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On the campaign trail, there are few issues as reliable as crime.

If the crime rate rises in a city, it’s often used as an indictment of a sitting administration and provides easy talking points for opponents. If the crime rate falls, politicians of all shapes and sizes take some measure of credit, no matter the factors involved in the drop. 

But at its heart, the enduring success of crime as a political issue is because it is primarily a matter of individual perception, particularly of personal safety. If the homicide rate for the city inches up, but you’ve never been touched by it, Nashville seems like a safe place. But for the victim of an assault, every broken streetlight can feel like a potential danger. 

With that in mind, let’s set aside things a mayor can’t control — like much of the local news coverage of crime that often favors the dramatic, sensational or the specific but rarely digs into systemic issues — and look at the landscape of crime and what levers a mayor can pull. 

Political strategies for reducing crime usually fall into three buckets: policing, prosecution and addressing underlying causes. The police department reports directly to the mayor — John Cooper chose Chief John Drake to replace a retiring Steve Anderson in 2020 — and that line of accountability results in the most direct policies on crime reduction. The district attorney who prosecutes crimes is a state official and voters gave Glenn Funk a second eight-year term in 2022. He and the mayor talk, but the DA is an independent actor. 

By almost every measurable statistic, national violent and property crime rates have plunged since the early 1990s. This is also true in Nashville, where the record for homicides was set in 1997 at 112. In 2020, Nashville broke that record with 113, but the city added roughly 170,000 people in the interim, meaning that the rate was actually lower. There were 105 last year. Is that solace to families of the victims of those homicides? Absolutely not, but it is a helpful perspective on the city for policymakers. 

Crime doesn’t affect the city uniformly, either. When you look at the most serious incidents tracked by law enforcement for the FBI’s uniform crime report — murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson — there are more significant areas of concentration. In Metro, the breakdown of incidents by council district shows that District 19 (which includes downtown, Germantown and Salemtown) had both the highest percentage of violent and property offenses in 2022. As the most visited district in the city — by both tourists and locals — this is understandable, but so is the push by downtown residents for a more significant police presence. District 17 (12 South, Wedgewood Houston, Murfreesboro Pike and Edgehill) and District 2 (North Nashville, Metro Center and Bordeaux) were the second-highest in a virtual tie. Districts 4 (Nipper’s Corner and points south) and 35 (Bellevue and points west) were the lowest.

Those statistics are also a measure of calls to the police, an imperfect metric as well. Multiple council members the Banner talked to said that distrust of the police department meant that a certain portion of their constituents don’t call when they see crime. Suspicion can come from different sources: police misconduct, immigration status or disbelief that police will be effective were all reasons given.

Because police response can be a blunt tool, some cities, including Nashville, have begun to explore alternative methods, such as introducing mental health professionals when appropriate or using nonprofits as violence interrupters or to help alleviate addiction or poverty.

“People talk about crime as if it is consistently going up,” said Sekou Franklin, a political science professor at MTSU, who cautioned about seeking a single solution, like increasing the size of the police force, to a complex problem. “There is no one empirically verifiable solution to solve the issue of crime. Most solutions are actually detached from addressing structural issues that fuel involvement in criminal activities like poverty, the need for affordable housing, and chronic unemployment.” 

What has John Cooper’s administration done about crime?

“Mayor Cooper has made fully staffing MNPD a priority – a goal that did not seem achievable just four years ago,” said Cooper spokesperson T.J. Ducklo. “In his term, Mayor Cooper will have added nearly 500 new police officers while increasing police pay 32 percent over four years.”

First-year pay for police officers has risen from $49,000 four years ago to $65,000 in the current budget and salaries for paramedics and firefighters have been raised 28 percent and 33 percent, respectively, during Cooper’s term. 

Still, though, MNPD has suffered from some of the same problems as other Nashville institutions and businesses regarding staffing. Retirements, issues with retention and higher cost of living in the area mean that MNPD is about 200 officers short of being fully staffed. Any future mayor who wants to increase the number of sworn officers first has to fill that gap. 

