Opinion: Meddling by Tennessee lawmakers unnecessary for functioning police review board

Though public statements about what a new state law would do to the Chattanooga Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC) have been a bit hyperbolic, it is a shame the Tennessee state lawmakers couldn't help meddling in a local process that appeared to be working.

The new law moves any review that committee members might make of an internal affairs and chain-of-command complaint from before the police chief makes a final decision on the matter to after the decision has been made. It further reduces the board from nine members (which corresponded with Chattanooga City Council districts) to seven, leaves the appointments to the mayor (with council approval), directs the hiring of an executive director (who can accept citizen complaints, among other duties), and opens all board meetings to the public (potentially hindering frank discussions).

Advocates said the law was needed to create statewide standards for police review committees. Some also said, without providing specifics, that some boards interfered with police investigations.

The purpose is "to strengthen the relationship between the citizens and law enforcement agencies," state Rep. Elaine Davis, R-Knoxville, the bill's sponsor, said in April, "to ensure a timely, fair and objective review of citizen complaints while protecting the individual rights of individual law enforcement officers."

Critics said the law is a slap at police review committees in Nashville and Memphis, which some deem to have too much power (though a 2019 state law prevents them from having the power to issue subpoenas or compel witness testimonies, among other things).

We understand the need for state standards on what members can do on such committees but wonder why a one-size-fits-all administrative structure needed to be put in place.

Chattanooga City Council members voted 5-3 on first reading Tuesday to temporarily pause operations of the advisory committee until Oct. 29 to bring it into compliance with state law, which went into effect July 1.

Though advisory committee members and city council members made hyperbolic statements about the committee losing all its teeth, Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy and Major Jonathan Chambers didn't feel that way.

"I don't think it changes the weight that much ...," Murphy said. "I think it mirrors a model that has been successful in other cities. I have not come across ... anything I see that sticks out in this particular model that may be a failure at this point."

"I've been in my position now for right about a year," said Chambers, "and regularly there are policy revisions, suggestions and things of that nature that come directly from the PARC board. There's no reason for that to change at all."

A year ago, committee member Kay Baker said the committee's current ordinance allowed the panel to request additional investigations, but it hadn't needed to. Members also said the committee had made a few policy recommendations accepted by the police chief, including making the loss or damage to police firearms more severe. To our understanding, the ability to make such recommendations would not change.

The relationship between the board and police had been so cooperative, members said in 2022, that police had disagreed with the committee's conclusion in only 11 out of more than 100 cases.

Of course, even the 2019 ordinance didn't please everybody. Some community activist organizations have said the group lacked true, independent oversight. Since the committee members were picked by the council and "trained" by the police chief, the groups believed there was a conflict of interest. Others felt the committee didn't have enough teeth.

One such organization, Community Control Now, went so far as to gather signatures to force a ballot initiative to change the duties of the oversight committee in 2020. When the Hamilton County Election Commission checked the signatures, they found duplications, many invalid voters and not enough valid signees to get the issue on the ballot.

Not satisfied, the organization demanded a recount, which it got. Same answer. And a separate audit, which it got. Same answer. The initiative never made it to the ballot.

At this point, the city council has little recourse with the new law. After all, the law is the law, and if council members or committee members want it changed they'll have to seek the help of a member of the Hamilton County legislative delegation in order to do so.

We'd like to believe that if a situation were to arise where, in its new configuration, advisory committee are virulently opposed to the conclusion of the police chief on an investigatory matter that they would make their feelings known outside the process.

In the meantime, we'll hope that — despite the grumbling of a few activist organizations — the cooperative relationship between police and review committee members can continue and that the state will think twice in the future about rocking a boat that was sailing on smooth waters.