NASHVILLE - A state panel Monday forwarded the names of current Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch and two other nominees to Gov. Bill Lee, who is expected to select one of them to lead the state's premier law enforcement agency for a six-year term.
Rausch, a former Knoxville police chief appointed to the post four years ago, received five votes from the five-member TBI Nominating Commission.
Edward P. Reynolds, police chief for Southern University at Shreveport, Louisiana, received four votes, as did Darrel Guadnola, chief of support services at the Wheat Ridge Police Department in Colorado.
A fourth candidate, Anthony Schembri, an attorney who spent decades in law enforcement, having once served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and later as secretary of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, received two votes.
Only names of the three top vote-getters are forwarded to the governor.
The TBI has statutory authority to conduct criminal investigations and make arrests for crimes throughout Tennessee. Rausch was appointed by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, in 2018 to replace Mark Gwyn, who stepped down 18 months into his term amid several complaints about the independent agency's operations, including the use of one-time money for recurring TBI operations.
During his presentation and during subsequent questions from nominating commission members, who include Republicans and Democrats, prosecutors and other attorneys, Rausch praised his leadership team, which he inherited, and pointed to strides the agency has made in several areas.
He said authorized personnel has risen from 540 to 710 over the past four years. And the agency's budget has risen from $75 million to just more than $123 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Rausch thanked Lee and state legislative leaders, including House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Senate Speaker Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, as well as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and House Finance Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, for financial support that has allowed the agency to reduce fees-for-service charges to operate and "obtain the needed revenue."
Rausch said the challenge in improving turnaround times on crime lab work has "proven to be the most difficult of the tasks.
"We have made progress," Rausch said, "but the changing landscape of crime and the expectations on evidence processing has created additional need to evaluate how we conduct these operations. We have done all we can with technology and schedules."
The agency has been grappling for years with a multitude of staffing deficits and is now adding staffers.
Rausch, however, noted that with the TBI competing with other law enforcement agencies able to pay more, current pay scales need to be addressed to retain agents and other staffers as well as attract new employees.
Michael Dunavant, chief investigative counsel for the Tennessee comptroller of the treasury, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee as well as a former district attorney general, pressed Raush about gun crime.
"The thing that is on my mind the most is real, practical ways we can get our hands around violent crime, particularly violent crime with firearms," Dunavant said. He asked Rausch to cite specific strategies and tools that work, don't work or should be tried.
Rausch said the TBI is the partner agency with local law enforcement while also doing the criminal background checks for people lawfully purchasing firearms. Between 4% to 6% of applications are rejected due to problems that pop up in background checks, he said.
"We know that firearms are ending up in the hands of those committing these heinous crimes. They're obtaining them illegally, they're getting them through straw purchases or stealing them," Rausch said. "The vast majority of them are being stolen out of unsecured vehicles.
"That is an effort we've got to work on," he said. "The strategy for that is education for lawful gun owners, explaining to them the absolute need to secure a firearm. It's not secure if you just throw it up under your seat or drop it in a box in your car. It's not secure."