discrimination must be rooted out and eliminated. The real challenge is how to talk about implicit, unconscious bias. And unfortunately, while MNPD trains its officers about implicit bias, its highest leadership previously has denied that officers or policies ever exhibit any implicit bias. This approach is confusing. MNPD leadership acknowledges that unconscious racially discriminatory bias exists generally in our society, but has denied it exists in MNPD.

There are strong historical and current reasons to want to ask whether there is a racial bias either in setting policing strategies in Nashville, or in the impact those policies have. As a city, Nashville must insist on asking where and how bias and prejudice may be baked into our institutions. Does the policy choice to create flex units or task forces that intentionally seek confrontation as a strategy to interdict crime have a racially discriminatory and deadly impact? Asking and answering these questions is required if we want a more perfect union.

This is not an academic question. Twice in 18 months in Nashville, these interdiction policies led to traffic stops where white officers shot and killed black men. At the highest levels, the city must examine whether policy choices are a contributing cause of these shootings, and the city must examine whether the impact is racially discriminatory. Confronting these issues head on  will lead to a more just Nashville for all of us.

As we head into 2018…

There are a lot of issues brewing for the Metro Council in the new year. We’ll hit the ground running with a meeting on January 2 that may last until midnight. Here’s my take on a bunch of the hot upcoming issues:

Ft. Negley: I wrote about this back in August. The only new fact since then is that, in early December, we all learned that the preliminary archaeology work showed a high likelihood of human remains on the site. Further results were supposed to be available by the end of December, but I’ve not heard anything further yet.

My prediction is that this project will keep moving in slow-motion with more digging and studying and considering until at least after the expected May 1, 2018, transit referendum. Remember, there is no legislation pending before the Council on this project — there isn’t anything for us to pass or not pass.

Transit Referendum: In the Council’s next several meetings, we will decide whether to put the proposed transit referendum on the May 1, 2018, ballot. The legislation with the referendum language is here. People should realize that the legislation also attaches the full 55 page Transit Improvement Program. This document was first released on December 13 and I do not believe many people have read it yet. Please read it. Unlike a lot of the information that has been available over the last six months, the full Transit Improvement Program is largely spin-free, especially in how it describes the proposed sources and uses of money for transit over the next 15 years.

In the coming weeks, I will put out a more in-depth set of thoughts about the full Transit Improvement Program. I think it is very likely that the Council will approve putting the referendum on the May 1 ballot so that the voters can decide this important issue themselves. Reading the full Transit Improvement Program will help voters make an informed decision.

New Federal Tax Law: I believe that the new federal tax law will impact Metro significantly. The affordable housing industry believes that federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LITCH) will be worth less and, therefore, financing large affordable projects may get more difficult. Article here. Similar, according to the Brookings Institute, financing infrastructure will become more costly for cities under the new tax law. Article here.

I think we will want to reconsider how to approach tax increment financing too. A rough rule of thumb for TIF projects is that the TIF loan might cover anywhere from 4-8% of the total project cost. But, the effective tax rate for most every real estate venture in America is likely going to drop by more than this amount. If real estate projects are about to be roughly 10% more profitable because of tax cuts, it begs the question of whether Metro should offer any TIF at all going forward.

Also, corporate tax rates generally just dropped dramatically. Again, this begs the question of what our incentives are worth now to companies. And it begs the question of whether Metro should offer incentives if we are having to deal with higher financing costs for infrastructure.

I don’t know the answers, but there are two things I feel strongly about. First, this is a developing situation and we may not know the impact on Metro for a few years. Second, I think Metro should proactively figure out how we will be affected and try to stay ahead of the impact.

Nashville General Hospital: My most recent post about this was Nov. 29. That post links to others from the last two years. My thoughts today aren’t much different than they were on Nov. 29. There’s just one thing I would add…

If I were allowed to choose a path forward I would want to re-boot whatever process is currently underway. My strong sense is that a whole lot of people have preconceived and conflicting notions about what the proper end-game should be for the hospital. What’s needed is an independent third-party subject matter expert (probably from outside of town). This person would need to have expertise in solving hospital financial problems AND also have the ability to act as a mediator. The person would need truly to have an open mind about where we will end up, and the person would need to be trusted enough to engage in shuttle diplomacy among the many groups. If the hospital is going to end up in a place where all or most of the constituent groups are going to be happy, I think it will need to be an outside person who guides us there.

