In July, the Tennessee State Legislature passed two controversial pieces of legislation to overhaul the way the state’s Police Oversight Boards function. Combined, both bills replaced a patchwork of local processes and determined how and who would decide whether police officers have stepped out of line.
Do Tennessee Police Review Committees Need Changing?
Over the past few years, several of Tennessee’s major cities have instituted or strengthened their Police Oversight Boards. In some cases, this was done in the wake of massive protests or highly publicized incidents. But for cities such as Memphis, which has had its own Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board since 1994, the new bills are stepping on some well-established toes.
Meanwhile, in nearby Nashville and Knoxville, the original boards were subject to controversy of their own. Established in the last 10 years, these boards were empowered to conduct their own independent investigations regarding a complaint against police. This included access to body cam footage, copies or reports, or interviews with officers involved. Then, based on their findings, they could recommend anything from mediation to legal or disciplinary action against an officer.
These wide powers often created equally wide and invasive operations, which demoralized police officers and soured relations between officers and their communities. According to Republican Senator Richard Briggs, Knoxville Police Oversight Board members could even “cross the yellow tape at a crime scene” without an escort, contaminating a crime scene.
What’s In The Bills?
Senate Bill 0591 and its companion, House Bill 0764, both directly modify the existing laws that establish the powers of local community oversight boards. In practice, both bills replace the existing Police Oversight Boards with simplified “Police Review Committees.”
These Committees will be comprised of 7 members each, all appointed by the local mayor. Instead of independent investigation, their job is to review – upon a citizen’s request – the final findings of a police department’s local internal affairs unit. Each committee will be led by an Executive Director, who will be required to accept “written, sworn complaints from the public” and to forward them to the head of the local internal affairs unit within three business days.
For some critics, this “referring capacity” falls short of true power, and may hinder the public’s ability to hold police departments accountable. But at the same time, the simpler, unified process will bring about greater clarity for everyday citizens.
What is the Expected Impact on Police Officers?
Because the topic of “police accountability” is now a highly partisan one, the answer will depend largely on who you ask.
For the left-wing activists at the NAACP, the new methods are unequivocal bad news. Their president (and Memphis’ mayoral candidate) Van Turner expressed doubts about “allowing the police to police themselves.”
More moderate critics also expressed their doubts about the fact that all members of these Committees will be appointed by the local mayor. This could provide the mayor with a greater degree of influence on daily police operations, subject to radical changes in viewpoint.
But for officers themselves, the new system comes with an important improvement: it will enshrine each department’s right to conduct an internal inquiry first. If citizens need to, they can still call the Committee to review the results or to provide an additional opinion. However, the first ones to decide whether a police officer acted righteously will be those who have walked the streets and worked the job – competent career officers rather than elected political hopefuls.
So What Comes Next?
Both bills have now been approved by their respective chambers and signed into law by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. They are expected to come into force before the end of the year. As of July 2023, some citizen organizations in Nashville were planning to contest the bills during the public comment period. Elsewhere, the process of forming the new police review committees has already started.