Nashville police may face federal investigation over racial disparity

Rasheedat Fetuga, founder of Gideon's Army, challenges Nashville leaders to change policing tactics and investments to reduce negative impacts on black residents. (Pic source: Tony Gonzalez)

Rasheedat Fetuga, founder of Gideon’s Army, challenges Nashville leaders to change policing tactics and investments to reduce negative impacts on black residents. (Pic source: Tony Gonzalez)

Nashville police stop Black drivers more often than Whites—and they push to search the vehicles of Black drivers more regularly, despite incriminating evidence being found more often in the possession of White drivers.

Those are among findings from a citizen coalition that says it now has statistical proof of racial profiling and police harassment in poor Nashville neighborhoods. The group has asked the Department of Justice to investigate and crafted 11 demands for change from leaders with Metro and the Metro Nashville Police Department.

A broad group of faith leaders, attorneys and social activists are behind the 213-page report, ‘Driving While Black,’ released Tuesday. It includes 22 firsthand accounts from drivers and an analysis of nearly two million traffic stops between 2011 and 2015.

Among the group’s findings:

Metro police make more traffic stops than the national average.

Black drivers are disproportionately stopped and searched.

Stops of Black people outnumbered the total number of Black drivers in the city some years.

Police ‘consent searches’ of vehicles did not find incriminating evidence 88.4% of the time.

“And now that we have both quantitative and qualitative data that show everything we have been saying all along, what are you going to do now?” said Rasheedat Fetug during a news conference at Public Square in front of city hall.

Fetuga, the founder of Gideon’s Army, said the report questions a narrative that Nashville police don’t carry out practices criticized in other cities. The department, she said, “follows the same unconstitutional policing patterns.”

In a detailed statement, Metro police did not dispute the statistics. But spokesman Don Aaron defended department tactics—and he also pointed to data. He said the department uses crime numbers to identify areas to send additional officers.

“Nashville police officers are deployed at a higher degree to where the victims of crime are, in other words, to areas where there is a higher prevalence of crime and higher requests for police services,” Aaron wrote.

The report’s most focused finding (that motivates the civil rights complaint sent to the Department of Justice) analyzes how police conduct searches once they have stopped a driver.

Broadly, the study finds that 88.4% of stops did not yield incriminating evidence during searches.

A key finding, the group says, is that searches of White drivers are more likely to turn up evidence than searches of Black or Hispanic motorists. (That finding applies to searches conducted when officers have probable cause, and when carrying out ‘consent’ searches that are allowed by a driver.)

“This means that hundreds of thousands of drivers are being stopped and searched unnecessarily every year,” Bunch said. “Our report calls MNPD’s policing strategies into question, both legally and ethically.”

The coalition recited specific demands from the steps of city hall. They include calls for police: to conduct fewer random searches; to create a citizen review board for officer complaints; and to change how they’re trained for traffic stops.

“We say no more,” said activist Jahlani Smothers-Pugh.

She also called for an end to Operation Safer Streets, which sends additional officers into some neighborhoods on nights and weekends.

Other demands address broader Metro government spending priorities. The group asks for a shift in funding away from policing and toward communities and children. The report also demands more audiovisual recording of traffic stops and more public access to Metro police data.

The activists said they have not yet met with Metro police, but plan to request a discussion.