Other spending on first responders includes:

  • $11 million for a new Fire Department headquarters
  • 81 new fire trucks
  • Two new helicopters
  • 677 new vehicles and the addition of an overnight shift for servicing them
  • Body cameras and Tasers for all officers
  • Investments in crime analysis and evidence management

Cooper also introduced Partners in Care in 2021, a program that pairs mental health and police resources when responding to calls where people suffer a behavioral health crisis. The diversion process has meant that less than 4 percent of 1,800 calls resulted in an arrest.

Controversially, the administration pushed a license-plate-reader program through the Council, despite concerns over data management and how it would be shared. A Cooper aide says that in four months of usage, the program has already assisted in solving more than 60 carjackings. Police officials said during the debate over the devices that LPRs would not be used for expired tags or other minor offenses.

What Can the Next Mayor Do?

A high priority is going to be fully staffing the police department. It’s a part of the commercials, websites and rhetoric of virtually every candidate in the race. But what happens after that?

Partners in Care is a startup program that has been steadily rolling out, adding Midtown Hills as the fifth precinct with trained personnel in May. While the results have been promising, it will likely need further expansion to become a countywide operation on all shifts. A similar pilot plan, called REACH, points mental health professionals toward low-risk situations where a person is in crisis in an effort to free up ambulance services. But its scope is limited in days and personnel. 

While several candidates have addressed school programming from the pre-K side, multiple Council members say that more programming is needed for middle and high schoolers after the school day ends as a way to combat juvenile crime. MNPS currently partners with nonprofits for some of these, but there is room for expansion. 

And on the trust side of the equation, the state effectively gutted community oversight boards of law enforcement in the last session. Nashville’s COB was added by public referendum in the wake of the police killing of Daniel Hambrick and is popular, so there will be some pressure for a mayor — who has direct oversight — to fill in those gaps.

On the Record

We asked candidates three questions about issues around crime and public safety. Here are their unedited responses (in alphabetical order):

1) Stolen guns are increasingly used in crime. Most guns are stolen from cars, something the police have called a “crisis.” What would your administration do to stop Nashvillians from leaving their guns in cars? 

Heidi Campbell: “My administration will work with MNPD to educate citizens on proper gun storage in the home and pursue new solutions that regulate gun storage in automobiles. The largest source of illegal firearms is guns being stolen from cars, and stemming this pathway of weapons for criminal activity will help address crime in Nashville. The state legislature has attempted to tie our hands on the issue through preemption laws, which not only prohibit local gun control regulations but also penalize elected officials who enact them. That will not stop my administration from exploring every option available, including new and innovative proposals that have yet to be tried. 

We can start by establishing a Nashville Gun Violence Prevention Task Force including the US Attorney, ATF, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, MNPD, and community leaders. This group would coordinate investigations into the usage of illegal guns and increase cross-departmental communication. We can also strengthen penalties for illegally possessing or purchasing a firearm in Davidson County and analyze risks at public facilities, including schools, through a Threat Assessment Task Force that would make recommendations on mitigating vulnerability.”

Jim Gingrich: “On January 17th of this year, MNPD released a statement saying, “In the first 17 days of the new year, 57 guns have been stolen from vehicles in Nashville.” Neighboring cities, Memphis and Chattanooga, released similar reports. Because of state legislation surrounding gun ownership, the most effective solution will require advocacy at the state level. As with many issues Nashville is facing, by strengthening our relationships across the state and with the state legislature, we can work on policies to keep Nashville safe. There is evidence in the many states that have passed gun safety laws, that these measures work and reduce the number of stolen guns in the hands of criminals. In addition to working with the state on a solution, I will work with stakeholders, community members, MNPD, and gun owners to build awareness and offer incentives around the importance of safe gun storage.”

