On an unseasonably warm February afternoon in 2017, Jocques Clemmons was driving through the James A. Cayce Homes, the largest public-housing complex in Nashville, when he rolled through a stop sign and into the parking lot of the building where his girlfriend and younger son lived. A big, affable father of two, he was 31 years old and, like most of the neighborhood’s residents, black.
Officer Joshua Lippert of the Metro Nashville Police Department had been watching the stop sign from his Chevy Impala, where he sat alone. The car was unmarked, but easily recognized as belonging to the department’s “flex” team. Unlike patrol officers, who respond to calls for service in a fixed geographic territory, flex officers primarily move between neighborhoods that have high crime rates, looking for misconduct and engaging on their own initiative. People in Cayce call them the “jump-out boys” for their proclivity to drive up abruptly on suspicious activity and make arrests. Like most Nashville cops, Lippert is white. He turned on his lights and followed Clemmons into the parking lot.
Clemmons’s mother, Sheila Clemmons Lee, a caregiver for the elderly and disabled, was feeding her charges lunch when her phone rang. It was Clemmons’s girlfriend, and she was screaming. At first, Lee could make out only a few words—police, shot. When she and her husband arrived at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Clemmons was in surgery. A detective approached and asked whether her son had an arrest record. Then a doctor came out and told her Clemmons had died.
“I need to see my son,” Lee recalls saying, but the detective barred the family from viewing the body, explaining that it had to be protected as evidence. By then, the police had tweeted notice that an officer had shot a “gunman” at Cayce Homes, accompanied by an image of a revolver. “This is his weapon,” the tweet read. Lee wouldn’t see her son’s body until a week later, at the funeral home.
In his first interview with an investigator the afternoon of the shooting, Lippert said that when he pulled up, Clemmons exited the car he had been driving and fled on foot, dropping a handgun as he tried to escape. Lippert said he tried to kick the gun away, but Clemmons managed to pick it up, and raised it in his direction. Lippert then shot him from about 10 feet away, hitting him once in the hip and twice in the back.
But there were ambiguities: The first officer to arrive after the shooting didn’t see a handgun on the scene—Lippert said he’d put it in his pocket to secure the area—and a subsequent lab analysis of the weapon found no identifiable prints or DNA linked to Clemmons.
Unlike the police departments of many neighboring cities, Nashville’s didn’t have dashboard or body cameras for most of its officers. Later that night, based on footage pulled from distant security cameras, the police announced that during the chase, Clemmons had “rushed and rammed Lippert”—though they would retract that account the following week, when footage from another camera came to light showing that the two had never collided. In their investigative files, the police referred to Clemmons as the “suspect” and Lippert as the “victim,” and they obtained a warrant to search Clemmons’s cellphone and social-media accounts. Lippert’s attorneys declined to comment on behalf of their client for this article. (Later, the district attorney announced that state law enforcement would take over this investigation and those of all future cases in which officer-involved use of force results in death.)
No one doubted that police face unique risks, but the apparent one-sidedness of the department’s account of the shooting felt to many like a provocation. Lee recalls thinking the police were “dehumanizing my son and painting a picture of him that’s not true.” A police spokesman said, by email, “In critical incidents, the MNPD works to disseminate accurate information to the community as expediently as possible to inform and negate any rumor or false information.”
Lee had raised Clemmons and his three younger sisters as a single mother, and even as a child, he was protective of her and the girls. Beginning when he was 7 or 8 years old, he worked at his grandparents’ fruit stand at the old Nashville Farmers’ Market, where his outgoing personality made him a natural salesman. “The whole city knew him from the farmers’ market, especially the older folks,” his sister Aja Tate recalls.
In high school, he fell in with what Lee thought of as the wrong crowd, and ended up with a record in the juvenile-justice system. Upon graduating from high school, he moved to Knoxville to try to get a fresh start and married the mother of his first son, but later he returned to Nashville. Every few years, he got in trouble with the law again, convicted of drug possession, misdemeanor assault, and driving without a license. For the past few months, he’d been staying with Lee. A Dallas Cowboys fan, he would often watch games with her. Now Lee picked out a casket for him decorated with the team’s logo.
Two days after Clemmons’s death, on a Sunday afternoon, Lee and her family walked to a pedestrian bridge overlooking downtown. The children held hand-lettered signs. Fly high, Joc, read one. At the bridge’s apex, the group released 31 balloons, one for each year of his life.
