Metro’s community oversight board will be abolished and replaced with a new department by Oct. 27 due to a state law passed earlier this year.
Because of how the statute is written, a new police advisory and review committee must be created from scratch, meaning Metro can’t simply put a new name on the existing COB, according to new Mayor Freddie O’Connell. All current COB employees must be laid off, and can apply for positions at the new department if they choose. The legislation came as a part of a deluge of bills the Tennessee General Assembly passed this year aimed at Nashville. The new police advisory and review committees will serve the same function as the COB but with far less power.
“Civilian oversight is important, and I am committed to getting our Civilian Review Board up and running as quickly as possible,” O’Connell said in a statement. “I have also confirmed that our human resources department will work with current employees who are in the unfortunate state-mandated position of having uncertainty surrounding how they are employed.”
The release also said that O’Connell “expects to recommend Jill Fitcheard as executive director and to retain current staffing levels.” Fitcheard confirmed to the Banner that she has applied for the new department’s head position.
“The Community Oversight Board was a pretty robust model,” says Jill Fitcheard, the Executive Director of Metro Nashville Community Oversight. “It was an investigative model that also had the ability to review, audit and monitor police activity and police departments and it could make research and policy recommendations.”
The Community Oversight Board was created in 2018 by a charter amendment passed by Metro voters. While Metro Legal chose to fight back against some of the more targeted legislation — for example, the legislation to cut the Metro Council in half and legislation to take control of the Airport Authority board — Metro Legal Director Wally Dietz will not be bringing a case against the state over this bill. The mayor’s statement explained that whether or not to file a lawsuit belongs fully to Dietz, but that the COB also independently decided not to file suit after engaging independent counsel.
“When the legislature passed the new law requiring all police oversight boards to comply with new restrictions and requirements, we advised the COB leadership that Metro would not file a lawsuit challenging the law because we did not have a legal claim we could file in good faith,” said Dietz.
In most of their cases against the state, Metro has relied on the Home Rule amendment of the Tennessee Constitution. That amendment bans any legislation that targets a single community. But because this bill applies to jurisdictions all across the state, it would likely hold up in court.
The police advisory and review committee, which is modeled after the committee that Knoxville had in place, can still do research and make policy recommendations, but Fitcheard explains that they have very little if any investigative power. Frustrations over the decrease in the ability to actually do much about malpractice in the police department have been compounded by a transition process required layoffs of all of the 14 current employees, including Fitcheard.
“We are working directly with council members as well as the mayor’s office to make this a smooth transition for our members,” says Tamika White, the political director for SEIU Local 205, the union that represents some of the COB employees. “We have full faith that Mayor O’Connell will do his best to make sure that happens.”
Another sticking point is the department’s legal representation. The COB had its own legal advisor, but Fitcheard says that she has been informed by Metro Legal that the state law does not allow outside counsel, and that Metro Legal will represent the new department.
“We want to, of course, have a really good relationship with Metro Legal,” says Fitcheard. “However, the nature of our work automatically creates an inherent conflict.”
Fitcheard worries that because Metro Legal also represents the Metro Nashville Police Department, the very body the police advisory and review committee is meant to monitor, there could be conflicts. But she also says that the new body will be allowed to contract with third-party law firms, with approval in some cases, which she hopes will remedy the issue.