Community group, legislators push back on advancement of bill to limit police oversight

Mayor Briley on the Hill urging state legislators to uphold the will of the people and to keep the COB as established by law (photo courtesy the Mayor’s Office).

Last week, the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice voted to advance HB 658/SB 1407 sponsored by Rep. Michael Curcio and Sen. Mike Bell with the strong backing of Rep. William Lamberth.

The bill, HB0658, seeks to weaken local police Community Oversight Boards by removing subpoena powers, reducing the ability of the board’s investigative role.

“Introduced during the first week of Black History Month, HB 658/SB 1407 is discriminatory and violates the equal protection of all Tennessee residents who need community oversight boards to protect their civil rights and to cultivate healthy police-community relations,” said representatives from Community Oversight Now, who successfully got an amendment to the Metro Charter to create a Community Oversight Board in Nashville.

The grassroots group has accelerated its ‘Don’t Play Where You’re Not Welcome’/#HandsOffCOB campaign that it announced last month.

The campaign targets the nation’s top high school athletes encouraging them to withdraw their support from the following Tennessee institutions: the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis, Vanderbilt University, East Tennessee State University, Austin Peay State University, Tennessee Tech University, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“We sent letters to the parents of 230 top-rank football players in the 2020 class, all of whom have multiple scholarship offers. These athletes represent 28 states and the District of Columbia—recruits that have early commitments to the University of Tennessee, and top-rank recruits from Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Another round of letters to an additional 200 athletes, including those in the West Coast pipeline, will be sent next week,” the group said.

The mayors of Knoxville and Nashville, as well as the Knoxville chief of police and a former Knoxville mayor, all oppose HB 658/SB 1407. According to Mayor Briley, HB undermines the will of Nashville voters.

“Nashville’s Community Oversight Board is Metro’s most diverse and inclusive board, and it will help strengthen trust between our police and our community,” he said.

The mayor recently spoke in front of the state legislature in opposition to the legislation. In response to criticism by state Rep. William Lamberth that he wishes “the folks in Nashville would spend half the amount of their time supporting their officers as their do prosecuting them and absolutely raking them over the coals,” Mayor Briley responded that “I do take offense, chairman, at any sense that the citizens of Nashville, the residents of Nashville, don’t respect, honor and care for their police. They do. That doesn’t mean they have to agree with them about everything.”

The House Democratic Caucus has condemned the actions of the Republicans in the legislature.

“Nashville voters passed a measure last year to create its COB, joining existing ones in Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga,” they said. “The bill’s most controversial portion would restrict the ability of COB’s to subpoena witness testimony or documents, considered a key portion of many of the boards.”

“The key aspect of community oversight boards is community and our police force is a part of the local community,” said House Majority Leader Karen Camper. The right of communities to incorporate oversight boards to investigate possible police misconduct should not be infringed upon. This is an attempt to curb the voice of the voters, our constituents, who have spoken loudly by approving these boards.”

Gov. Bill Lee, who announced his support of HB 658/SB 1407 has received criticism from Community Oversight Now for what has been called an “attack on civil rights and voting rights.”

“Interestingly, it was recently revealed that Gov. Lee wore a Confederate uniform and attended ‘Old South’ parties during his college years—both are deeply offensive to African Americans and other Tennesseans,” the group said. “Although he apologized for his actions, his endorsement of HB 658/SB 1407, which is equally discriminatory as his ‘Old South’ parties, and the fact that the legislation was introduced at the beginning of Black History Month, raise important concerns about racial tolerance in Tennessee. College athletes and their families, especially young African Americans who earn tens of millions of dollars for Tennessee universities, must be informed about these recent events. They deserve to play in a state that is racially tolerant, safe, and provides equal protection of all its residents.”