Soccer: We all know by now that Nashville was awarded a new franchise. It’s very exciting.

Several important details were left to be dealt with after the franchise was awarded. Most notably, the Council will need to approve (by 27 votes) the demolition of some existing fairgrounds buildings before stadium construction can begin. Like with the administration’s Ft. Negley development plans, I’m going to guess that the 27 vote fairgrounds demolition legislation won’t make it to the Council until after the May 1 transit referendum.

Community Oversight Board: I wrote about this in early November. So far, not enough community-wide consensus-building has been done. I think that needs to happen before moving the legislation forward. I had hoped that Metro would hire Barry Friedman from the Policing Project to moderate a consensus-building process…but that doesn’t seem to have happened. I’m looking to learn more about the status in the new year.

Short-term rentals: In spring and early summer 2017, the Metro Planning Commission unanimously recommended Bill -608 and the Council was about to pass it in June.

Bill -608 got through the Planning Commission unanimously because it was a compromise. It allowed short term rentals in every building in Nashville with more than two units. It allowed short term rentals through all of downtown and the Gulch. It allowed every homeowner in Nashville to host short term guests in their primary residence. The only material trade-off was that we would phase out short term rentals in our traditional interior family neighborhoods with 1 or 2 homes on a lot.

In the second half of 2017, -608 has been re-positioned by the short term rental industry as extreme. I’ve stayed quiet on short term rentals in 2017 (except for a few discrete measures designed to stop cheating cheaters from cheating) and let the debate play out. When it comes time to vote, I plan to hear out my colleagues — especially the district Council members with large numbers of short term rentals — to see if they reach a consensus to move away from Bill -608. I think the majority of district Council members still believe that -608 has a good balance of allowing unlimited Type 1 (owner-occupied) and unlimited Type 3 (investor-owned in multi-unit buildings) short term rentals, allowing all short term rentals downtown and in the Gulch, while phasing them out of our traditional family interior neighborhoods.

Wrap-up: If I have forgotten an important issue, let me know at bob.mendes@nashville.gov. I’ll let you know what I think.

Following up on the community oversight bill on 1st reading…

At our Council meeting on November 7, legislation for a police community oversight board was introduced on first reading. With all the attention earlier this week on soccer, I wanted to do a quick follow-up on this.

I think there is a general consensus that a citizen’s board of some kind is possible in Nashville. In an email to Council members on November 8, the FOP told us: “The Fraternal Order of Police is not opposed to some manner of an advisory board that is compliant with current law.” At the NOAH event on October 29, 2017, the Mayor also said that she would support a community oversight board if it resulted from a discussion among all interested groups. The Mayor also reported that the administration is going ahead and hiring consultant Barry Friedman.

I believe that Mr. Friedman has referred to community oversight boards as “back end solutions” that are used after something bad or allegedly bad has happened. I understand that he prefers to focus on front end policy and training solutions created and adopted by an entire community. I understand that he also thinks that an oversight board can be appropriate at times in some cities.

I am not a sponsor of the current legislation. I had the opportunity to see a draft of the bill before it was filed. Among other things, I expressed concerns about making sure that police officer due process rights are protected appropriately. I shared that, in addition to protecting due process rights, any oversight legislation would have to legitimately respect the magnitude of the job officers do and the risks they take, and not presume bad acts by them. I also expressed concerns about whether enough community consensus-building has been done. I was glad to see that second reading was pushed off to January to allow time for discussion about this.

I am hopeful that Mr. Friedman’s work in Nashville will begin before the end of the year and that his community-led policy-making process involving all of Nashville’s interested government and private groups informs and guides what the Council does with the pending bill.

Council Meeting Protest Tonight

The Metro Council meeting tonight was brought to a halt by protesters demanding a response to the shooting death of Jocques Clemmons by an MNPD flex officer. The protest is covered in the Tennessean already, and I expect to see a Scene article soon. You can also follow what happened @joeygarrison and @iamstevenhale. I want to share a few thoughts myself.