As they turned back toward the base of the bridge, a clutch of young people approached. Introducing themselves as community organizers, they asked Lee for permission to coordinate a response to the shooting, and she gave them her blessing. “We’re going to get justice for your son,” one of them said—though they were only beginning to understand what justice might mean in this case, and what would be required to attain it.
By outward measures, it has been a great few years in Nashville. With a rate of job growth since the Great Recession that is among the highest in the country, the metro area attracts throngs of new residents, and in 2013, The New York Times declared Nashville “the nation’s ‘it’ city.” For some, part of its appeal is its reputation as a progressive oasis in a conservative region: Nashville was among the first major southern cities to desegregate all public facilities, and in 2016, its voters favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by nearly two to one. But yawning inequalities, with a strong racial dimension, persist. In 1968, planners ran Interstate 40 through a thriving cultural district in the predominantly African American area of North Nashville, weakening property values and ruining local businesses. Since the late 1990s, the city’s public schools have grown more segregated. The city has reliably elected Democratic mayors, but never a black one, even though more than a quarter of the population is African American.
Perhaps nowhere is this unequal treatment more striking than in the criminal-justice system. According to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, the North Nashville zip code 37208, whose population was 82 percent black in 2010, has a higher rate of incarceration than any other area of the country: Of the people born there from 1980 to 1986, roughly one in seven was incarcerated in 2012. (Cayce Homes sits in the rapidly gentrifying 37206, where the incarceration rate was about half that of 37208, but still nearly four times the national average.)
For many Nashvillians entangled in the criminal-justice system, the trouble begins with a traffic stop, which makes those interactions a potent symbol of the mistrust between officers and some citizens. Months before the traffic stop that ended in Clemmons’s death, a grassroots group called Gideon’s Army had analyzed police traffic-stop data and published a 213-page report, “Driving While Black,” showing that black drivers were stopped more frequently than white ones. It also found disparities in how drivers were treated during stops; for instance, police were far more likely to cite probable cause to search a vehicle if the driver was black.
While it is rare for a traffic stop to escalate to a shooting, the group connected traffic stops to their potential for more catastrophic harm. In a presentation to the city’s leaders in January 2017, just a month before Clemmons’s death, Gideon’s Army’s founder, Rasheedat Fetuga, demanded that the city drastically reduce its use of traffic stops to forestall future tragedies. “We all want to avoid a Ferguson-type situation,” she said.
Police Chief Steve Anderson, a 71-year-old white man, later responded to the report with a letter, published online, in which he denied that the department’s policing strategies had any explicit bias. Police are deployed to areas that have high crime rates, he wrote, where a larger share of the population is black. The “real disparities,” he argued, weren’t biased police stops, but the elevated rates at which blacks were killed and victimized in crimes. He didn’t address the disparate ways in which stops of black and white motorists were conducted.
Broader research suggests that how police are deployed only partly explains these disparities. A recent analysis of nearly 100 million traffic stops around the United States found that black drivers were more likely to be both stopped and searched, and higher crime rates in neighborhoods where black people tend to live explained only part of this difference.
Within days of the balloon release, several dozen activists gathered in the home of a veteran organizer, Clemmie Greenlee, who had converted her garage into a community room. They sat in a circle as D. J. Hudson, a librarian and founding member of Nashville’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, pushed the group to develop a concrete set of demands. They’d watched as police violence roiled other cities, such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and Oakland, and residents in those cities tried to secure indictments of officers—with mixed results. Now that it was happening in Nashville, they agreed that the highest priority was holding Lippert accountable for the shooting, but they also wanted to overhaul how their police department was governed. One of them raised an unaddressed demand from the “Driving While Black” report: The city needed a civilian oversight board for the police department.
Compared with other institutions of municipal government, police departments are unusually insulated from scrutiny. Whereas other agencies give the public an opportunity to comment on policy changes before they go into effect, the decisions of law enforcement may be shared only after the fact, if at all. While the police chief usually answers to the mayor, city councillors, or members of a police commission, those officials can be reticent about second-guessing their public-safety officials. Barry Friedman, a professor of law and the director of the Policing Project at NYU School of Law, writes, “When it comes to policing, the ordinary rules of democratic governance seem to evaporate.”
