Community activists in Nashville have pressed for decades for civilian oversight of the police department in a city with stark racial disparities. Centered on a 2017 fatal shooting of a motorist by a Nashville police officer whose actions were cleared by the city’s existing review panel and prosecutors, the Atlantic traces the history of civilian oversight in Nashville and beyond as a campaign to foster community trust in police through greater accountability.
Through protests, investigations, lawsuits, and a successful public referendum diluted by legislative pushback, activists motivated by the death of Jocques Clemmons succeeded in enacting a form of oversight considered relatively strong by national standards. The strongest oversight boards can investigate misconduct, discipline officers, and recommend changes to policing strategies. Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School, argues that by demonstrating transparency and accountability, civilian review boards can help rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve. “If we are trying to find pathways out of the racialized policing we’re seeing, community oversight is the sort of thing we have to embrace,” he says. By 2016, about half of the 50 largest police departments in the U.S. had an independent civilian-run board to investigate complaints, and just six had some ability to discipline officers. Nashville’s board is still in its formative stages. What remains to be seen is whether it can “reset the relationship between the police and the policed.”