First, though, goodness, there’s a lot going on these days. The federal government appears to be on the verge of trying to deport every non-citizen charged with or convicted of a crime. I fear that the DACA kid detained in Seattle, and the domestic violence victim detained in El Paso, soon are going to be the norm and not the exception. For those who might somehow be unmoved by the human and family tragedies that will unfold, be prepared for public safety issues as non-citizens stop reporting crimes, and be prepared for economic consequences as real live human beings get disappeared from our economy.

Then there are the Russians, threats of violence against the Jewish community, inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment, and another season of scorn from the State legislature. Oh, and a public hospital working through financial distress, and short term rentals too. I’m not complaining because I volunteered for this Metro Council gig, but it’s a lot.

Back to tonight. It’s tragic. Jocques Clemmons is dead. The TBI is conducting an investigation, with the FBI riding shotgun. People — residents and law enforcement alike — are on edge. And, it is essentially impossible to describe these events in a way that makes everyone happy. On one side, anything short of saying that Mr. Clemmons was murdered is perceived as an insult. On the other, anything short of saying police officers have the hardest job in the world and this was a justified shooting is perceived as an insult. Although it feels like our language, our words, are failing us, and failing to convince the “other,” we can’t shut down the conversation.

I don’t have all the answers. I do feel though that if an argument doesn’t work, maybe a story will. Here’s one story — it is a story that most of white Nashville needs to hear — and I mean really hear and feel and believe. If you gather together a group of African American Nashvillians and ask them to tell their stories about nephews, sons, uncles, cousins, and husbands getting pulled over by MNPD, you will absolutely believe that African Americans get pulled over at significantly higher rates than white drivers. I can’t be any more plain than this — you can look at the statistics, but they are flat and easy to gloss over. But hearing a group of average Nashvillians who happen to be black look you in the eye and tell you about their experiences is moving. It is a truth that all of us need to hear.

Of course, this isn’t the only story that matters. MNPD didn’t create chronically bad education for minorities in Nashville. MNPD didn’t create poverty that unfairly impacts minorities. MNPD didn’t create the desperation that can sometimes lead to drug use or crime. For too many Nashville citizens, the “It City” is just the place on the horizon where you can catch a glimpse of a skyscraper. “It” isn’t real. “It” isn’t home. Yet, officers have to operate in that environment. It is a very hard job.

After a report last fall about traffic stops in Nashville, Council Member Erica Gilmore and I filed two pieces of legislation. I linked to the legislation when I wrote about it in December 2016. My perspective is that Nashville will find its way through these issues by talking about our stories. The Scene recently had a story that made the point that there is a history of racial strife in Nashville and we skim over that at our peril.

There has to be a public discussion that acknowledges the reality that much of Nashville’s African American population feels either over-policed or unfairly policed, and also acknowledges that we have to figure out how our entire community can be policed fairly and safely. This won’t be easy. It will be hard. But we absolutely have to be willing to have hard conversations in order to find the best way forward.

The Council is full of Type-A leaders. We saw that while the protest was starting. I saw at least a dozen of my colleagues trying to jump in to figure out something. I wanted the protesters to be able to speak — I think having them speak at the end of the meeting was a good result.

My legislation about traffic stops was never supposed to be contentious. Honestly, having Metro simply respond about whether it agrees with the data presented in the traffic stop report, and having Metro update the data once a year, was never going to be anything more than a first small, modest step toward shining a light on the conversation we need.

My guess is that we’ll soon see additional legislation — maybe to move body camera funding into this fiscal year instead of next. No matter what legislation gets filed, my primary objective is to take steps toward having a conversation where stories from the entire community are heard and acted on. There will always be some who simply deny that race ever plays a role, and there will always be some that paint all police officers as racist. But I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who hear everyone’s stories can work together in good faith to move Nashville forward.

Quick update before Council meeting tonight

Tonight, there is a meeting of the Council Public Safety Committee and its Minority Caucus in response to the Driving While Black report issued in October 2016 by Gideon’s Army.

This meeting is the result of a resolution and an ordinance that I have co-sponsored with Erica Gilmore. The resolution asks for MNPD to let the Council know whether the data in the report is accurate, and whether there is any additional information that the public needs to understand the data in context. The ordinance asks for annual reporting of data similar to what is in the report.