Sharon Hurt: “I believe there are two problems here, the first is that a lot of people in Nashville aren’t used to crime so people leave their cars unlocked which can make it easy for someone to take a gun from a car. We need to run an informational campaign encouraging Nashvillians to keep their cars locked. We can also run a campaign to encourage gun owners to purchase gun safes for their cars. The second problem is that a lot of these guns are being stolen by kids. We need to focus on getting kids out of crime in order to address the root of the problem.

The state legislature currently doesn’t penalize people who keep a gun in their car and we wouldn’t need to do any of this if the state legislature would pass common sense gun laws and fine people for keeping guns in their cars.”

Freddie O’Connell: “The truth of the matter is that state overreach has ensured that we can’t do much that’s going to help with this crisis. And it is a crisis. Since the state’s misguided permitless, open carry policies were enacted, we’ve seen dramatic increases in the number of guns stolen from vehicles.

Given this, our best tools for now will continue to be education and outreach. As mayor, I’ll join our police in doing everything I can to make sure Nashvillians understand the nature of this problem. Someone who steals a weapon does not intend to use it for lawful purposes.

The state preempts Nashville from even issuing citations for guns left in cars, so we need to advocate for storage legislation. This is why I’ve joined so many other Tennesseans calling on the state legislature to pass a safe storage bill in their special session. We’re not asking for anything other than ensuring that we have the tools to ensure that gun owners are being responsible.”

Alice Rolli: “Theft of guns is indeed a crisis. As Mayor, Alice Rolli will continue to support efforts currently underway with MNPD related to educating the public on the importance of locking cars and safe storage of guns for residents. Data shows it is not only the guns of Nashvillians being stolen from cars – but also the firearms of many visitors. The Convention Visitor Bureau can continue to amplify messaging for visitors related to safe storage of firearms and continue to explore ways to install gun safes in more hotel rooms and short term rental properties to reduce the likelihood a visitor leaves their gun in their vehicle.  As Mayor, Alice’s administration will evaluate the success of recently appropriated metro funds to increase availability of gun safes and gun storage options across the county and determine if additional funds are needed.  Importantly, we will forcefully advocate that penalties for gun theft are enforced. When we do not enforce existing laws related to gun theft we make criminals more bold and victims more helpless.”

Vivian Wilhoite: “My administration will work with Chief John Drake to stop Nashvillians from leaving their guns in car.  i will conduct a public relations campaign, continue to educate gun owners, be vocal about this issue, and talk about responsible gun ownership. Owning a gun comes with a responsibility. And that includes keeping your firearm out of the hands of our children.”

Matt Wiltshire: “We need action at the state and federal level to reduce the proliferation of guns, but there are a couple of things we can do locally right away. Gun owners are significantly less likely to have a gun stolen if they store all of their guns locked and unloaded, but more than half of gun owners do not. As Mayor, I will expand on the Metro Health Department’s gun lock-by-mail program. Through this program free gun locks are available by mail to anyone who orders one, and the MNPD will equip all of their patrol officers with free locks to distribute as part of their work in the community.”

Jeff Yarbro: “1,378 guns were reported stolen in Nashville last year, and we know these weapons are being used to commit crimes including the recent shooting of a Metro detective. I’ve already been working with Chief Drake and Rep. Caleb Hemmer on a stronger safe storage law, which would help. But there are two more important steps I would take as Mayor. First, there should be an aggressive public safety campaign to convince those who think of themselves as law-abiding gun owners to actually abide by the law and lock up their guns rather than provide easier access to criminals. Second, we should identify regularly targeted parking facilities and communities so that we can provide more timely guidance to firearm owners to act responsibly to prevent theft and increase patrolling and surveillance. Third, we need to investigate and forcefully prosecute those who are stealing weapons from vehicles.”

2) What is something you support to reduce crime by adults that doesn’t involve policing or prosecution? By juveniles?

Heidi Campbell: “As your mayor, I will support smart policing initiatives through evidence-based and data-driven strategies to tackle chronic crime problems under the advice of Police Chief Drake. By employing organizational efficiencies including telephone and online reporting, call diversion, false alarm reductions, traffic-accident management, and Smart City Technologies, we can simultaneously reduce costs and crime. Infrastructure improvements such as lighting and traffic signal coordination will also increase public safety. Additionally, my administration will work with community partners that are already pursuing violence intervention and support networks for families and youth.

