Police oversight boards dominate legislative debate

By RICK NORTON
Posted 3/18/19

High school civics, student safety, a change in the court appeals process and elder abuse took many of the headlines in last week’s work of the Tennessee General Assembly, but the hottest button …

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Police oversight boards dominate legislative debate

Posted

High school civics, student safety, a change in the court appeals process and elder abuse took many of the headlines in last week’s work of the Tennessee General Assembly, but the hottest button belonged to debate over community oversight boards. 

Since the opening of the 111th lawmaking session in January, the state House of Representatives has argued the merit of regulating the authority of municipal boards to exercise subpoena powers during the investigation of complaints against police officers.

Major metro areas like Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville use such boards, and Chattanooga is in the middle of negotiations for doing the same. 

Arguments against exercising state authority over the power of police oversight boards are based on protecting law enforcement officers and their families from malicious, or retaliatory, actions by others.

Arguments for granting such subpoena powers are based on a perceived need to balance power between law enforcement agencies and communities, especially underprivileged neighborhoods with higher crime rates and an increased police presence.

According to the weekly Capitol Hill Review update provided by the House Republican Caucus, and distributed to local media outlets by state Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown) and state Rep. Mark Hall (R-Cleveland), “… House Bill 658 balances both the interests of our citizens to voice their opinions while also protecting the fundamental rights of police officers and their families from malicious or politically focused persecution.”

Although community oversight boards have existed since the 1950s, they haven’t held a lot of the spotlight, nor have they been closely scrutinized; at least, not since last year when a municipal election in Nashville approved an amendment to the Metro Nashville charter allowing subpoena powers to the board there.

The issue surfaced in the wake of a July shooting in which a white police officer fatally shot an armed black man who reportedly was fleeing. The officer faces first-degree murder charges.

Although legislators approved HB658 on a split 66-26 vote that included dissension by Democrats and a few Republicans, the Senate is still working on a version of their own bill. Senators are expected to vote on the proposal this week, with the primary tweak being that oversight boards would be allowed to issue subpoenas, but only if a board-hired special investigator, the police chief or head of police internal affairs gets a judge’s approval.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth is a proponent of the bill. He told reporters last week he sees it as a way of supporting law enforcement.

“We stand with our law enforcement officers,” he said. “There are lots of procedures in place right now … to hold officers accountable if they step over the line.”

According to an Associated Press account of the issue, Republican Gov. Bill Lee has already said he supports stripping subpoena power from the oversight boards.

The same AP story quotes state Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, as saying such legislation goes against the grain of the Nashville city election last November.

“Overturning elections just because you don’t like the results is not what this body (Legislature) is here to do,” Mitchell told AP reporter Jonathan Mattise.

According to the Capitol Hill Review summary provided by Hall and Howell, “… There are presently no guidelines outlined in Tennessee state law that defines how [oversight boards] are created, who can serve on them, and what their specific function is. This measure provides much needed structure to all current and future community oversight boards in Tennessee, which is critical to their overall success, as well as overall safety in our state.”

The House Republican Caucus statement acknowledges police oversight boards to be a hot-button issue in communities across Tennessee, especially the four major metro cities.

“[We] agree that no officer who acts in an unprofessional, or unlawful, manner should receive a free pass,” the statement stressed. “In fact, Republican lawmakers believe those who protect and serve our communities must be held to higher standards. Additionally, we understand the critical need for transparency, and we appreciate the desire of our citizens for more oversight.”

A vote on the Senate floor is the proposed legislation’s next step.

House taking

tough look on

civics lessons

As written, House Bill 944 specifies the importance of civics preparation in Tennessee’s public schools and school districts. 

Called the Governor’s Civics Seal program, this initiative seeks “… to promote efforts to increase access to quality civics education, while also developing specific standards by which schools can implement … the program. These standards include instructional criteria, professional development for teachers, project-based assessment implementation, real-world learning activities, and high-performance on Tennessee’s mandated exam for our high school seniors.”

The legislative summary cites, “While our state currently mandates civic exams, Tennessee’s high school seniors are not required to pass this exam to graduate.”

The bill also points out schools are “… insufficiently teaching students the basic principles of civics. As a result, fewer and fewer individuals are obtaining basic institutional knowledge.”

The summary cites the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation as speculating “… a majority of Americans in each state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions included in the U.S. citizenship test.”

It also charges only 38 percent of Tennesseans would pass the citizenship test, and just 13 percent would score a “B” or higher.

“While these numbers are higher than most of our neighboring states in the Southeast, we can, and we must, improve,” the legislative report states.

HB944 is still moving through the committee process.

Education Committee

supports investment

in school safety

House Bill 947 proposes a $40 million investment for the school safety grant fund and additional changes to existing law to prioritize the distribution of these grants, Howell and Hall reported. As proposed, the grants would “… help secure school resource officers and additional safety measures.”

“Currently, 500 Tennessee schools do not have SROs,” Howell said. “Legislation filed will provide additional changes to existing law to prioritize the distribution of these grants to fill these positions.”

Hall added, “The proposal also focuses on our underserved counties working to secure schools and fill SRO positions by adjusting limited match requirements.”

Having advanced out of the House Education Committee, HB947 is now headed to the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee for additional review.

Appeals process

change keeps

moving forward

House Bill 258, more commonly known as the Sergeant Baker Act, would remove the intermediate appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals in death-penalty cases, thereby providing for automatic direct review by the Tennessee Supreme Court in conviction cases for which a sentence of death has been imposed.

“Additionally, House Bill 258 removes the direct appeal from the trial court to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and instead provides that when the judgment has become final in trial court, the conviction and death sentence will be automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court,” Howell explained.

The proposed legislation is named in memory of Sgt. Daniel Baker, a Dickson County sheriff’s officer who was shot and killed last May. Steven Wiggins and Erika Castro-Miles have been charged with first-degree murder, and the district attorney general is seeking the death penalty for both.

“We stand with Sgt. Baker’s family, and the families of all our police officers and emergency personnel, we have lost in the line of duty,” Hall said. “We are grateful for their service to our state, and we will fight to ensure their legacies are not forgotten.”

Elder abuse

legislation gets

nod in House

House Bill 249, which strengthens the state’s fight against financial exploitation of senior citizens in Tennessee, passed in a House floor vote last week.

As part of the legislation, a state task force will also “… examine existing barriers, services and resources addressing the needs of these elder persons and vulnerable adults.”

Additionally, the group will develop recommendations to address problems associated with the financial exploitation of these groups, Howell said.

“Elder abuse has many forms, including physical abuse, neglect, emotional or psychological abuse, financial abuse and exploitation, sexual abuse, and abandonment,” Hall explained. “According to the National Council for Aging, one in 10 Americans age 60 or older have experienced some form of elder abuse.”

‘Ag Day on the Hill’

brings farmers

to Nashville

An annual observance, state lawmakers took time last week to recognize the importance of agriculture and forestry to Tennessee.

As part of the celebration, House and Senate leaders, as well as Gov. Bill Lee, squared off in a log-sawing competition. The day also included farm animals and presentations from agricultural organizations and agencies.

According to state and national agencies, Tennessee has more than 66,000 farms comprised of 10 million acres that are in production. In Tennessee, agencies report that 98 percent of Tennessee farms are owned by families, and agriculture has a $3.3 billion economic impact on the state.

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