Lawmakers Seek to Handcuff Police Oversight

Lawmakers Move to Handcuff Police Oversight

City officials ask the state Legislature to reject a bill that would strip law enforcement oversight committees of their subpoena powers.

by scott barker • February 14, 2019

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include comments from the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally's office.

Legislation filed in the General Assembly would strip local police oversight committees of subpoena powers available to aid in reviewing reports of law enforcement misconduct.

Lawmakers filed the legislation after Nashville established a police oversight board similar to Knoxville's Police Advisory & Review Committee.

The bills, House Bill 658 and Senate Bill 1407, would affect Knoxville’s Police Advisory & Review Committee (PARC), which has prompted resistance from the mayor, the police chief, City Council and members of the Knox County legislative delegation.

City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution offered by Councilman Marshall Stair that asks the Knox County legislative delegation to “avoid approving any legislation that would impact the time tested and carefully developed subpoena powers of local boards … and thus and help maintain citizens’ faith in government to be able to adequately investigate matters.”

Formed in 1998 and the state’s oldest local police oversight board, PARC is authorized to investigate citizen complaints against the Knoxville Police Department. PARC has never used its power to subpoena witnesses to testify during incident reviews.

Clarence Vaughn, PARC’s executive director, said PARC has benefited from good rapport with KPD, but noted that situation could change if relations turn frosty in the future.

“The only concern is based on PARC's ability to successfully serve the citizens of Knoxville in case the formed relationships at some point diminish between local law enforcement,” Vaughn said. “I would like to ensure that community members are provided with a complete and transparent model of civilian oversight, which will allow access to controversial incidents that might arise.”

Police Chief Eve Thomas agreed that the department’s relationship with PARC is strong.

“We do have a great working relationship,” Thomas told Council members Tuesday night. “The legislation would affect how business is done. It’s not needed.”

Mayor Madeline Rogero said, “We are opposed to anything that would reduce the current structure and powers of PARC. Nothing’s broken, so you don’t have to fix it.”

Stair’s resolution emphasized the importance of maintaining trust and fairness in the eyes of citizens.

“To me (PARC) plays a very important role in community-police relations,” Stair said.

According to PARC’s 2017 annual report, Knoxville’s oversight committee had fielded 2,516 cases from September 1998 through Dec. 21, 2017. In 2017, the last year numbers are available, PARC addressed 88 cases. Most were resolved by the executive director or KPD, while others were referred to other agencies or went through mediation.

Stair, who is running for mayor, also sent out a campaign email opposing the legislation, as did one of his opponents, businessman Eddie Mannis.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Michael J. Curcio, a Dickson Republican, and Riceville Republican Sen. Mike Bell, comes as Nashville’s newly formed Community Oversight Board begins its work. The board met for the first time Tuesday.

The Nashville oversight board was created by the city’s voters last year after a white police officer shot a black man in the back as he fled. Daniel Hambrick died from multiple gunshot wounds to the back and the back of his head, an autopsy showed. The officer, Andrew Delke, has been charged with first-degree murder and on Wednesday pleaded not guilty in a Davidson County court. Delke said Hambrick was armed and ran rather than drop his gun.

Curcio, the House sponsor, has insisted the legislation is not tied to the creation of Nashville’s oversight board, according to the Associated Press.

In addition to eliminating subpoena powers, the bill would bar local governments from taking demographic, economic status or employment history into account for appointments to oversight boards. Nashville’s board requires that four of its seven members live in “economically distressed communities,” according to the AP.

Additionally, the legislation would keep all documents submitted to oversight boards secret.

The state Fraternal Order of Police supports the legislation. Keith Lyons, president of the Knoxville FOP chapter, said law enforcement officers don't like civilian oversight in general, noting that other professions don't have non-professionals scrutinizing their work.

"Politics pollutes police work," he said.

Lyons said one key objection to the Nashville oversight committee is that it has enforcement powers; PARC does not.

Like Thomas, he said police have a good relationship with PARC.

"We talk to them quite a bit about what policies and procedures work," Lyons said.

The goal of the legislation, Curcio said when announcing the bill earlier his month, “Is to protect the fundamental rights for police officers and our citizens. This will ensure everyone will be treated respectfully and fairly during any review of alleged misconduct involving members of our law enforcement community.”

"There’s some concern about police review being gutted. I think the system we have in Knoxville works very well." – State Rep. Rick Staples

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbo, a Nashville Democrat, wasn’t buying the notion that the legislation is unrelated to the formation of Nashville’s oversight board.

“Over the last several years, the new favorite sport around the Legislature is kicking Nashville around, and really that’s no way to run the state,” Yarbro told the AP. “This is plainly targeted at overturning the will and processes of self-government of Tennessee citizens, and the Legislature is not supposed to be a group of statewide aldermen and councilmen."

State Rep. Rick Staples, a Knoxville Democrat, agreed with Yarbro, saying lawmakers often react to something Metro Nashville’s government does. He said many of his colleagues in the Legislature complain about federal interference with the states, but have no problem interfering with cities.

“In my opinion, anything that has to do with local government should be left up to local government,” Staples said in a phone interview.

Staples said he’s heard from Rogero and his constituents about the legislation and has discussed the possibility of exempting Knoxville with the House leadership.

“There’s some concern about police review being gutted,” he said. “I think the system we have in Knoxville works very well.”

Another local legislator, Republican Rep. Martin Daniel, agrees.

“I think the PARC in Knoxville is working fine. I see no reason to change it and I would ask that Knoxville be omitted from the bill,” Daniel said.

The Knox County delegation isn’t united, however. Republican Reps. Jason Zachary and Justin Lafferty are co-sponsors of the House bill.

Senate Majority Leader Randy McNally, the state's lieutenant governor, has gone further than just opposing subpoena power; he has argued the panels aren’t necessary because mayors and city councils provide enough oversight. 

"If you do have a board," said McNally's spokesman, Adam Kleinheider, "he doesn't think they need subpoena power."

The bills have been assigned to the Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Bell, the bill’s sponsor. Neither panel has a member of the Knox County delegation on its roster.