A few weeks ago, the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police filed a complaint with Davidson County Circuit Court requesting review of a petition calling for the creation of a community oversight board. Their argument in this suit is that Community Oversight Now — the organization pushing for the creation of the board — did not pass the signature threshold on their petition and that, as a result, the measure should not go to referendum in November. Of course, Community Oversight Now disagrees and views the attempt of the FOP to block the petition as, per their statement in response, an “attack on...the sacred right to vote.”
If, indeed, Community Oversight Now failed to secure the necessary signatures, then they failed to secure the necessary signatures. The various courts and commissions need to resolve this dispute quickly so that those on both sides of the issue have a chance to educate and entreat Nashvillians before November.
Whatever the outcome of these legal proceedings, now or later, Nashville should move toward establishing a community oversight board.
In the statement they issued after filing their lawsuit, the FOP added their general opposition to the proposed legislation, listing three foundational arguments. First, they claim that the proposal “lacks perspective from law enforcement.” Second, that it “creates an environment lacking due process.” And finally, that the proposed legislation “violates employee rights.”
It’s not obvious that a community oversight board is the best, most efficient, or most equitable way to review law enforcement conduct. Those who wish to make the change bear the burden of proof, and this would be quite a change. The principle arguments against the implementation of such a board are worth taking seriously, therefore, and any suggestion that the FOP is operating in bad faith or out of nefarious self-interest poisons the conversation before it even begins.
Ultimately, though, the arguments from the FOP do not stand to scrutiny.
First, while the FOP and other law enforcement did not have direct input on the draft of the legislation, the proposal calls for the creation of a board by referendum, not decree. In other words, law enforcement as well as individuals and organizations who agree with the FOP’s position have time to make their case before the vote. If, because of the arguments given by the FOP and others, Nashvillians are not convinced that the proposed legislation is even-handed or that it will actually accomplish the goals of its drafters, they should vote against it. There is plenty of room on this front for input from law enforcement.
The second objection from the FOP — regarding due process — is, with respect, a little strange. If this referendum passes and Davidson County forms a community oversight board with powers to review misconduct allegations against the MNPD and make recommendations to the Grand Jury if appropriate, that itself constitutes due process. That the board would have the power to issue reports and recommend courses of action to the MNPD Office of Public Affairs or other agencies does not violate due process, either. Furthermore, the board would comprise members of the community, council representatives and nominees from the Mayor’s Office. This balance of power helps to ensure fairness and carefulness in review. Put simply, if this board is duly established and discharges its duties and privileges honestly and in keeping with county regulations, the board becomes part of the process, not an interference.
The FOP’s final objection that the legislation, if adopted, would “violate employee rights” is too vague for a thorough response at this point. Off-hand, it isn’t clear how a legally established oversight board violates employee rights, but maybe there’s more to the FOP’s point, here.
While these three dissents on the part of the FOP are relatively weak, that’s not necessarily enough for advocates of the board to win the argument. A community oversight board is a good idea because concentrations of power always deserve closer inspection. When it is possible to bring more accountability by legal means to institutions of power and authority, it is necessary to do so.
Leave aside all allegations and reports of misconduct. Leave aside the cloud of national unease and unrest over fatal shootings and illegal searches and racial profiling. Leave aside that some protests against police have been ill-informed, reckless and worse. Leave aside Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter and President Trump and left and right. Regardless of ideology or affiliation, Americans should be able to agree that review of government power serves as an important check on potential abuse, and that it channels concerns (and occasional outrage) in more constructive ways than careless slogans and disorganized marches. Community oversight boards are one of the more interesting, creative ways of realizing those goals. They can build trust between the police and the populace.
Our system — any system — can only ever approximate justice. A community oversight board will not be perfect and it will not function ideally in every situation. But it is more than a last resort or haphazard effort. It’s an opportunity to bring further transparency and accountability to a powerful institution. Maybe even more importantly, it may open lines of communication between law enforcement and civilians, making way for better understanding and greater compassion.
Eric D.S. Dorman serves as operations manager for The Contributor.
Oct 01 2018