Beginning decades ago, some cities have sought to address this deficit by involving citizens more in police decision making. In 1948, Washington, D.C., created the country’s first civilian review board to investigate complaints about police. Spurred by the civil-rights movement, demands for civilian oversight increased during the 1960s, but went largely unmet. Only in the 1980s and ’90s, as minorities gained more political representation and the idea became more accepted by officials, did oversight boards proliferate.
The strongest oversight boards can investigate misconduct, discipline officers, and recommend changes to policing strategies. Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School, argues that by demonstrating transparency and accountability, civilian review boards can help rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve. “If we are trying to find pathways out of the racialized policing we’re seeing, community oversight is the sort of thing we have to embrace,” he says. But creating them has proved contentious, even as police-involved violence has gotten more mainstream attention.
By 2016, about half of the 50 largest police departments in the U.S. had an independent civilian-run board to investigate complaints, and just six had some ability to discipline officers. That same year in Newark, New Jersey, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)—a national membership organization that advocates for police officers—filed a lawsuit against the city’s new civilian complaint-review board seeking to substantially weaken it. (Last month, an appeals court ruled that the board could largely function as planned. The FOP has petitioned for the Supreme Court of New Jersey to take this case on appeal.) And in March, Utah’s legislature passed a bill to preemptively bar cities in the state from establishing independent boards with certain oversight powers over the police. “Giving civilians oversight of policing—that shouldn’t be radical, but it is,” Hammer says.
Eleven days after Clemmons’s death, as a few raindrops began to fall, dozens of people marched to the courthouse for a regularly scheduled meeting of Nashville’s metro council, which represents its consolidated city and county government. As they filled the wooden benches of the public viewing area, a protester raised her hand and was ignored; she stepped to a mic anyway and began to speak. When the vice mayor chided her for interrupting and suggested she return for a public hearing on policing practices scheduled for the following month, the crowd behind her erupted into chants of “Justice for Jocques!”
Eventually, the council members broke with protocol and granted the protesters 20 minutes to speak. After Clemmons’s sister Aja Tate described the trauma of her brother’s death and the seeming impunity of the officer who had killed him, Greenlee approached the lectern, bent the microphone down so it would reach her diminutive frame, and asked the city to establish a community oversight board for the police.
They were not the first Nashvillians to call for civilian oversight. According to Davie Tucker Jr., a longtime Nashville resident and the pastor at Beech Creek Missionary Baptist Church, the city’s modern era of advocacy for police reform began when he was just a teenager. He recalled the Friday night in 1973 when officers responding to a report of a burglary surprised a group of young people playing dice in a vacant house and opened fire on them as they fled, killing 19-year-old Ronald Lee Joyce, a black student at Tennessee State University.
Days later, hundreds of students and other community members marched from Joyce’s home to the courthouse in the rain. In a pamphlet prepared around the same time, a coalition of activists made holding the officers accountable their first demand, but their second was for a civilian committee to amend policing practices. The police chief, who had also struggled to address a wave of murders, resigned, but a grand jury did not indict any officers, and no civilian oversight board was created. Joyce’s family filed a lawsuit against Nashville, and the city settled for a reported $50,000.
After other instances of police violence against black Nashvillians in the early ’90s, community members pressed city leaders to create a civilian review board. Instead, the mayor asked the city council to revamp the Metro Human Relations Commission, which provides diversity training to police cadets and makes recommendations to the mayor’s office about what it perceives as discrimination. Later, the police department created its own Office of Professional Accountability, but data from 2005 to 2015 show that of complaints initiated by civilians, the office finds against the officer less than one-sixth of the time. (In Lippert’s case, the office recommended he be exonerated for violating departmental policy, even before the state completed its investigation.)
During the ’90s, as violence crested in many major American cities, policing was undergoing a major change. Departments that had long been primarily reactive—responding to calls for service as they came in—began trying to proactively prevent crime. In what came to be known as “the new policing,” they drew on geospatial analyses of crime data to concentrate officers in areas with the highest crime rates (a practice using this technique was developed in New York City, under the name CompStat), where they employed proactive tactics such as pedestrian and traffic stops.