Research has shown time and time again that the less time a juvenile offender spends in a courtroom, the lower their risk of recidivism. That is why intervention and mental health support programs are so important–they are proven, effective solutions to provide the best possible support for struggling youth. As Mayor, I will fully fund these programs and work with the Davidson County Juvenile Court (DCJC), including Chief Judge Sheila Calloway, to identify opportunities for improvement and expansion. Additionally, I will use the Mayor’s office to increase cross-departmental communication in programs that involve MNPD, MNPS, DCJC, and other community partners to ensure that we are reaching every single youth who needs our help.”

Jim Gingrich: “There is no more important responsibility of the mayor than keeping our city’s residents safe. That starts with ensuring the Metro Nashville Police Department is appropriately resourced. This must be paired with a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary crime prevention strategy integrating community partners, non-profit and faith-based organizations, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Metro Social Services, and Metro Nashville Police Department. And we must build and scale investments targeted toward at-risk and opportunity youth, such as proven cognitive behavioral therapy, after-school programs, workforce development, summer jobs, wrap-around supports, and work-and-learn programs.”

Sharon Hurt: “You have to get to the root of a problem before you get to the fruit of it. I will focus on the root causes of crime and give our kids the resources they need to be successful. It all begins with getting money into our schools, our social services, our recreation centers and our public swimming pools so kids have a place to go after school. Baltimore has successfully piloted a social services based public safety program that has cut violent crime. Perhaps we can focus on community service requirements for offenders, especially our juveniles, so they can learn what it is like to be engaged with the community. As Mayor, I will implement a similar program to ensure Nashvillians are safe and so we set up our kids for a pipeline to prosperity rather than a pipeline to prison.”

Freddie O’Connell: “In 2016, our young people told us exactly how to keep them safe. Mayor Barry presided over a Youth Violence Summit coordinated by Lonnell Matthews. I was an active participant in this countywide initiative that solicited  input from young people across the city to offer several priorities we still need to address: training and employment; meaningful youth engagement; health awareness and access; restorative justice and diversion; a safe environment and education. The voices of these young people and the work of this summit still matter. When I’m mayor, we’ll reinvest in this important work.

One of my most successful collaborations with Mayor Cooper was working with John Buntin and Ron Johnson on creating community safety partnership funding opportunities that resulted in The Village. I will expand upon this work.

We should also implement a Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS) to bring together community stakeholders, social service providers, and law enforcement to focus on the places we already know crime is occurring. This approach has worked well in other cities to reduce gun violence.

I’ll also work to build our capacity as second responders, including for areas experiencing trauma, so we can solve problems that lead to violence before it occurs and respond thoughtfully if it does. One of the lessons of the Covenant shooting was our need to be prepared for the days and weeks after the crisis is over. Because the trauma remains.”

Alice Rolli: “Aiding individuals to find the dignity of work or of purpose is the surest path to reducing crime. Many of the county’s strongest non-profits supporting assistance to families have received unprecedented sums from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (or TANF) to design new and impactful ways to support families. These funds can support individuals with childcare or other expenses while pursuing additional skills training, certificates, or other education to improve their prospects for finding work. The Rolli administration will ensure greater cross-department collaboration so that common sense solutions including later high school start times and supporting after school programming, sports, or activities at schools, parks, and other community centers are realized so that there are strong available options for youth to have guidance, resources, and opportunities to divert them from criminal activity.”

Vivian Wilhoite: “I would support wholeheartedly to work with our nonprofits to increase services and support for mental health and addiction services. Too often criminal activity is the byproduct causation of a root cause found in poverty, mental health and addiction. I would support programs that allow individuals to turn in their guns without questions. I would support programs that would intervene in the lives of our citizens without them first becoming a criminal defendant. For this to occur, people need to be able to know what resources there are available to help them. I believe this applies to both adults and to juveniles.”

