Correction: Updated to reflect the Chattanooga Police Department says it does offer diversity training in its annual in-service training.
NASHVILLE — Concerns over recent local police incidents involving excessive force in encounters with minorities have spurred a state lawmaker from Chattanooga to file legislation requiring the state to provide annual training for law enforcement on diversity, race relations and "cultural awareness."
"There is a concern within the city, and our community, as to what is perceived as excessive force," said Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Democrat and the lone black member of Hamilton County's legislative delegation. "I think part of the problem is that people don't really know each other."
The purpose of the legislation is to "just afford the opportunity for incoming officers in particular to learn more about the people they are policing," said Hakeem, a former Chattanooga city councilman who spent seven years as a member of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole.
"Some things in their background may say this is threatening [behavior], whereas it's a cultural thing that they're doing," Hakeem noted, adding the purpose behind his legislation,"is the more people get to understand each other it lessens the opportunity for excessive force."
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, comes in the wake of several high-profile incidents involving local law enforcement and black suspects. The list includes a Dec. 3 arrest by Hamilton County sheriff's deputies of rapper Charles Toney Jr., whose encounter went viral. Video depicted a detective punching and kicking the 25-year-old while he was handcuffed and on the ground.
The Hamilton County District Attorney's office later dropped charges against Toney, which included assault, resisting arrest and tampering with evidence. According to Toney's medical records, he suffered a broken finger, broken nose, a few broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He was being sought on an outstanding 2017 drug charge.
Some question the need for Hakeem's legislation, pointing to a 2017-2018 directive from then-Gov. Bill Haslam. For the first time, it required that the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission include diversity and similar training for new officers and police cadets.
"Everything that's in [Hakeem's bill] is what we did the last two years," said Maggi Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.
Duncan said she has not spoken yet with Hakeem about his legislation.
POST Commission requirements
The POST Commission is responsible for developing and enforcing standards and training for all new local police officers in Tennessee. It also requires 40 hours annually of in-service training for currently employed officers. Police receive a $600 stipend for their POST certification.
Training is provided by the state through the Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy for most police and sheriffs' departments. A total of 14,750 law enforcement officers are certified annually, including new officers being trained as part of the new-hire process, as well as existing officers receiving required annual in-service training.
Recruits receive training in areas ranging from traffic stops to active shooter situations. Diversity training is a requirement. In-service training offers refreshers and more specialized courses.
Departments in the state's largest cities, including the Chattanooga Police Department, train their own recruits, as well as provide annual in-service training for veteran officers under agreements with the state requiring they match or exceed state standards.
Chattanooga trains its own cadets, providing diversity training there as well as for annual in-service training.
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office sends recruits to the state for the POST training and conducts its own in-service training using POST standards.
Tennessee's Basic Law Enforcement Course includes a minimum of 480 hours of general instruction and study for new recruits, said Kevin Walters, spokesman for the state Department of Commerce and Insurance, to which both POST and the state training academy are administratively attached.
Cultural diversity is required within the 30 minimum hours of a human relations curriculum. The Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy requires four hours on its "Fair and Just Policing: I Am Your Neighbor" program.
That program includes training on "understanding cultural differences," as well as "respect, rapport, relationships." Other training modules include "defining potential violent encounters" and "proactive media relations."
There is also a one-hour program on hate and bias crimes, along with two hours on the First Amendment.
Walters said in his email that the topic of inclusiveness "is covered in two different two-hour blocks of ethics, and officers are likely to encounter practical exercises and simulations involving cultural diversity issues."
Moreover, he noted, when it comes to diversity training just as "with every topic, you can't lump our instruction into free-standing classes and consider it 'covered.' Just as in many legal subjects, this is woven throughout our basic recruit experience."
Asked why Haslam issued the directive to include diversity training, Walters said it stemmed from "an effort to prevent mandatory legislation. Cultural diversity is required in every basic training academy certified by POST. POST asked every agency to include a cultural diversity training in all their internal training."
Asked about Hakeem's bill, Walters said "we are currently reviewing all legislation that affects the department."
While diversity training is mandated for all new recruits, the state currently has no standing requirement that current officers take a refresher or advanced course in annual in-service training, although it is offered.
"Diversity is not currently mandated by the General Assembly to be taught every year during in-service, but that's not to say that an agency does not believe their officers will need a refresher course in diversity in the future," Walters said.
But Walters also pointed out that under the Haslam administration directive "it was required for all currently certified officers as part of the in-service training during the past 2 years.
"So," he added, "all certified officers over the past 2 years will have received diversity training."
Chattanooga diversity training goes back to 1990s
The Chattanooga Police Department has had diversity training since the 1990s, a move initiated by then-Chief Jimmie Dotson, who came to the city from the Houston Police Department.
Asked about Hakeem's bill, the Chattanooga department, which budgeted for 500 officers, said in a statement it "supports any initiatives that support training, education, and awareness in how law enforcement agencies engage with the communities they serve."
Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said in an email that the department's 22-week academy for cadets includes a number of programs related to inclusion and implicit bias training. Tally them up and it's 47 hours worth. Programs are:
* Problem Oriented Policing: 4 hours
* Title VI/LEP/Civil Rights: 1 hour
* Bias-Based Profiling: 1 hour
* Community Immersion: 34 hours. The program immerses future police officers in specific Chattanooga cultures, learning directly from community members about that culture generally, as well as specifically with regard to Chattanooga.
* Frontline Policing in America (procedural justice, police legitimacy, implicit bias): 3 hours
* Poverty Simulation: 4 hours: Researchers from Southern Adventist University work with the department to help provide cadets with a better grounding in the economic and societal barriers experienced by people living at or below the poverty line.
The department also provides the annual 40-hour in-service training for each officer. All programs and training are open to them.
Myzal said the Chattanooga Police Department includes mandatory diversity training blocks in its annual in-service training.
"Officers have to take every class in in-service, class attendance is not elective," Myzal said.
Matt Lea, spokesman for Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, said the office has its own training division that meets the POST-mandated requirements and sends fresh hires to a POST-certified academy.
"We offer in-service, but not a full certified academy," he said in an email. "We use the TN Law Enforcement Academy."
Hakeem said he believes the diversity programs should be more than a one-time requirement.
"I would hope that we could have it more than one time. Repetition puts a groove,'" Hakeem said. "And I think if you have it more than once, I believe it helps make it a part of them, in their memory and so forth."
Gardenhire said when Hakeem asked him to sponsor the legislation in the Senate, he asked the freshman lawmaker "the same thing I ask everybody: Did an outside group bring you this?"
After Hakeem told him it was his own idea, Gardenhire said he told him he would sponsor it in the Senate. But it was up to Hakeem to get it moving first in the House. It's a standard Gardenhire practice.
"In almost every industry today, there's continuing education, training," Gardenhire said. "Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies get all the attention. If this helps both law enforcement and the victims or alleged victims, OK."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.