Black communities have been fighting for effective civilian oversight of police departments since the 1960s. Criminal justice reform advocates were watching Nashville as the city takes center stage in the ongoing battle after a stunning victory on Election Day with the passage of a ballot amendment to create its first police oversight panel—the culmination of a Black-led movement in the city that began the 1970s.
After such a major victory with the passage of Amendment 1, which authorized the creation of the oversight panel, many supporters may think their job is done. But now is when the real work begins, Nashville activist Theeda Murphy told NewsOne this week.
“I’m personally afraid that people will think, ‘oh we have an oversight board, so we don’t need to do anything at all,’” added Murphy, who is a leader of Community Oversight Now that spearheaded the campaign for passage of the amendment.
There are about 200 civilian-led police oversight panels around the country with varying abilities to investigate officers, according to NPR. The movement had a surge in 2014 after a white officer killed the Black unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. However, police unions and lawmakers in many cities were doing everything they could to limit the authority of these panels.
Memphis has been a case in point. Members of the city’s Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board feared that the group has turned into a “dog and pony show,” complaining that the Memphis Police Department has been uncooperative. Board members have said they have no power to oversee the department.
About 200 miles away, Nashville cleared one major hurdle but faces more obstacles to creating an effective police review panel.
Voters, by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, ratified Amendment 1, the Tennessean reported.
“I was surprised by the wide margin,” Murphy admitted. “We had to wage our campaign in the streets because we didn’t have a lot of money to advertise.”
The Black-led movement was outspent nearly 30 to 1 by its main opponent, the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police, the newspaper said.
Black folks were sick and tired of the police department’s long history of using excessive force with impunity in their neighborhoods, Murphy explained. The movement took on a new urgency in August when the district attorney released a graphic video of a Nashville police officer gunning down a fleeing Black man named Daniel Hambrick.
She spoke about the overwhelming doubt that there will be justice for the 25-year-old.
However, there was guarded optimism that things will change. The new oversight panel was scheduled to be up and running in March. Murphy is in the group of advocates hammering out the details with the mayor and city council.
Mayor David Briley opposed the creation of the panel. But after it passed, he issued a statement saying that the voters have made a clear choice.
“The mayor says he’s on board, but the jury is still out on whether he will set up roadblocks,” Murphy said. “This mayor and city council did not support this. We have to oversee and make sure the board is implemented and fully funded.”
It will cost taxpayers an estimated $1.5 million each year to fully fund the panel.
But the challenges don’t stop there. The police union hasn’t given up its fight to block the panel. It filed a lawsuit in August, shortly after the election commision approved the ballot measure, to stop the creation of the oversight panel that could end up in the state supreme court.
The panel was also under possible threat from the state legislature, which many of the activists expected to preempt (cancel) passage of Amendment 1 through legislation or force revisions that limit its effectiveness, Murphy noted.
“This victory shows how important going out to vote is, and how important it is to follow up a vote with demands for accountability,” she said.