Matt Wiltshire: “For adults, we must enforce court orders to dispossess violent individuals of their guns.

Tennessee has a system for dispossessing some potentially violent individuals of their guns, but it isn’t working like it should. Tennessee’s current protective-order process has a significant and potentially dangerous loophole, which kicks in once a court orders a domestic-violence abuser to give up his or her firearms. While other states require abusers to turn over their guns to law enforcement, Tennessee allows them to give their guns to a third party, like a friend or a relative. Significantly, our state is the only one in the country that does not require abusers to say which third party, or whether that person is legally allowed to possess a firearm. What’s worse is that our state has no mechanism to ensure that the abuser actually turned over his or her guns to anyone.

As Mayor, I will require that Nashville’s courts have the funding necessary to ensure that domestic violence offenders – along with those deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, if the legislature adopts Governor Lee’s expanded ERPO proposal this August – comply with dispossession orders. I’ll also work to ensure that law enforcement officers have the resources they need to follow up when someone has failed to dispossess.

Partners in Care has been a big success so far. It pairs mental health professionals from Nashville’s Mental Health Cooperative with specially trained police officers, who together respond to 911 calls and other emergencies that may involve a mental health crisis. Once on the scene, MNPD officers stabilize the situation so clinicians can assess the individuals and connect them to the behavioral healthcare they need. As Mayor, I will make its expansion a priority.

For young people we need to make more investments into giving them better opportunities to make good choices. The city’s POWER Youth Summer Employment Initiative is a terrific example of a program I’d look to support and expand.”

Jeff Yarbro: “Our public safety conversation cannot begin and end with policing and prosecution, which are our response after crimes have been committed. Public safety comes from crime prevention, and there are lots of evidence-based interventions we know work. First, there are infrastructure issues that affect public safety. We know that merely improving street lighting can lead to significant reductions on nighttime crime—and that repairing and activating neglected walkways and public spaces improves public safety. Second, given the high rate of recidivism of those released from prisons, we should invest in the reentry programs like Project Return and the DREAM Initiative that are succeeding in helping the reentring lead productive lives rather than return to criminal conduct. Third, we should support community-based violence intervention programs where non-profits work to break cycles of violence in neighborhoods. Finally, to reduce crimes committed by both juveniles and adults, I would continue to work with Juvenile Judge Calloway to have far earlier and more effective interventions when young people make their first appearance in juvenile court. Oftentimes, children come into the system as victims of abuse and neglect. Many of those same children will come to our attention again for truancy, running away from home, or committing petty offenses. We cannot wait until young people have started engaging in violent conduct or using firearms to provide the sustained attention and support they need. 

3) The Community Oversight Board received overwhelming support when it was passed as a charter amendment. Now that the board has been preempted by the state, what will your office do to ensure the objectives of the COB are met?

Heidi Campbell: “My administration will fully fund civilian oversight of MNPD and will also work to increase trust between the general public and MNPD. The COB described its mission, in part, as, “enhancing community-police relations and creating a safer Nashville.” While the board may have been preempted, that does not mean many of its central goals cannot be accomplished. Initiatives that encourage communication and trust between law enforcement officers and Nashville residents, like having police walk the beat more often, will be among the top of my priorities as Nashville Mayor. Additionally, I will work with Chief Drake to ensure that MNPD is adopting and following the best possible policies that keep citizens safe while also protecting their rights. As Mayor, I will also explore every possible option, both short and long term, to maintain complaint investigation and resolution pathways.”

Jim Gingrich: “Every public company, including AllianceBernstein, has an internal audit group that effectively reports to the board of directors, providing independent oversight. Great organizations welcome such scrutiny. Similarly, in our government, it only makes sense there is public oversight. We must work together with stakeholders, the state, MNPD, and the community to build an oversight process.”

