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Tennessee Republicans Try to Strip Nashville Police Oversight Board of Its Subpoena Power

Nashville organizers fight state bill with “Don’t Play Where You’re Not Welcome” campaign targeting college athletic recruits

Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Nashville organizers fight state bill with “Don’t Play Where You’re Not Welcome” campaign targeting college athletic recruits

Vaidya Gullapalli

This was published as part of the Feb. 8 Daily Appeal newsletter.

Last November, voters in Nashville, Tennessee, overwhelmingly approved a referendum to create a civilian police oversight board. Black community leaders had been pushing for the board for decades, and that push accelerated in February 2017 after a white police officer shot and killed Jocques Clemmons, an unarmed Black man, during a traffic stop at a public housing complex. The officer was not criminally charged and remains on the force. Those in favor of community oversight of the police launched a petition drive. While the drive was underway, another white police officer shot and killed another unarmed Black man, Daniel Hambrick, during another traffic stop. Last October, in the weeks before the election, The Appeal: Political Report looked at the campaign for the community oversight board.

Now, the Republican-dominated state legislature may strip the board of some of its most important provisions. Republican leaders announced on Monday that they had introduced House Bill 658, legislation that is backed by the governor and would take away the board’s power to issue subpoenas and compel witness testimony. Under the city charter that was amended to create the oversight board, the board possesses “all powers, including the power to compel,” given to other Nashville government agencies, boards, and entities. HB 658 also takes aim at the requirement that four of the 11 members of the board must be from “economically distressed neighborhoods” by introducing a ban on consideration of “demographics.”

The legislation would have statewide effect, stripping the subpoena power from other oversight boards, including the Knoxville civilian oversight committee, which has had that power for 20 years. The Republican sponsor of the bill insisted that it was not introduced in response to the creation of Nashville’s board but that claim has been met with deep skepticism.

“Over the last several years, the new favorite sport around here is to kick Nashville around, and I think that’s really no way to govern the state,” Jeff Yarbro, the Senate Minority Leader who is from Nashville, told the Tennessean. The Republican-controlled legislature has in recent years, The Tennessean reports, “sought to intervene in Nashville’s decision-making on policies related to LGBTQ nondiscrimination, affordable housing, short-term rentals, minimum wage and other issues.”

The Daily Appeal spoke with Theeda Murphy of Community Oversight Now, the campaign responsible for the petition drive that resulted in the referendum last year. Murphy said that the response from the legislature was not surprising, given the Republican “history of pre-empting anything that Nashville does that’s too progressive.” She noted the “hypocrisy” of Republican proponents of small government seeking to reverse local action. Nashville’s oversight board was created, she said, after “a referendum that had overwhelming public support in an election that had overwhelming turnout. If that is not a mandate then I don’t know what one is.”

The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police had, Murphy said, been fervently fighting the creation of the oversight board. In the run-up to the referendum, the group outspent advocates for the board by a 30-1 margin according to The Tennessean. Since the election, the chapter has sued to block the board.

Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Murphy said, “we announced our answer” to HB 658. Community Oversight Now launched a campaign titled, “Don’t Play Where You’re Not Welcome,” calling on high school athletes to boycott Tennessee colleges and universities. The idea, Murphy said, is to “target top-tier high school athletes that are being recruited to Tennessee colleges to play sports and encourage them to go elsewhere. Because obviously they’re not wanted here.”

Community Oversight Now describes “the recruitment of top-ranked athletes” as “the bread and butter of Tennessee’s sports economy.” The University of Tennessee football team brings in significant profits, the group notes, and its men’s basketball team is ranked #1 in the country. The campaign argues that HB 658 “discriminates against African-Americans, other racial minorities, and low-income rural communities that envision healthy police-community relations as a public safety issue.” It will make “forceful and energetic appeals directly to the athletes, their parents and grandparents, their pastors and church elders, their high school athletic directors, and their coaches.”

At the press conference on Tuesday, Arnold Hayes of Community Oversight Now said, “They may have on their jersey that says Tennessee. It may say Vanderbilt, but once they get out of that jersey they are just as much as anyone in danger of police misconduct.”

Murphy told the Daily Appeal that although there has been no official response to the campaign’s demands, Community Oversight Now is starting to hear responses from officials who “are not real happy about it.” She continued: “We’re having to explain the connection between college sports and police violence. We’re having to explain why we have exempted historically Black colleges and universities. We’re having to explain all of that.”