Today, Chief Anderson has provided lengthy materials in response to the report. You can see his letter to the Council, his letter to the public, and some additional statistics for context. I thank Chief Anderson for providing this information.

Chief Anderson’s materials explore the idea that, even though we have community-based policing in Nashville (i.e., do your policing where victims report crime) and minorities are involved in the criminal justice process at higher rates than non-minorities, there is no evidence of a causal link between the two. He explains that any racial disparities in outcomes are a reflection of our broader society.

I appreciate Chief Anderson acknowledging that his department has been “…reluctant to publish parts of this information.” He says (and I agree) that “…for there to be any meaningful improvement in [this situation] there must be candid, maybe painful, conversations across Nashville.”

The reason I proposed the current legislation was to encourage all of us to fully confront any differences between how people of different races experience the criminal justice process in Nashville. Even when the data is “unsettling” as described by Chief Anderson, it is better for Nashville to be unsettled and be talking.

I would like to see my legislation passed as a statement that Nashville and MNPD together believe the right thing to do is to disclose and confront unsettling statistics.

That DWB report…

On October 25, 2016, a report entitled “Driving While Black – A Report on Racial Profiling in Metro Nashville Police Department Traffic Stops” was released by Gideon’s Army in collaboration with about a dozen other community organizations. The report claims that data from the Metro Nashville Police Department traffic stop database “…shows that ‘driving while black’ constitutes a unique series of risks, vulnerabilities, and dangers at the hands of the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) that white drivers do not experience in the same way” and “…shows that MNPD’s traffic stop practices impose a severe disparate or discriminatory impact on the predominantly black and low-income communities that MNPD’s traffic stop and search regime disproportionately targets.”

These are serious claims and warrant a response from Metro.

Councilmember Erica Gilmore and I filed a resolution asking MNPD to let us know whether the data in the report is accurate, and whether there is additional data that would help put the report’s data and conclusions in context. We also filed an ordinance asking for traffic stop data to be reported to the Council annually with crime reports that are already required to be produced.

The resolution was considered by the Council’s Public Safety Committee at our last meeting (Nov. 15), and deferred. Several committee members, and the MNPD officer who was present, had not yet read the report, and I was asked by committee members to arrange for Gideon’s Army to meet with MNPD to describe the data and methodology used in the report. Both the resolution and ordinance will be before the Public Safety Committee on Dec. 6.

There have been some developments.

First, there won’t be a meeting between Gideon’s Army and MNPD. I started with Gideon’s Army and the bottom line is that they would want any meeting to be public or recorded, and I wasn’t comfortable with that request. I felt like the scope of the proposed meeting was narrow and sort of technical — just to talk about the source of data and the report methodology. I felt like the presence of a recording device would push all sides to state their formal positions and conclusions rather than focus on actually understanding the data and the methodology. Conversations about a meeting concluded with Gideon’s Army sending me a letter, copying the Mayor, Vice Mayor, and many Council members. As I have told them, I respect their position, but that’s not the kind of meeting I had in mind.

Second, despite the fact that there won’t be a meeting, it looks like MNPD understands what data was used in the report.  On Nov. 29, Chief Anderson sent me a Memorandum, and two reports (here and here). Chief Anderson copied the Vice Mayor and the Public Safety Committee on his email also. In these materials, Chief Anderson supplied the data requested by the proposed ordinance for 2015 (although there is one detail I am trying to pin down with Chief Anderson still).

I want to make sure I am clear about my purpose with the proposed resolution and ordinance. The current public narrative is that: (a) a group of 16 community organizations put out a 213 page report that looks at first blush to be pretty well annotated and footnoted, and apparently written by a variety of credentialed social scientists and others; and (b) other than Don Aaron’s comments quoted in the Nashville Scene on October 25, I am not aware of any substantive response from the Metro government.

I think it is fair for Metro (through MNPD) to respond with “that data is wrong…here is the correct data” or “that data is right, but you really need to also be looking at x, y or z to properly understand what is going on” or “that data is right, and we stand by it because that’s the natural outgrowth of our policing strategies” or something.

The resolution simply asks if the data in the report is accurate and if there is other data we should be looking at for context. And the ordinance asks for traffic stop data to be reported annually with other crime reports that are already required. We should pass this legislation.