GOP leaders seek to limit local community oversight panels
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Republican lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation limiting the powers of community oversight boards just months after Democratic-leaning Nashville passed a referendum establishing such a group to investigate police misconduct claims.
State Rep. Michael Curcio, the Republican sponsoring the bill, says the proposal will give statewide standards to oversight boards that he argues are currently lacking in Tennessee. Yet despite growing GOP criticism of Nashville’s oversight board, he repeatedly denied the legislation was in any way a direct response to Tennessee’s largest city.
Separately, Knoxville has had a police review committee since 1998 — which includes subpoena power — and Memphis established its civilian law enforcement review board in 1994 but cannot subpoena officers to come in and testify.
“Its goal is to protect the fundamental rights for police officers and our citizens. This will ensure everyone will be treated respectfully and fairly during any review of alleged misconduct involving members of our law enforcement community,” Curcio said.
Curcio made the announcement surrounded by House Speaker Glen Casada and other top GOP legislative leaders. No Democrats and no black lawmakers were in attendance to support the bill.
“We as Republican leaders want the state and our communities to know that we support the men and women in blue on the front lines fighting crime and protecting us as we sleep safe at night,” Casada said.
Other lawmakers denied they had been urged by the police union to back the bill when asked by reporters.
Separately, Senate Speaker Randy McNally has not only come out in favor of preventing subpoena power to oversight bodies but has also voiced his overall opposition to such panels because he argued mayors and city councils were sufficient.
Curcio’s proposal prevents oversight boards from having subpoena power, requires board members to be registered to vote and prohibits limiting membership based on demographics, economic status or employment history. Additionally, it ensures that all documents provided to the community oversight boards will be confidential.
Nashville’s new oversight board — which was approved in November — allows subpoena power and dictates that four of the seven members should live in “economically distressed communities.” The Fraternal Order of Police opposed the measure and unsuccessfully attempted to block the vote in the buildup of the election.
Activists pushed for the board after a Nashville police officer killed an armed black man who ran when he saw the police. That officer has since been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder while Nashville’s oversight board is in the early stages of being implemented.
“Over the last several years, the new favorite sport around the Legislature is kicking Nashville around, and really that’s no way to run the state,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, Democrat from Nashville. “This is plainly targeted at overturning the will and processes of self-government of Tennessee citizens, and the Legislature is not supposed to be a group of statewide aldermen and councilmen.”
A spokesman for Nashville Mayor David Briley did not immediately return a request for comment.
The bill also represents another effort to limit the scope of policies in the state’s large cities.
Last year, lawmakers passed legislation to limit the ability of local governments to ban short-term rentals, including Airbnb, while Nashville and Knoxville had moved to restrict them.
In the same legislative session, lawmakers reacted to a move by Memphis to sell their parks to a nonprofit and take down Confederate statues by passing a measure barring cities from ever again selling or transferring property that has historic memorials without permission from the Tennessee Historical Society — or a court.
And in 2017, lawmakers barred cities in Tennessee from decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, which Nashville and Memphis had moved to do.