Nashville embraced these strategies under Ronal Serpas, a self-described “CompStat champion” who headed the police department from 2004 to 2010. He launched a program called Mission One, in which detectives and other officers not already assigned to patrol spent one night a month in areas with high crime rates, supplementing the policing already going on there, in part by doing investigatory traffic stops. “I used to say all the time: Criminals don’t ride horses—they drive in cars,” Serpas told me. “That’s where you find guns, that’s where you find dope, that’s where you find people with warrants, that’s where you find people leaving the scene of crimes.”
Traffic stops more than doubled under Serpas, and rose another 42 percent under his successor, Anderson, to a high of 445,000 stops in 2012. At that point, drivers in the city were being stopped nearly eight times as frequently as the national average. In the years that followed, the frequency of stops gradually declined, but remained far higher than in comparable cities.
The practice didn’t bother Officer Keiara Ward, who joined the department in 2015. Born and raised in North Nashville, she happily enlisted in the precinct that covered that area. About 12 percent of Nashville police are black, like Ward, compared with 28 percent of the population. On many occasions, she responded to a call and encountered someone she’d grown up with. “The people felt good that a familiar face was out there,” she told me.
Like other officers, she was trained to scrutinize vehicles for nonmoving violations—a broken taillight, an expired registration—and use that pretext to make a stop, where in conversation the driver might give cause for a search. She estimated that she conducted seven or eight stops a day—high even among Nashville officers. There were no quotas, but each officer filled out paperwork listing the day’s activities. “Say that I turn in an activity sheet, and I only have one or two things on there,” she says. “It’s like, ‘What were you doing in the other hours?’”
Proactive policing techniques can contribute to public safety: A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that, when focused on hot spots with consistently elevated rates of crime, certain proactive strategies can reduce the incidence of crime in the short term. (There hasn’t been enough research to gauge the long-term effects of those strategies.) And the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that any traffic violation is legitimate grounds to make a stop.
But the report also concluded that subjecting people to certain proactive strategies—particularly stop-and-frisk of pedestrians and pretextual traffic stops—can deeply harm their attitudes toward police. David Weisburd, a professor at George Mason University and one of the report’s editors, explained that the key to successful proactive policing is maximizing its impact on crime while minimizing the harm it inflicts on people and improving community trust. “Nobody wants to be stopped by the police,” Weisburd told me. “When police use stops or intrusive strategies, they need to be extraordinarily focused.”
“Driving While Black” had caused only a brief stir in the local media, but the activists who had usurped the council meeting now had their representatives’ attention. “We’re ready to listen and to take action to address the problems of our community,” the vice mayor told them.
But Nashville’s metro council is unusually large, with 40 members, which makes it fractious and, in the eyes of keen political observers, more susceptible to the influence of mayors. Megan Barry, Nashville’s mayor at the time, was seen by some as deferential to the police department. (Barry declined to comment.)
The department also wields considerable influence in its own right. Chief Anderson has spent nearly all his career in the department, joining the force in 1975 and succeeding Serpas as its leader in 2010, and his long tenure there reflects his political savvy. When the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and others sparked a national outcry for police reform, he navigated the politics skillfully: In November 2014, when Black Lives Matters protesters converged on police headquarters for a demonstration, his officers were covered widely in the local press for meeting them with coffee and hot cocoa.
But when it came to establishing a civilian oversight board, a police spokesman told reporters such a board was unnecessary, since the department already met with residents thousands of times annually and there were other institutions in place for reviewing police misconduct. A spokesman for the mayor equivocated, saying, “It is not something Mayor Barry is pursuing at this time.”
For Lee, the period following her son’s death was one of deep anguish. She had taken a leave from work, and often found herself lying awake late at night thinking about him. On her Facebook profile, she alternately poured out her sorrow, surrendered herself to God, and lashed out at Lippert, as well as the mayor and police chief, whom she saw as protecting him. On March 30, which would have been her son’s 32nd birthday, she posted, “I don’t think I’m going to make it through this day please pray for me please.” A police-department spokesman emailed, “We understand Ms. Lee’s grief and, as we have communicated, are sorry for her loss, as we would be with any mother who lost a child.”
Six weeks later, state law enforcement completed the investigation of Clemmons’s death, and at the invitation of District Attorney Glenn Funk, Lee and her family met with him in his office. The family began by sharing some memories of Clemmons, but when Funk started to speak, Lee’s spirit fell. An eyewitness had corroborated that Clemmons had dropped a gun and retrieved it, so Funk felt Lippert had a reasonable claim of self-defense and wouldn’t prosecute the officer.
