Knoxville Police Chief stands up for civilian oversight in state capitol

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A measure in Nashville regarding statewide civilian oversight boards’ power of subpoena over law enforcement officers advanced to the full House Judiciary Committee after a subcommittee vote Wednesday. 

House Bill 658 doesn’t take away the right of cities to have oversight groups, but it does take away their option to compel a person or documentation including video or police reports. 

Rep. Michael Curcio (R-District 69) is sponsoring the measure because he says there are currently few standards in the state.

Curcio said the bill aims to add broad parameters and adopt some of the best practices listed by the National Institute of Justice. In his view, the change preserves local control but protects the rights of all parties. 

The bill also sets guidelines on what requirements board members should meet to be able to serve on the committees.

An amendment to the bill Wednesday gave existing boards one year to comply with the new requirements. 

Rep. William Lamberth (R-District 44) said Wednesday police officers have the same rights as everyone else and this legislation puts “guard rails” in place by protecting them from subpoenas. 

Nashville Mayor David Briley said Wednesday the subpoena power doesn’t only limit cities from compelling attendance of a law enforcement officer, but it also limits their ability to gather reports, video and other documents.

In a rebuttle to Nashville’s Mayor, Rep. Lamberth made a passionate statement about the rights of police:

“They are men, they are women, they are children and sons, that bleed for this city – and we have the gall to try to drag them before an unelected tribunal by subpoena power or to threaten them with a subpoena to try to drag out of them what anybody wants to?” 

The debate also touched on who, truly, needs access to evidence in a case.

For those in favor of the legislation, it’s up to an investigating agency to compel testimony or evidence.

Mayor Briley argues much of the oversight work revolves around ethics and unfavorable conduct, not necessarily criminal action or policy violations. 

Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas, who has been with the department for more than 25 years, was a patrol officer when PARC was created.

Having served as head of KPD’s Internal Affairs Unit before, Thomas has worked closely with PARC since it was started.

“The relationship we’ve built with our community because we have PARC, it helps us to police better. It helps our community to understand why we police the way we do,” Thomas said. 

Thomas argues PARC serves an important role.

She admitted Wednesday, the good working relationship between KPD and PARC was there without knowing the group had subpoena power.

Thomas said she had to look at the ordinance to verify it was a right of the organization. 

If PARC did opt to subpoena a law enforcement officer, they would have the choice of talking with PARC’s executive director or KPD’s IAU, not the full committee.

PARC’s executive director told us most of the complaints they received are misunderstandings and often allege rudeness. Much of their work is done through mediation meetings.

“The consequence to my city of taking away the subpoena power is going to promote a lot of discussion and unrest within my community that we will have to repair,” Thomas added. 

She says the two groups don’t always agree, but they have great communication.

“We can’t afford to have that relationship eroded,” she said. Thomas even credits PARC with a positive relationship today in Knoxville between the people and the people behind the badge. 

Rep. Lamberth believes the way things are done in Knoxville justify making the change. If Knoxville hasn’t used the subpoena power and has a good relationship with the policing agency, it could work statewide. 

Thomas also feels taking it away could be seen as a loss for the people and a win for law enforcement, which she fears would cause residual animosity between law enforcement and the community. 

Cities could adopt a policy similar to Memphis, which would empower the city council to issue a subpoena on behalf of an oversight board or committee.

This legislation would not ban a city government’s right to do so. 

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