Bargaining in Blue: Tennessee Senate votes to eliminate community-led police oversight boards

Bargaining in Blue

Bargaining in Blue, a monthly newsletter from Ballotpedia, provides news and information on police collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), including the latest news, policy debates, and insights from Ballotpedia’s analysis of police CBAs in all 50 states and the top 101 cities. 

In this edition: 

  • On the beat: Tennessee State Senate passes legislation to eliminate community-led police oversight boards
  • Around the table: Perspectives from the negotiating table, scholars, and the media on citizen police oversight boards in police CBAs
  • Insights: A closer look at citizen police oversight boards in the Nashville and Memphis CBAs and key takeaways from Ballotpedia’s analysis

On the beat

Tennessee Senate votes to eliminate community-led police oversight boards

The Tennessee State Senate on April 6, 2023, voted 26-5 to advance a bill that aims to eliminate community-led police oversight boards in Nashville and Memphis. S.B.0591, which now moves to the state House, would eliminate community-led police oversight boards and replace them with police advisory committees appointed by the city’s mayor.

Community oversight boards allow community members to investigate citizen complaints of officer misconduct. In contrast, the proposed police advisory and review committees would not have investigative power over citizen complaints and would be required to transfer complaints to the police department’s internal affairs division. The committees would consist of seven members appointed by the city’s mayors instead of being appointed by the community, as the current model requires.  

State Rep. Elaine Davis (R), the bill’s sponsor, argued that police advisory and review committees would “strengthen the relationship between the citizens and law enforcement agencies, to ensure a timely fair and objective review of citizen complaints while protecting the individual rights of individual law enforcement officers,” according to Tennessee Lookout. Davis modeled the proposed changes on the Knoxville Police Advisory and Review Committee, established in 1998.

Jill Fitcheard, the executive director of Nashville’s Community Oversight Board, argued against the legislation and said that “if left without a separate entity with the authority to independently investigate these instances of police misconduct, the police will continue to police themselves, which only builds suspicion and distrust of law enforcement,” according to Tennessee Lookout

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Around the table

Perspectives on community police oversight boards 

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that aims to promote “greater accountability through the establishment or improvement of citizen oversight agencies,” according to its website, argued in a report that community oversight of police leads to accountability and transparency. The group called for legislation to promote the use of civilian oversight boards in local police departments:

In the United States, law enforcement operates under a shroud of secrecy with far less democratic accountability than our other public institutions. Police Oversight Bodies are limited in power under most state laws. Police departments are able to control the Oversight Bodies’ access to the data, evidence, witnesses, and personnel files that they need for meaningful oversight.

A first step: The Congress discussed some critical legislation, but it didn’t pass. However, state legislatures and municipalities, can and should pass legislation permitting localities to establish Civilian Oversight Bodies. Localities should be able to give these bodies subpoena power to compel the production of documents and witnesses, allowing them to investigate, gather, analyze, and review information; produce public reports; and to make informed recommendations related to policing issues of significant public interest. Localities should also be able to empower these bodies to make the final decisions on disciplining officers, adjudicating use of force, recruiting practices, and creating policies. Localities can empower these bodies with the independence that is necessary to have a lasting impact.

In an article published in The Washington Post, reporters Nicole Dungca and Jenn Abelson summarized arguments among law enforcement officers and police unions against the use of community oversight boards. The article also highlights arguments in favor of limiting the use of oversight boards through collective bargaining agreements:

Police have generally argued that citizens do not need to investigate police because internal affairs units or other law enforcement agencies already do so. In many cities, such oversight efforts have been limited by strict collective bargaining agreements with police unions and, in 22 states, through laws known as officers’ bills of rights, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maryland, the first state to enact such legislation, recently approved repealing the law.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, described civilian monitors as well-meaning but ill-equipped to judge police officers. He said citizens lack the expertise and experience of trained law enforcement professionals.

“It would be akin to putting a plumber in charge of the investigation of airplane crashes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good a plumber that he or she is. It gives no level of expertise in terms of evaluating the cause of a plane crash.”


Nashville and Memphis CBAs on community-led police oversight boards

The Nashville Fraternal Order of Police entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee in 2018. The MOU does not address community oversight boards, however, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department entered into a separate MOU with the Nashville Community Oversight Board in 2020 after the city of Nashville voted to create a community oversight board in 2018.  

Article I of the MOU between the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department and the Nashville Community Oversight Board (COB) states the following:

It is understood and agreed that, under the Metropolitan Charter, the COB has the independent authority to investigate allegations of misconduct by MNPD Officers and that a cooperative relationship between the Department and the COB is in the best interest of Metropolitan Nashville and its communities. To these ends, the Department embraces the concept of a community oversight board and is committed to carrying out the provisions of Article 11 of the Metropolitan Charter and Tenn. Code Ann. § 38-8-312.

The Parties enter into this Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the goal of ensuring cooperative interaction such that police services are delivered in Metro Nashville in a manner that effectively ensures officer and public safety and promotes public confidence in the COB and Department and in the services each delivers, and provides the COB with the same access to crime scenes, documents, information, and witnesses, to the maximum extent legally permissible, as the Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

The Memphis Police Association entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the city of Memphis, Tennessee, in 2022. The CBA does not outline a requirement for a community oversight board. The city nonetheless has had a civilian law enforcement review board (another commonly used term for community oversight boards) in effect since 1994.  

Key takeaways on community oversight boards

Ballotpedia’s analysis of police CBAs in all 50 states and the top 101 cities featured the following information about community oversight boards in police CBAs:

  • The following 10 city-level CBAs allow for citizen review boards to look into complaints of officer misconduct:
    • Albuquerque, New Mexico
    • Austin, Texas
    • Baltimore, Maryland
    • Houston, Texas
    • Lexington, Kentucky
    • Los Angeles, California
    • Omaha, Nebraska
    • Orlando, Florida
    • San Antonio, Texas
    • Seattle, Washington
  • There are 0 state-level CBAs that allow for citizen review boards to look into complaints of officer misconduct