For Lee, the decision was devastating. “How many others will have to be murdered by the hands of the ppl that’s supposed to protect and serve us before somebody be held accountable,” she posted that night. At dusk the next day, Clemmons’s children and sisters joined with activists and silently marched east through the city, toward the mayor’s house, carrying a coffin. By the time they arrived at Barry’s home, they were trailed by police cars. One officer commanded them through his loudspeaker to clear the road. The group leaned the coffin against the mayor’s gate and said a prayer before dispersing.
The most experienced activists had always felt that truly reforming policing practices would require fundamental changes in the department’s governance. A small group of them, including several members of Gideon’s Army, had already begun meeting—in the offices of the NAACP and the local Black Lives Matter chapter, at restaurants, and in churches—with the mission of formulating a proposal for a community oversight board that they could bring to the metro council.
Recently they had learned that one of the city’s best-known social-justice organizations, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), was developing its own proposal, and the groups joined forces in a coalition that would eventually be called Community Oversight Now. Founded by local faith leaders, NOAH had broad reach, representing more than 50 organizations that together included more than 10,000 members. They tended to be older, wealthier, and whiter than the members of Gideon’s Army, and had access to the city’s top politicians; once a quarter, the organization’s leaders met with Mayor Barry.
It was a somewhat awkward alliance, but Kyle Mothershead, a member of NOAH’s criminal-justice task force, had worked with several of the activists before. A white man raised in Madison, Wisconsin, he had spent eight years as a Nashville public defender, then started his own practice focused on criminal defense and civil rights. It was he who obtained the traffic-stop data analyzed in the “Driving While Black” report, while requesting records from the police department about how it handled misconduct. An adept lawyer, he now took the lead in drafting a bill to create a civilian review board.
That summer, the activists met with progressive council members and the council’s Minority Caucus to discuss their proposal. With funding from the Tennessee NAACP, they ran ads on one of the city’s premier black radio stations. But in July, while still not taking a position on their efforts, Barry announced that she was in talks with NYU School of Law’s Policing Project to undertake a new study of the city’s use of traffic stops. (Within months, she would commission it.) One of the mayor’s senior aides, Lonnell Matthews Jr., recalls that the mayor wasn’t opposed to an oversight board, but preferred it be a collaboration between the police and the community, rather than developed independently by the department’s critics. “She wanted it to be an inclusive process,” Matthews says.
Mothershead thought the Policing Project might validate the findings of “Driving While Black”—but many activists felt the mayor wanted to undermine them. The coalition decided against discussing the issue with institutional players such as the mayor’s staff or the police department before first building more grassroots power. Mothershead protested; he wanted to start discussions right away.
The difference of opinion created tension in the coalition. As an alliance between committed black activists and well-heeled liberal whites, who differed in their views of the city’s abiding institutions and the best strategies for reforming them, Community Oversight Now was split by the same divisions that ran through Nashville as a whole. “Even within the coalition, it was precarious at best,” says Tucker, who participated in some meetings. “I was often worried it would fall apart.”
As the summer of 2017 passed, the coalition was also struggling to keep the issue of police oversight in the public eye. Clemmons’s death had begun to fade from public memory, but his mother, who’d returned to work, wasn’t moving on. On a Monday in late September, she left work and gathered with her family and other activists on the sidewalk outside the East Precinct, where Lippert was stationed, for what they called a “sit-in.” They wore T-shirts that said Fire Officer Lippert and brought signs and lawn chairs.
Lee and other activists returned the next day, and the next. They weathered the rain and the cold. By November, it was nearing dark each day when they arrived. Although Lee still wore her Fire Officer Lippert T-shirt, at some point it dawned on her that nothing she could do would help her son. But a community oversight board might help someone else. “The next time this happens here, if anything is worth doing that will help the next family that comes along, that helps them get justice a little easier,” she says, “then Jocques’s death is not in vain.”
