Future of MPD oversight board hangs in balance following passage of Tenn. bill

Published: Apr. 21, 2023 at 6:41 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The future of Memphis’s police oversight board is in jeopardy after the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill abolishing community oversight boards.

The bill now moves to Governor Bill Lee for his signature.

Community oversight boards like Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) can only be found in Tennessee’s urban centers like Memphis and Nashville.

The bill guts the power of police oversight boards if they do not conform to the new legislation by replacing them with police advisory review committees — seven-member boards selected by the mayor and approved by a governing body.

“It doesn’t prevent any citizen the ability to bring an issue forward, it only restructures it where it gives a framework to be adopted statewide,” said the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Elaine Davis of Knoxville.

Frustrated Democratic lawmakers of Tennessee’s largest cities sounded off Thursday just before House Bill 764 passed on the House floor.

“What you’re doing in Knoxville is your own business, but keep it in Knoxville, keep your business in Knoxville, take care of your own house,” said Tennessee Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville.

Under the current bill, reviews are completed only after police internal affairs investigations into police misconduct are complete.

Opponents say in light of cases like Tyre Nichols, these boards should be given more power, not less.

“How do you really wake up in the morning and think, in light of everything that’s taken place, that police don’t need oversight,” said James Kirkwood, CLERB chair.

Kirkwood says he’s disappointed in the bill, but Memphis citizens won’t see much of a difference.

Nashville’s community oversight board has authority that will be diminished under this current bill. Kirkwood says Memphis has been fighting for years to reach Nashville’s level of power.

Just last month, Kirkwood asked the city council for more funding to beef up its staff, but his request was denied due to this looming bill.

Memphis’ CLERB is structured more like the oversight groups in the current bill.

The group has no authority to subpoena, investigate or audit.

Kirkwood says the bill pushes them back in their ongoing efforts to gain more teeth.

“I think it’s real important that we continue, that we don’t take what the legislative said and say, ‘Okay, we’re done,’ and throw up our hands and go away,” said Kirkwood. “No, we need to press on.”

Kirkwood says the good news is the bill allows the board to interview police officers, but that can only happen after an internal investigation and court litigations are complete. He says that could take years.

According to the bill, the board should only have seven members — CLERB has 13.

It’s unclear who will stay and who will go if Governor Bill Lee does sign the bill into law.

He says he will be meeting with Mayor Strickland for clarification about the future of the board.

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