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Nashville Might Have Finally Found a Way to Hold Police Accountable for Killing Unarmed Black Men

It's at least one step closer to finding an answer to the question of who polices the police

In February 2017, 31-year-old Jocques Clemmons was pulled over in a routine traffic stop by Metro-Nashville Police Officer Joshua Lippert. It was just before 1 p.m. on a Friday. In a contested series of events, Lippert approached Clemmons in a parking lot as he was stepping out of his SUV. Lippert says he intended to discuss a failure to stop at a stop sign. There was a disagreement. Lippert claims that Clemmons body-checked him and posed a threat to his life. But security-camera footage showed that didn’t occur and that as Clemmons tried to run from the officer, Lippert shot and killed him.

With the release of Lippert’s employment records, Nashville citizens learned this wasn’t his first trouble with the law. Before the fatal shooting of Clemmons, the veteran cop had been disciplined eight times over his five-year police career. He’d even served 20 days of suspension — due to his use of force during a traffic stop and for his “poor judgment.” Despite his record, the Fraternal Order of Police backed Lippert’s story of being attacked by Clemmons and his belief that he was required to use deadly force in response. Worse yet, even though the Medical Examiner’s official autopsy revealed that Clemmons had been shot twice in the back, corroborating the video footage, in mid-May, the Metro-Nashville PD and district attorney determined the shooting to be justified. Lippert didn’t even lose his job. He was put on desk duty. His punishment was paperwork.

This outcome, of course, enraged Clemmons’ family — particularly his mother, Sheila Clemmons Lee. But it also mobilized her, which, in turn, mobilized the community. And because of this mobilization, on Tuesday, Nashville will vote on an amendment designed to directly combat the kind of police brutality that claimed Jocques Clemmon’s life. It’s a practical answer to the persistent devastation of police violence in Nashville — and frankly, the rest of the country.

It’s called Amendment 1, and it creates a community oversight board to police the police. In particular, the board would “have the independent power to investigate allegations of misconduct against Metropolitan Nashville Police Department officers.” It also would “have the power to issue reports assessing allegations of misconduct by MNPD officers and make policy recommendations to public safety and justice administration agencies.” An important third function would be the ability to recommend discipline when it “finds a basis to believe that an officer has committed misconduct.” As such, the board would have the power to send its “findings of criminal misconduct and civil rights violations to the District Attorney, the Grand Jury or the United States Attorney.”

The 11-person board would include four appointed members — two by the mayor, and two by the city council — and seven community members appointed by civic leaders and organizations. And four of the seven community members would be required to be selected from “economically-distressed communities,” ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table.

“The NAACP in Nashville has been working with the community and in the community trying to get this on the ballot for the last 40 years,” says Theeda Murphy from Community Oversight Now, the coalition of groups pushing for the initiative. “For 40 years, as incidents have happened with the police in Nashville, each time there’s been a push for oversight. This is the furthest it’s gone.”

“Up until Jocques Clemmons was killed, [the police and the city] had been successful with their PR,” she continues. “They’d been successful with whitewashing this crisis and sorta saying, ‘This kind of thing doesn’t happen here in Nashville. We’re not Ferguson.’ Of course it happens here — and it’s always happened here.”

I ask Murphy what the support is like for the referendum amongst Nashville newcomers — i.e., the left-leaning gentrifiers, specifically the ones who might call themselves “white allies”? Are they being very visible and vocal with their support? Are they speaking out?

Murphy sounds remarkably positive: “It’s amazing how this initiative has united people from all over Nashville. The Fraternal Order of Police was counting on being able to divide us from the rest of the community by pulling on these old racist tropes. But the fact of the matter is, Nashville is indeed a progressive city. It’s really a left-leaning city. There are a lot of people all over Nashville who realize that oversight is needed. Even though police violence isn’t happening in their neighborhoods, they know that it’s happening elsewhere. They’re not blind to it.”

Not surprisingly, the group leading the opposition to Amendment 1 is the Fraternal Order of Police. (Nashville PD also filed a lawsuit to block the amendment from the ballot — an effort that failed in the courts.) Murphy explains to me that chief among the FOP’s objections is the fact that the new oversight board would have board members from public housing. “They’re not used to having to answer directly to people from public housing or people in poor neighborhoods,” she says. “That’s a community they’re not used to having to listen to — or answer to. Given that these shootings and the ultra-aggressive policing occurs in those neighborhoods, they might be a little nervous about having to answer to the residents of those neighborhoods.”

Plus, there’s that other big issue for the FOP: At any time, any Nashville cop could be investigated for misconduct. But exactly how much authority and power would the board’s independent investigators possess? Will their investigators work with Internal Affairs, or totally separate?

“The Community Oversight Board will have its own investigators,” says Murphy. “The budget for the board [roughly $1.5 million] will pay for the administrative staff and pay for the investigators. So the investigators will be conducting their independent investigations completely outside of the purview of the police department.”

How about once they complete an investigation and the board considers their findings? What comes next? Would the board be able to render binding decisions, such as a ruling to terminate officers? Or would it be more like they can make a recommendation to a grand jury to pursue legal action?

On that count, Murphy is quick to point out the limits of the board’s power: “It’s advisory only. So, for instance, the board will be making referrals and recommendations to the grand jury, as necessary — and be making recommendations to the police chief on what actions should be taken based on the independent investigation that was done.”

In comments about the controversial handling of the Clemmons shooting investigation and the Nashville PD’s decision not to fire Lippert, police spokesperson Don Aaron said that, yes, Lippert wasn’t charged or fired. But this was due to the fact that “there’s a lot of things the chief of police can do unilaterally, firing is not one of them.”

Okay. Let’s say that’s true. In a future situation with similar factors, could the Community Oversight Board come in and recommend termination of the officer, thereby strengthening the police chief’s power to fire, in a “non-unilateral way”?

“The board also would be able to make recommendations on those policies that are in place that keep him from being able to terminate officers,” Murphy says.

Aware that all of this is completely political — the upcoming vote most of all — I follow up by asking Murphy about what the polls are saying and the likelihood of this referendum passing. Is Community Oversight Now optimistic their amendment can get the votes it needs? Is it a close race?

“We’re completely grassroots,” she answers. “We haven’t had any money to conduct any polls. All we go by is what we hear from people in the community. And people in the community are saying that they’re very enthusiastic. We’re kept busy by people who want to volunteer, people who want to reach out, people who want to give their little $5, $10 or $20. So based upon that, we feel like there’s a good chance that it’ll pass.”

When I ask Murphy about the power the Community Oversight Board will provide the community — and how it’s part of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, symbolically picking up the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King and furthering his demands for civil rights and social justice — she’s quick to admit that it isn’t a perfect answer to police brutality or violence, but a tool to hold the police accountable. “The oversight board will by no means solve everything,” she explains. “But what it does is provide transparency for police processes, where right now we have no idea what they do. It would provide accountability directly to the community. Not through intermediary bodies, ones that are set up to answer to someone in the power structure instead of directly to the community.”

She adds, “The biggest power of the oversight board is its ability to research and recommend policy, to monitor how policy is implemented, to monitor the effects of policy and to make recommendations on alternative policy that benefits the community. Because, right now, the community isn’t at the table when policy is being made. Community considerations aren’t considered when policy is being made. This would represent a huge shift.”

It’s also a serious answer to one of the biggest questions in the country at the moment: Who polices the police?