But inside the halls of power, Mothershead felt the campaign sputtering. In meetings, city officials asked whether he’d spoken with the police department about the bill, but the coalition had barred him from doing so. Admitting that he had not yet consulted with them “felt like amateur hour,” he recalls. Some council members balked at the bill’s language, including a provision authorizing the board to order officers to participate in mediation and other “remedies” if accused of misconduct, regardless of guilt. One council member, Brett Withers, told me, “There were some aspects of the ordinance that no doubt arose out of folks’ frustration with trying to get accountability from the police department itself, but we thought went too far.”
“How can one expect to change an institution without including it in the process?” Mothershead wrote to me in an email. Hoping a more conciliatory approach might save the bill, he gave the other activists an ultimatum: Let NOAH discuss the bill with the mayor’s office and other city institutions, or it would pull out. The others said no—they felt the campaign belonged to the community, not the politicians or police—and NOAH withdrew. Unable to present a unified front, let alone win over the police or the mayor, the activists couldn’t round up the votes they needed. In January 2018, the metro council soundly rejected the bill, and after a final pilgrimage to the East Precinct a day shy of the first anniversary of Clemmons’s death, Lee ended her sit-in.
That could have been the end of it. But less than a month after the metro council’s vote, the mayor’s coziness with the police department spilled into public view when Barry acknowledged having an extramarital affair with an officer on her security detail, who had improperly claimed pay for personal time he had spent with Barry. She resigned shortly thereafter, pleading guilty to a felony, and was replaced by the vice mayor, David Briley. (Because Barry had no prior criminal record, prosecutors agreed to deferred adjudication of her case, meaning that if she successfully serves an ongoing three-year probation sentence, the charges against her will be dismissed. Nashville’s Board of Ethical Conduct ultimately concluded that Barry had violated Metro Nashville’s standards of conduct, but didn’t find that the relationship had influenced her judgments about the police department.)
In this atmosphere of renewed scrutiny of the city’s leaders, Community Oversight Now decided to try another path to an oversight board. It would bring the proposition directly to voters, by gathering signatures to put it on the ballot in the fall.
This approach was more ambitious than the first. The coalition had just a few months to collect a number of names equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the preceding local general election—about 4,700. With new legal help, they drafted referendum language calling for a well-funded board that would draw four of its 11 members from “economically distressed” neighborhoods and would be empowered to issue subpoenas to compel witness testimony.
The organizers fanned out across the city, soliciting signatures at supportive businesses, a weekly jazz series, and a Janelle Monáe concert. Tucker and other pastors shared word of the effort with their congregations, whose members got involved.
By July 2018, as the deadline approached, the activists had just over 4,000 signatures. In a delicate rapprochement, NOAH had offered to enlist its vast membership in collecting names. But reluctant to reengage after the damaging split, Community Oversight Now rejected the help, even if doing so kept it from reaching the threshold.
That decision might well have spelled its defeat. But then, less than a week before the deadline, Officer Andrew Delke of the Metro Nashville Police shot and killed Daniel Hambrick.
It began with an attempted traffic stop. While driving through the city that evening looking for stolen vehicles, Delke started to follow a suspicious car, lost track of it, and then spotted a white sedan in the parking lot of a public-housing complex, with Hambrick nearby. When Delke drove up abruptly, Hambrick fled the scene on foot, holding a handgun, and the officer gave chase, with no idea whom he was pursuing. Nor had he been issued a body or dashboard camera, so only when footage from a surveillance camera was released did it become clear that as Hambrick outran him, the slowing officer stopped to plant his feet in a firing stance and took aim. He squeezed off four shots, hitting Hambrick three times.
Hambrick was 25 years old when he died. Two days before the shooting, he had posted an update on Facebook about a job he’d taken in an up-and-coming part of town. His mother, Vickie Hambrick, who is legally blind, depended on him as few parents do. “He was my only child,” she says. “He was my eyes and my everything.”
The activists began to realize something profound had shifted in the city’s residents. In the final week of July, the activists collected as many signatures as they had since their campaign began that spring. On the submission deadline of August 1, Lee carried a box of 8,269 signatures into the county clerk’s office to have the measure certified and put on the ballot.
Journalists connected the shooting to the campaign for police oversight. Public officials who had stayed on the sidelines after Clemmons’s death were more outspoken in questioning Anderson’s leadership; NOAH issued a statement asking Mayor Briley to fire him. “Most people could not rationalize how that tape looked,” says Tucker. “It upset their sensibilities.”
