Following February 2017 shooting of Nashville resident Jocques Clemmons by Metro Police officer Joshua Lippert, Nashville citizens began to call, yet again, for an independent oversight board to investigate police misconduct within the greater Nashville area. Per the community board’s website, the renewed call for oversight came in light of nearly 700 civilian complaints filed filed against Metro Police each year from 2005-2017. In November of 2018, the proposed charter to create such an oversight board passed, receiving nearly 60% of the vote.
Showing no tolerance for democratic norms yet again within the state, in a Tennessee House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing held on February 27th, Tennessee Republicans voted to send House Bill 658 out of committee for a full debate on the House floor. HB 658, as filed by Dickson County Republican Representative Michael Curcio, aims to strip the newly established Nashville-Metro Community Oversight Board of its subpoena powers, thus knee-capping the board in its ability to successfully provide oversight. The intent of this bill and its creation by a non-Davidson County representative, coupled with the farcical committee hearing and debate on the 27th is yet another prime example of the Tennessee Republican party’s attempts to undermine the will and voice of voters throughout the state.
The board, established to fulfill a need for investigating and overseeing the actions of Nashville Metro police, was democratically voted on and implemented by a nearly ⅔ majority within Davidson County in November. Its 11-member board,recently appointed by Metro Council members under the guidance of Mayor David Briley, consists of former Metro police officers, a former attorney general, an ex-judge, as well as local community activists and ordinary citizens.
During the February 27th Judiciary Committee hearing, sitting Democratic committee members sought to debate the reasoning for Rep. Curcio’s filing of the bill and questioned the sudden necessity of such legislation after Knoxville and Memphis each have had their own version of oversight boards for the last several years without interference from the state. Despite his assurances that the motivation was purely to provide specific parameters around current and potential boards developed in the future, the brief hearing turned contentious as Curcio danced around direct questions on the bill’s language and ultimately failed to convince his democratic peers that HB 658 was not more of the same overreach into local affairs Tennessee Republican state representatives have built a reputation for.
During a line of questioning by Memphis Representative Joe Towns Jr., Rep. Curcio was asked to explain what impact the law would have on the well-functioning oversight board in Memphis and what changes it would bring to that board. Representative Curcio either did not understand the inquiry or purposely deviated from the actual topic, failing to even remotely address Mr. Towns Jr.s’ question, leading the Memphis congressman to ask again. For a second time, Mr. Curcio deflected, opening the door for the committee chair to call for a vote to end the debate. The chair called no professional witnesses to testify and did not allow any public testimony. This resulted in no one from the actual community who chose to implement the oversight board within Nashville (which sparked the introduction of the bill) being allowed to speak.
The debate ended by a 13-6 vote, and even after protest by Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell, who rightly claimed the gentleman from Memphis was still trying to question Mr. Curcio when the vote was called, a second vote quickly ensued to send House Bill 658 to the full floor of the House for debate. That second 13-6 vote again fell along party lines. The debate, vote, and hearing all concluded in under 20 minutes.
For Nashville’s Mayor David Briley and the Oversight Committee, though, the plan is to move forward as if outsiders were not trying to interfere. After Rep. Curcio filed his bill meant to effectively dismantle the board’s oversight ability on February 5th, Mayor Briley and Metro Council proceeded to select board members, and they held their first meeting the 13th of February. Briley and his legal team have been mounting a defensive effort and intend to combat the state’s hampering in local business in court should the bills pass (the senate has a similar effort making its way through committee). Currently, full debate on House Bill 658 has not been scheduled within the state assembly.
This is not the first time Tennessee Republicans pushed their way into local policies. Previous intrusions include interference into Nashville’s nondiscrimination ordinance protecting members of the LGBT community, Memphis’ efforts to remove and relocate Confederate statues (which led to the state withdrawing funding promised to the city), interference in affordable housing initiatives, and other issues addressed within the few primarily progressive cities within the state.
While the need for creating certain standards for any elected group tasked with serving a community is understandable and warranted, the party of “small government” and “Don’t Tread on Me” within Tennessee certainly has made a priority of regulating and even crippling any local jurisdictions efforts to fully serve their citizens. If a democratically elected committee cannot be implemented without interference by individuals who do not even represent the district in question, what faith should voters have in the election process?
Such overreach by state representatives residing outside of Nashville perpetuate the idea that the government and its elected officials do not actually serve the people, especially those from minority groups and under-served neighborhoods more commonly found in larger metro areas like Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis. A representative from Dickson interfering in the wishes of Nashville citizens is no different than the federal government circumventing the will of Tennesseans acting within their state, something republicans are by their own proclamations supposed to despise.
Photo by Chris Butler, The Tennessee Star, February 5th, 2019.