Sharon Hurt: “The voters made it very clear that they supported the Community Oversight Board and the state legislature is continuing to ignore the residents of Davidson County. I don’t need to get into the Mayor’s Office in order to ensure the objectives of the COB are met. I am currently sponsoring a bill to bring back the COB as a Council Member. This bill brings back the Community Oversight Board on the municipal level to the greatest extent possible under the new state law. It preserves the original COB’s subpoena power via Metro Council and its $2.2 million budget.

As Mayor, I will do even more to keep the COB intact. I will create an Office of Accountability, Efficiency and Enforcement using the architecture of the pre-existing COB as a guideline for its structure. I will re-appoint seven of the original COB members onto the new COB and encourage Chief Drake to continue to implement the recommendations of the Board.”

Freddie O’Connell: “Even on the Metro Council, I’m already preparing to take the next steps. CM Syracuse and the mayor’s office have responded quickly to the state’s actions, and I hope to be part of a successful effort before I leave Council to reconstitute the civilian oversight process consistent with new state law that preempted our original approach.

Despite state overreach, the good news is that the state cannot stop Nashville from including civilian oversight in our approach to accountability, and as mayor, I am committed to ensuring we continue this work.

An accountable police department yields better results for our community, and Chief Drake has been a leader in demonstrating a willingness to partner with civilian involvement. We will need a new mayor, a new oversight community, and the chief to step forward together soon after the election to demonstrate an ongoing good faith effort to ensure that we have the type of accountability that builds confidence and support in our police department. We need all Nashvillians to feel safe and be safe.”

Alice Rolli: “As Mayor Alice Rolli will appoint 7 community members to a reconstituted Citizens-Police Advisory Board committed to the importance of citizen perspective as a means to strengthen relationships and ensure trust between the police and the community at large. Alice is committed to appoint community members that represent a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences with the criminal justice system – including victims of crime and those who advocate for the rights of victims of crime, retired police, advocacy organizations related to reducing recidivism, and individuals with a variety of perspectives on the judicial system such as educators, religious leaders, business leaders and other community stakeholders. Our MNPD is held up as a best-practice, nationally, for how swiftly our body-worn camera footage is released – which continually reinforces the importance of transparency and trust in our police force. As Mayor, Alice Rolli will continue to ensure that there is a strong degree of transparency and accountability to citizens – whilst also ensuring that we are efficient in our adjudication of matters referred to the reformulated Citizens-Police Advisory Board.”

Vivian Wilhoite: “On day one, as Mayor, I would ask my legal department and Chief Drake to come up with a proposal that allows us to have the same type of oversight that the people voted to have and to do it in a way that does not run afoul of the recently passed legislation from the state. Transparency and accountability should be the rule, not the exception–especially in police and policing.”

Matt Wiltshire: “I believe that public trust in public and private entities has eroded over the past several decades. And I believe that transparency and accountability strengthen an organization and its members.  The Metro Nashville Police Department has exceptional leadership and the vast majority of its officers and staff demonstrate the highest professionalism.

Any organization with more than 2,200 employees and hundreds of thousands of citizen interactions each year is going to have issues at times.  Having a robust and equally professional Community Oversight Board will help to increase public trust in MNPD and the city as a whole. 

As Mayor, I will work with the leadership of the MNPD and the Fraternal Order of Police to establish a Community Oversight Board, its authority, responsibilities, staffing and composition. I believe that I have the experience, perspective and disposition to be able to bring the parties together and hold them accountable in the establishment of a well-functioning Community Oversight Board.”

Jeff Yarbro: “It is not possible to maintain a world-class modern police force without the type of transparency, oversight, and accountability that builds public trust and ensures effective policing. In all honesty, Nashville’s citizens should never have had to organize and enact the COB referendum because the City and MNPD should have led the way without the public demand. By comparison, that’s what happened in Knoxville, which has had a community oversight panel since 1988. I will work with Chief Drake, officers, Metro Council, those who have worked and led Nashville’s COB, and the community to ensure that Nashville is taking full advantage of the revised law we and that the revived COB has sufficient resources and support to effective oversight. 

Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...