Slicing and Dicing Citizen Oversight of Police in Tennessee and the USA
Toward the end of the day, standing at the back of the room, Community Oversight Board First Vice-Chair Jamel Campbell-Gooch expressed the takeaway from NACOLE’s regional meeting in Nashville May 17:
“Listening to everyone, we see there are so many different ways to go about this,” said Campbell-Gooch. In Tennessee vernacular, we might say, “More than one way to skin a cat.” By whatever description, this was not only a “takeaway” – it was an understatement.
Leading officials of community police oversight boards from across the country gathered at Nashville’s main library for a regional meeting of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. They came from Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and elsewhere for the one-day event.
Nashville’s COB, voted into power by a public referendum in November, was the shiny, new player at the event. Many COB members and its newly appointed executive director, William Weeden, showed up to soak in whatever they could as COB establishes how they will operate. So did several community members whose activism through Community Oversight Now had launched the referendum.
What Campbell-Gooch meant was this: There are many different “models” for a community to operate a citizen board. Taking in the smorgasbord of how citizen boards operate, in all their nuances, was the day’s food for thought.
A citizen board, for example, may take on the role of directly investigating every single citizen complaint about police abuses and mistreatment. An example would be the Chicago Office of Police Accountability, which has a staff of 150, including 90 investigators, and an $18-million budget, according to its chief administrator, Sydney Roberts. Citizen complaints first come directly through COPA. They fielded 4,200 complaints in 2018, she said, and 70 per cent of those they forwarded along to Chicago Police Department internal affairs.
COPA investigates such things as shootings by police, showing up alongside Chicago Police Department officers and command staff to interview witnesses, go to the hospital, etc. Although Chicago had other oversight mechanisms prior to COPA, Robert’s office was established by ordinance in 2017 and after the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald. That led to an investigation by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division of CPD’s “patterns and practices” and a consent decree which became effective March 1.
At the other end of the spectrum in its authority and size was Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), which has a staff of two and is allowed to hear citizen complaints only after police internal affairs has completed its investigation and notified the complaining citizens of its decision. CLERB Administrator Virginia Wilson represented the Memphis board and served on a panel at the NACOLE meeting.
RIGHT SIDE OF THE LAW
While police unions, associations and Fraternal Order of Police fight citizen oversight tooth and nail, Knoxville Chief of Police Eve Thomas showed up at the Tennessee General Assembly in March to object to a GOP bill which limited oversight. The bill bans citizen oversight boards from having direct subpoena authority such as Nashville’s COB and Knoxville’s Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC) have by local ordinance.
Thomas also was the only active member of law enforcement to show up at the NACOLE event. She had some memorable insights.
“I had an ‘aha’ moment. My ‘aha’ moment was in 1994,” Thomas told the gathering. “I made a stop. It was a gentleman of color. I was very professional.
“At the end, he said, ‘You were respectful. You did everything right. But you were rude.’”
Thomas was puzzled.
“You didn’t ask me how my day was going,” the man told her.
I touched base with Chief Thomas again yesterday to make sure I understood her meaning.
“It was more of a realization of the need to be courteous and more thoughtful in my interactions,” she said, “rather than ‘business-like.’ I learned from this gentleman to put more emphasis on treating everyone the way I want to be treated rather than being sure I say the right things -- in a robotic manner.”
Thomas said she was hopeful that today’s young officers will be less prejudiced than previous generations.
“They are great on the technology,” Thomas said. “The thing is, we have to train them how to communicate with people.”
If the takeaway of the day was variety, there was consensus on many subjects, such as community outreach, opposition from the FOP and the race-based source of most complaints.
Nicolle Barton, executive director, City of St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board, was formerly a sworn officer, and she worked in the criminal justice system in the probation department in Ferguson, MO, when officer Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown Jr. Aug. 9, 2014. As a former officer, Barton gives lie to FOP’s cliché complaint that only police can police the police.
“The FOP fought against us from the beginning. Our FOP rep had a physical altercation with an activist at a Town Hall meeting,” Barton said.
“They think, ‘Why would a body of citizens who don’t know anything about what we do tell us what to do?’”
Even worse: “During peaceful protests after (St. Louis) officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, police had undercover officers in the crowd to watch citizen protesters.
“Police maced and beat protesters – and even one of our own undercover officers!” Barton said.
“Continued community outreach is important,” Barton noted. “I attend public safety meetings, Town Hall meetings, neighborhood meetings. I am a member of the Association of Latin Professionals.”
Susan Hutson is the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, serving since 2010 to oversee the city’s consent decree with the DOJ. She spoke about their mediation program between officers and citizens.
“At the heart of every single one of these conversations is race,” Hutson said. “The officer thinks, Well, you were walking around with your pants hanging down.”
Panelists also agreed that members of the community should be at the forefront of policy making.
“People should have a seat at the table on policy, not just a bunch of experts,” said Denver Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell.
“We need to meet the community where they are, where things are happening,” said COPA’s Roberts. “We need to establish those relationships ahead of time.”
Memphis’ CLERB and Nashville’s COB, among other oversight boards, have called on the Atlanta Citizen Review Board as a resource. CLERB investigator Arthur Robinson spent a few days in Atlanta in 2017 studying their process. We talked with Samuel Lee Reid II, ACRB’s executive director, during a break in the meeting. We will give him the last word, along with a link to our video interview.
“These oversight boards grow out of something that happened,” Reid said. “And then the community demands it.”
But later, apathy can set in, Reid said, “and the community moves onto something else… We have to keep the community engaged and our work fresh.”
One example of outreach was a short video that ACRB produced, “Don’t Run,” urging citizens not to run from police. “Running away” has triggered an emotionally wrong and unconstitutional impulse in officers who have shot and killed non-violent citizens who were trying to get away. The list is long, but it includes Daniel Hambrick in Nashville, Darrius Stewart in Memphis and Justus Howell in Zion, IL.
ACRB also puts on know-your-rights workshops, which not only explain the rights citizens have, but the responsibilities citizens have.
“We do the know-your-rights workshops at libraries, churches. We will come to your family barbecue,” Reid said. “We will go anywhere, any time. That’s how important it is.”
Our feature documentary, Who Will Watch the Watchers? examines citizen oversight of police, drilling down on the Memphis movement to bring back its CLERB, which had been secretly disbanded by Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton in 2011. The film also takes on profiling, filming police, the First Amendment in the Trump era and other contemporary issues.