MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Members of Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, called for more oversight and manpower in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death, but legislation making its way through the general assembly could abolish CLERB as we know it.

The bill, which passed the Senate earlier this month and advanced out of a House committee last week, abolishes community oversight boards and instead allows cities to create police advisory and review committees.

It heads to the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee Tuesday and could see a House floor vote as early as Wednesday.

Prior to the April 11th vote in the Criminal Justice Committee bill, sponsor Rep. Elaine Davis (R-Knoxville) said the bill helped to create statewide standards. 

Rep. Davis added, “The purpose of the committee is to strengthen the relationship between the citizens and law enforcement agencies to ensure a timely, fair and objective review of citizens’ complaints while protecting the individual rights of local law enforcement officers.”

“This will be a sad day for accountability in Tennessee,” said Jill Fitcheard, Executive Director of the Metro Nashville Community Oversight, who testified in front of the Criminal Justice Committee.

Fitcheard continued, “Many Tennesseans, especially those in Memphis, are still reeling in despair and are traumatized from the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis Police Department. Knoxville and Nashville have not been exempt with similar types of police brutality, and if left without a separate entity with the authority to independently investigate these instances of police misconduct, the police will continue to police themselves.”

As written, the bill would allow municipalities to create a police advisory and review committee. 

The mayor would appoint committee members. The group would not be allowed to investigate complaints independently but rather turn those over to police internal affairs units.

Justin J. Pearson (left), Gloria Johnson (center), and Justin Jones (right) attend a rally held outside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo by Marcus Hunter, WREG)

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) of the Tennessee Three is a member of the Criminal Justice Committee. She said, “I don’t see the need for the state to step in when as far as the folks in my district are concerned, and my city, that this is working well, and I think they would like to see it remain the way it is.”

If signed into law, oversight boards created before July 1, 2023, must comply within 90 days of that date or they will be terminated.

It’s unclear exactly what this means for CLERB. All four major cities in Tennessee have some sort of review board or committee.  

Prior to the most recent vote, WREG spoke with CLERB Chair James Kirkwood, who said, “How sad that the senator and the state representative would be so mindful of the rights of police because in the bill he says that this is so that we can, to protect, the rights of police. But he never talks about the rights of the citizens. It’s sad.”

Kirkwood continued, “When we resist putting in strong civilian oversight to make sure police are accountable for their actions, we are ignoring the cries of the people.”

Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) serves on the Criminal Justice Committee and urged his colleagues to vote no during the April 11th meeting.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis)

Hardaway told the News Channel 3 Investigators after the vote, “It will essentially perpetuate unlawful policing.”

“Their ability to get to the root of the problem is going to be hampered. It’s really going to be superseded by the version of police oversight that’s going to come down from the state,” said Hardaway.

After the death of Tyre Nichols, Rep. Hardaway and others called on the Justice Department to launch a ‘pattern or practice investigation of the Memphis Police Department. He says the advancing of this bill is further evidence that such probes are needed.

“It says that reform is on life support, that true criminal justice reform, true law enforcement reform, true police reform, however, you want to frame it, is on life support,” said Hardaway.

News Channel 3 reached out to Rep. Davis several times but didn’t hear back. We also reached out to the Senate sponsor, and we are waiting on a reply.

The Finance Ways and Means Subcommittee is set to meet on Tuesday, April 18th, at 9 a.m., which will be followed by a full committee meeting. There are House floor sessions scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week.