Members blast state-mandated changes to Chattanooga police review committee

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Protesters in Chattanooga in 2020 gathered at Miller Park and marched south past some of Chattanooga's tourism icons in reaction to the killing of George Floyd and other police brutalities.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Protesters in Chattanooga in 2020 gathered at Miller Park and marched south past some of Chattanooga's tourism icons in reaction to the killing of George Floyd and other police brutalities.

With one stating it would reduce community oversight to a "nonexistent, impotent and ineffective paper tiger," members of the Chattanooga Police Advisory and Review Committee denounced a new Tennessee law Tuesday that mandates certain changes in how those boards function.

Chattanooga's citizen panel was created by the City Council in 2019 to provide recommendations on internal affairs cases involving alleged police misconduct.

"My message is to our state delegation," Kay Baker, one of the appointees, said during a City Council meeting Tuesday. "The legislators who sponsored Senate Bill 591, the legislators who voted for it and the governor who signed it: You have failed. You have failed your constituents, you have failed law enforcement officers — who effectively, legally and within policy protect and serve our communities — and you have failed the state."

Members of the Chattanooga City Council were also incensed by the legislation, which went into effect July 1 and gives cities 120 days to come into compliance.

They voted 5-3 on first reading Tuesday to temporarily pause operations of the citizens' committee until Oct. 29, which would allow time to adjust the structure of the panel while also avoiding a monthslong holdup in internal affairs cases. The ordinance will require one more vote from the City Council before it goes into effect. As of Monday, all regularly scheduled meetings of the committee have been suspended, according to a notice on the board's city webpage.

Councilwomen Carol Berz, of Brainerd Hills, and Demetrus Coonrod, of Eastdale, joined Vice Chair Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, in voting against the pause. Councilman Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, was absent.

"I am continuously disappointed with state preemption and disrespect for our city and the way it works," Berz told her colleagues during a roughly two-hour discussion. "It hasn't just been police. It has to do with guns. It has to do with a number of things that are not in the best interest of our community. Somehow, the state gets away — our representatives get away — with not representing the best of what our community can do. That's so disappointing to me."

She called the new law "nothing but smoke and mirrors" that appeared to rise out of anger from state lawmakers against Nashville and Memphis and without any respect for Chattanooga. Berz said it's designed to neuter what has turned out to be a terrific partnership between the community and the police.

"I would hope very much that we don't just bow down once again," she said.

Currently, the Police Advisory and Review Committee delivers a recommendation to the executive chief before he or she makes a final decision on the accuracy of an officer misconduct complaint, including any discipline deemed appropriate.

  photo  Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Protesters in Chattanooga in 2020 gathered at Miller Park and marched south past some of Chattanooga's tourism icons in reaction to the killing of George Floyd and other police brutalities
 
 

Under the new law, the board would only review cases after they've received a final decision by the executive chief and gone through a disciplinary hearing, according to a breakdown of the workflow presented to the council.

"Senate Bill 591 takes away the committee members' abilities to review an internal affairs and chain-of-command complaint before the chief has made a decision, effectively rendering any review or opinion moot," Baker, the committee member, told the council.

The law also requires the city to hire an executive director, who can accept citizen complaints among other responsibilities.

"It's worthless as a job — no authority, no responsibility in terms of transparency and strengthening relationships," Baker said.

Officials said it also mandates that the advisory committee have seven members, fewer than the current nine in Chattanooga. Right now, those members are each appointed by one of the nine City Council members, from within their political districts. Under the new law, board members would be appointed by the mayor with final sign-off by council.

Additionally, the meetings must now be open to the public, which Baker said could hamper the panel's ability to have substantive discussions about policy changes. They have previously been closed.

Some City Council members questioned language in the law, including the requirement for a seven-member board, and challenged the notion that the city needed to enact a temporary shutdown of the board as officials brought it into compliance.

Councilman Ken Smith, of Hixson, said his vote in support of the pause Tuesday was not an endorsement of the state law. Rather, he said, the city has no choice.

"I will not put our police chief and our PARC in a position of violating state law," he said during the meeting.

Police Chief Celeste Murphy told the council that voting to deny the moratorium would place her in a tough spot.

"It's contradictory if we keep it the way it is right now," she explained. "It puts me in a position of breaking a law whether it's at the municipal level or the state level."

Another member of the Police Advisory and Review Committee, Christy Rashed, asked how seven people could represent nine City Council districts.

"How can we be a One Chattanooga if we have two districts not represented?" she asked the council, referencing Mayor Tim Kelly's vision for closing socioeconomic gaps in the city. "I think all voices are very, very important. I think this bill is built to take away the voice of our community."

Committee Chair Mary Anne Hensley reiterated that many of the decisions will already be made by the time they arrive in front of the board, which removes a layer of accountability.

"If we get to recommend things on the back end, there's no guarantee those things are ever going to happen," she said. "With the current partnership we have, we do feel that we really have a voice.

"We've built incredible relationships with CPD and the chief," she continued. "It's been an honor to serve in that capacity, but you can see that we're all pretty passionate about the implications of having these changes come into place."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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