In late September, after examining the evidence, District Attorney Funk sought and obtained an arrest warrant for Delke for criminal homicide—the first time in the city’s history an officer had been charged in an on-duty shooting. (A grand jury later indicted Delke for first-degree murder, and he entered a not-guilty plea, claiming he acted in self-defense and with a justified use of force. Through his attorney, Delke declined to comment for this article.)
Still, opponents of civilian oversight dug in. The local chapter of the FOP filed a lawsuit attempting to halt the referendum, arguing the number of collected signatures was insufficient, but a court tossed that out. The organization launched a half-million-dollar public-relations campaign to defeat it, with highly produced television ads, one of them warning that civilian oversight was a ruse that would allow politicians to “appoint big-money donors to new unelected government posts.” Briley announced that he supported civilian oversight of the police in general, but not the language of the ballot referendum.
The activists had few resources for paid advertisements, but they had shoe leather. The coalition presented at events held by ministerial groups, neighborhood associations, and the local chapters of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. They sent 15,000 texts, phone-banked thousands of homes, and knocked on hundreds of doors. Gicola Lane, an organizer, says the coalition reached out to black citizens whether or not they were active voters. “People in my neighborhood don’t vote,” she explains, but the effort to create a community oversight board motivated them to register. “It’s just a different kind of feeling when you have people you grew up with on the news or leading campaigns.”
On Election Night, the activists congregated in the multipurpose room of an apartment building on Rosa L. Parks Boulevard to watch the returns. At 9 p.m., a ripple began coursing through the crowd as those closest to the television reacted to the news. The amendment had passed overwhelmingly, with a final tally of 134,371 votes in support and 94,129 against.
The activists poured onto the dance floor as “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” began to play. Lee and Hambrick, who had both lost their sons, stood holding each other and swaying to the music. Their cheeks were stained with tears, but they were smiling. Tucker was overwhelmed, not only because Nashville would have its long-sought-after community oversight board, but also because a plurality of the city had affirmed a request from its most disadvantaged residents. “The black vote couldn’t do this; the immigrant vote couldn’t do this,” he explains. “There had to be a significant number of white people who voted, who believe that policing is unfair.”
The organizers were still giving speeches of gratitude and congratulations when Clemmons’s younger son walked to the front of the room. Only 10 years old, he was nevertheless well aware of the meaning of the campaign, having participated in the first rally held in the days following his dad’s death. Wordlessly, he slipped up next to Lane, wrapped his arms around her, and began to cry.
Mothershead was at home and had just put his kids to bed when he learned of the victory. He was in total disbelief, and humbled by the achievement. He’d advocated for a community oversight board in the hope that it would reform police practices, reducing the number of unnecessary traffic stops and arrests. But following the vote, he felt the coalition had accomplished something categorically different: providing true representation for the city’s most marginalized residents. “That wasn’t where my head was. That’s where their heads were. And I see it now,” he says.
Civilian review boards vary widely in their powers; the board that Nashville enacted would be strong. It would have an annual budget of at least $1.5 million, sufficient to hire a staff of investigators and analysts, and although the mayor and council each selected two of its 11 members, the remaining seven were reserved for the community's nominees. Of the individuals ultimately appointed, seven are black and one is Latino. The group includes three former police officers, as well as a community organizer nominated by Gideon’s Army.
But less than two weeks after their appointment, a Republican lawmaker in the state legislature introduced a bill to greatly reduce the authority of civilian review boards statewide, barring them from issuing subpoenas to compel witness testimony and precluding them from tailoring their membership by socioeconomic status, demographics, or employment history. The bill passed, though the activists succeeded in amending it to allow the board to issue subpoenas if it first gained the metro council’s approval.
In April 2019, the board hired as its full-time director William Weeden, a criminal-defense and civil-rights attorney who had worked for eight years on Chicago’s oversight board. He hopes to build a team capable of investigating misconduct, evaluating policing practices, and recommending changes. Traffic stops are “definitely on the radar,” he says. The legislature’s recent bill would make his work more difficult, he explains, but “we’ll find other ways of accomplishing our goals—hopefully we can.”
Despite calls for his ouster in the wake of Hambrick’s death, Anderson still helms the police department, with the support of Mayor Briley. While Anderson has agreed to work with the community oversight board, he holds authority over whether its recommendations are implemented. “They have to make their own success,” he says. “I think that when they look at how we handle our own oversight, they’re going to find very little to do.” As to whether the campaign for community oversight or the nascent board itself had affected police-department practices, a spokesman had a one-word answer: “No.” After years of delays, the department still hasn’t provided all officers with dashboard and body cameras.
