The good news is the Tennessee Legislature, especially the super-majority from all the po-dunk towns in Tennessee, is finally out of session.
It often feels like living through a hurricane when they are in Nashville and looking forward to the calm that follows it. However, that feeling is always tempered by the fact that it then takes time to assess the complete damage.
And as usual, there is plenty of damage from one of the worst state legislative bodies in the U.S. – that’s really saying something these days – and now it’s time to assess the damage done in the waning days of the session.
Some of that damage was yet another law aimed at telling residents of the state’s largest cities what they can and can’t do.
This time, it was to gut citizen-led boards that provide community oversight of police, the police review boards that were essential to holding law enforcement accountable and in the open where the public can see it. They existed to reform a process in which complaints were handled internally by the police department with the inevitable results.
In Memphis, 29-year-old CLERB (Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board) is one of these boards, which are found also in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, all targets of the state law ripping authority away from them. The independent agency in Memphis already is largely toothless and the Tennessee Legislature has made sure it stays that way.
For example, once upon a time, CLERB could subpoena and question law enforcement officers but those days are gone. The new state law replaces police oversight boards with advisory groups with little power to investigate citizens’ complaints and to hold police accountable.
In a city desperate to increase trust of citizens in its police department, the positive effects of CLERB contributing to greater trust has been eliminated, sending the message to the public that some public employees whose salaries are paid by taxpayers are beyond accountability.
CLERB supporters in Memphis often hailed Nashville’s Community Oversight Board as a model that Memphis should follow; however, that board has also been decimated by the Tennessee Legislature’s latest action aimed at the state’s largest four cities.
It’s yet another time the legislators have interfered in the right of city residents to govern themselves. This bill vetoed the 134,000 Nashvillians (58%) who voted to create its community-led police oversight board. There already was a bill telling Nashville that it had to reduce the number of Metropolitan Council members.
Anti-Urban and Anti-Black
Chattanooga created the Police Advisory and Review Committee in 2020 by its City Council which said: “The Council of the City of Chattanooga believes that a strong and close relationship between the Chattanooga Police Department and the citizens of the City of Chattanooga is an integral part of a progressive, responsive and responsible city government. Essential to such a relationship is the community’s respect for and trust in the Chattanooga Police Department. Recognizing the need to allow the citizens of the City of Chattanooga to assume a greater role in guiding the Chattanooga Police Department in matters of public concern, including the examination of citizen complaints and complaint review procedures in other cities, the Chattanooga City Council desires to establish this Police Advisory and Review Committee.”
The Knoxville Police Advisory Review Committee (PARC) was created in 1998 “to provide community members of the City of Knoxville a civilian oversight committee that audits the discipline process, policies, and procedures of the Knoxville Police Department (KPD). The purpose of PARC is to strengthen the relationship between community members of the City of Knoxville and the Knoxville Police Department, by providing a timely, fair, and an objective review of community complaints. PARC also assists community members in navigating the investigative process after filing a complaint with KPD.”
It’s important that a motivation for all four major Tennessee cities was to increase respect and confidence in law enforcement and to ensure a level playing field in investigations of complaints against police.
It’s another example of the anti-urban and anti-diversity attitudes that lie at the heart of the supermajority’s voting. Any chance for the small, frightened White men there to take a shot at what they perceive as cities with too many African Americans is impossible for them to forego. It’s impossible to discount that the passage of this bill was influenced by the belief by the supermajority that police review boards are giving African Americans too much opportunity to complain about treatment by police.
Put this into perspective: the four major cities of Tennessee have a population of 1,625,500 people. The sponsor of the Tennessee Senate bill gutting the review boards is insurance agent Mark Pody from Lebanon, population: 40,888.
Nashville has about 1,450 commissioned officers; Memphis, about 1,950; Chattanooga about 500; and Knoxville about 385. That’s a total of about 4,285 sworn officers having constant interactions with the citizens of their cities, but according to the Republicans in the Legislature, any problems should be devoid of public oversight and investigation.
Senator Pody’s hometown has 95 commissioned police officers. A but four are White. There’s a grand total of four Black male officers and no Black women officers, according to the 2021 annual report for the Lebanon police department.
If there’s any question about Mr. Pody’s view of the world, consider that he was a co-signer (with Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally) of the proclamation establishing April as Confederate History Month. While they were willing to label protests by people wanting sensible gun laws and to expel Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson as insurrectionists, America’s ultimate insurrection when the South fought to destroy the United States is introduced without embarrassment.
Meanwhile, the proclamation in the Tennessee Senate said the Civil was “a four-year heroic struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, local government control, and a determined struggle for deeply held beliefs.” They are typical bromides from the neo-Confederate crowd, ignoring that one of the “deeply held beliefs” in the struggle was anchored in raw racism.
My July 27, 2017, article for MLK50:
Confederates’ Lost Cause still cripples the South’s economy
The proclamation’s wording borrowed on a 2020 Virginia proclamation, except the Tennessee proponents could not stomach the part from Virginia that “it is important for all Virginians to understand the institution of slavery led to this war.” That historically accurate sentence was removed from the Tennessee proclamation which remains to be passed.
And these are people who want to tell our children what they should learn about our history.
The book, Tennessee Secedes: A Documentary History published by University of Tennessee Press in 2021 attacks the attempts to minimize the role of slavery in Southern states’ secessions.
It also points out the varying opinions that existed in Tennessee about secession. “While many other Southern states saw little support for Unionism in the early 1860s, Tennessee stood in stark contrast, with a large and vocal population that ardently opposed secession,” author Dwight Pitchaithley concluded.
It’s this fact that makes the regular veneration of the Confederacy even more stupid. In the 1861 referendum, 54% of Tennessee voters cast a ballot against secession. Much of East Tennessee sided with the Union and even Memphis, like the state, needed two votes before it supported the rebels.
Just Say Thank You
Despite the historical facts, legislators like Mr. Pody persist in the Big Lie about the Civil War. If he believes the war was about state’s rights, it was about the states’ right to own enslaved people.
It’s not hard to scratch the surface of many laws passed by the Tennessee Legislature and reveal the racism below. This bill to gut police review boards is yet another example.
Just think: the GDP of Tennessee is $367.8 billion a year. The GDP of Nashville is $163 billion, Memphis is $86.5 billion; Knoxville is $44.6 billion; and Chattanooga is $28.4 billion. That’s a remarkable GDP total for Tennessee’s largest four cities – $322.5 billion.
Put another way, the four cities’ GDP is 88% of Tennessee’s GDP.
So rather than just say thank you to these donor cities which, with their revenues, prop up state services to rural counties and pay their salaries, legislators interfere, disparage, cajole, and diminish the power for our four major cities to govern themselves according to the wishes of their own citizens rather than to mandates from legislators with no understanding of how to manage cities so they continue to prosper.
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I have sent a letter to Governor Lee urging him to veto SB 591 detailing why the legislation is antithetical to democracy, sufficiently vague as to be unenforceable, and inconsistent with best practices in law enforcement oversight. Please let me know if you’d like to get a copy of it.
I would appreciate your sending me a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much.