Of course, the community oversight board was never the ultimate end itself. The goal was always to reset the relationship between the police and the policed, which is made not in Nashville’s municipal offices, but in its streets. Police shootings had been the focal point of the campaign, with surviving family members its leading champions, but the activists envision more profound changes in the culture of the police department. Some of the grievances seem like nuances, but are no less important for it: the way Clemmons’s death was investigated as an assault against Lippert; the department’s inability to see how the disparate harm of traffic stops was poisoning its relationship with the black community; the department’s persistent failure to increase the representation of minorities among its officers. “It’s like changing a religion,” says Sekou Franklin, an associate professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University and a longtime organizer who was deeply involved with the campaign. “You can change the time of service from 9 o’clock to 10 o’clock, but the beliefs and the culture and traditions—that larger shift—is going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
The police department is evolving, nevertheless, in ways that may validate the more inclusive approach to reforms that Barry had championed. In particular, the analysis of Nashville’s traffic stops that she commissioned corroborated the findings of “Driving While Black.” It also found that traffic stops “had no discernible effect on serious crime rates,” a conclusion with implications for cities elsewhere. After reviewing the report, Serpas, the former chief who led the department as traffic stops were ramping up, told me, “Using ‘traffic’ as a blunt instrument to fight violent crime probably is not as effective today as we thought it was 15 years ago.”
Anderson is still skeptical of the findings—“I think the Policing Project picked their data points,” he told me—but he acknowledged that the groundswell against traffic stops took the matter out of his hands. “The public discussion was too much of a distraction to what we do,” he says. So, shortly after the report’s release, the department began to change its practices. Patrol officers discontinued the use of the detailed sections of their activity sheets that many say encouraged proactivity, and the impact was immediate. From October 2018 to February 2019, officers recorded 60 percent fewer traffic stops than they did during the same period the year prior.
In its place, the department has put more emphasis on “neighborhood policing” that prioritizes relationship building over enforcement. In Cayce Homes, an entire flex team was shifted to this approach, with a sergeant and nine officers, including Officer Ward. She still drives the same unmarked black car, but now spends most of her time bicycling or walking through the complex, falling into conversation with passersby. “We’re not approaching to investigate you or to arrest you,” she says. “We’re approaching to actually get to know you.” Officers doing rotations in the Mission One program have shifted to community engagement as well.
The work of the community-engagement team runs counter to some officers’ views about their profession and personal identity. At first, Ward was worried by the comments she overheard from other officers—“They made a lot of jokes about us being a social worker and not a police”—but her concerns have been allayed as some of that grumbling has subsided. Still, the new approach requires a change in mind-set. One morning, while walking by a parked car, two of Ward’s colleagues caught an unmistakable whiff of marijuana. As former flex officers, they were inclined to approach the vehicle and investigate—but they settled for flagging the car over radio in case a nearby patrol officer might opt to respond, and then moved on.
On some matters, common ground is elusive. While Cayce residents reliably call Jocques’s death the “Clemmons” shooting, officers who patrol the area still refer to it as the “Lippert” shooting.
Many of the pressing concerns of Cayce’s residents and the disadvantaged people of Nashville are beyond the reach of police. One-tenth of the city’s population is living below the poverty line, including one in five black Nashvillians. And gentrification, compounded by an affordable-housing crisis, is displacing tens of thousands of longtime residents: The black share of some historically African American neighborhoods has plummeted by as much as 20 percent, according to an analysis by The Tennessean. The city’s future may well depend on how citizens organize around those challenges.
On what would have been Clemmons’s 34th birthday, Lee and a few activists returned to the pedestrian bridge with a handful of balloons. They chatted cheerfully about the upcoming mayoral election on August 1; that morning, Lee had met with a Democratic state legislator who was challenging Briley. Lane was musing about running for office herself. (A month later, she officially announced her candidacy for metro council.) It was remarkable to think that just a little over two years earlier, they had all been living in the same city, unknown to one another. At the apex of the bridge, Lee turned to say a few words about her son. Then she turned again and let the wind catch her balloon and take it away.