Metro Council member Mansfield Douglas is upset. In the midst of a telephone interview, Douglas, a charter member of the Council, is railing on about racism in the Metro Police Department. It is the same complaint Douglas has been making for decades, almost since the Council was created in 1963.
“I think the majority of African-Americans in this community would tell you they have a real fear of the police,” says Douglas, who is black and who represents a largely black district in the Berry Hill area. “We have not made the kind of progress we should have. We have regressed. Back in the early days, there was an effort to make an improvement. Now you’ve got people who seem to feel that they have the liberty of making [racist] comments.”
There have been efforts, Douglas says, to improve the Police Department’s relationship with black Nashville. In the ’60s, he says, Nashville created its first Human Relations Commission and there was “sensitivity training.” Thirty years ago, Douglas says, black Nashvillians “hoped for a real and meaningful change.” Now, he insists, “Most inner-city neighborhoods have more Mark Fuhrmans than they deserve. [Officers] can do what they want and get away with it.”
Some of Douglas’ colleagues on Metro Council privately insist that, at 65, Douglas is simply old and out of touch, that his arguments are out of date. Jay West, the city’s new vice mayor and a longtime champion of Metro’s police department, says, “I think that in recent years blacks have attained the highest ranks that they have ever attained in the police department, although just because you have a black assistant chief does not in and of itself mean that you have attained your minority goals for the department.... I think it is getting a lot better in terms of how the department treats blacks and whites in the city. I think the days of pulling a car over just because the occupants are black are over. I think if that happened, Chief Kirchner would severely discipline the officer.”
Meanwhile, Ronnie Steine, after five years as an at-large Council member, takes a middle tack. “My sense of it is that the police department is not immune to the same problems the general society faces with regards to race,” says Steine, who has spent time conducting his own examination of the Metro Police Department’s relations with the community. “I think the police department clearly has to deal with a credibility problem, not only in the African-American community but in the broader community as well. I think they will probably be the first to admit these problems exist.”
Many black Nashvillians old enough to have lived through the mid-’60s tell stories of the Police Department’s troubled history of race relations. They recall instances when black males were indiscriminately hauled in for questioning. They recall that former police chief Joe Casey, who drew solid backing from a predominantly white law-and-order community during his decade in the department’s top job, was known by the nickname “Hang ’Em High Joe.”
In more recent times, several incidents have only served to increase the black community’s mistrust of the local police department: In 1988, a veteran police officer shot and killed Jackie Brooks, a young, mentally handicapped black woman, as she rushed his car with a knife. Next came the Reginald Miller affair, which many likened to Los Angeles’ much publicized Rodney King incident. Miller, himself a police officer, alleged that white police officers had roughed him up after mistaking him for a possible “john” in a prostitution sting.
All along, the department has had its share of internal squabbles over the professional advancement of black officers. The racial lines are clearly drawn between the officers’ two professional organizations. The police officers’ official union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), is primarily white. The black-dominated Nashville Peace Officers Association (NPO) was founded a decade ago to represent black officers on the force.
For years, white liberals in the city and numerous black leaders have advocated the formation of a so-called “Citizens Review Board,” which would authorize ordinary citizens to investigate alleged police abuses. Some have advocated giving the panel disciplinary powers, even empowering it to suspend, or expel, officers from the force if they are found guilty of mistreating citizens.
In his first term, Mayor Phil Bredesen appointed well-known Nashville attorney Jim Neal to relations between the department and the community. Among other things, the committee discussed the formation of a Citizens Review Board; however, Neal opposed the plan, as did Police Department officials. Eventually, hopes for the Citizens Review Board died, although the recently created Human Relations Commission, with its mission of fostering communication among the diverse parts of the city, is seen by many as a convenient forum for discussing allegations of police racism.
The idea of a police review board has not entirely gone away, however. Among other groups, Tying Nashville Together, the coalition of white and black churches that has jumped headlong into local politics, continues to support the concept.
In September, after Police Chief Robert Kirchner announced his resignation, Bredesen appointed a five-member citizen’s panel to search for a replacement. Already, the new chief’s skin color has emerged as a central issue in the search process. Black officers’ long-simmering allegations of unfair treatment and denied promotions have boiled up. Black officers have filed a lawsuit, now in federal court, alleging that the Metro Police Department’s promotions test is discriminatory to blacks.
Twelve percent of Nashville’s police officers are black, while blacks make up 23.4 percent of the city’s total population. What’s more, black officers know that even this level of integration was achieved slowly. Many applaud Kirchner’s efforts to make the department a more “sensitive” place, but others argue that a few years of integration have done little to reverse long-held attitudes. In the Metro Police Department, some officers insist, a clear line separates blacks from whites. For an outsider, however, that line may not seem so clearly, cleanly drawn.
It would seem that no large city in America is immune from a racial tempest in its police department. Most recently, because of the O.J. Simpson trial, the nation has been confronted with still more allegations of brutal racism in the Los Angeles Police Department. As Mark Furhman’s tape-recorded voice described torturing black suspects until their blood ran down the walls, a nationwide television audience blanched. After a predominately black jury acquitted Simpson, many Americans were forced, for the first time, to confront the differing attitudes that blacks and whites bring to the law enforcement process.
Over the years, Nashville’s police department has made great strides. Then again, it had a long, long way to go. Few would dispute the fact that, at times, the Metro Police Department has been insensitive to black citizens of Nashville. Few would dispute that problems still exist. But few would dispute the fact that the Police Department has taken some steps to address these problems.
In the wake of the Simpson trial, as Nashville searches for a new police chief and the Metro Police Department’s hiring practices are being challenged in federal court, the race question continues to lurk on the horizon. The vision of the kindly cop on the beat seems now to be a thing of the past. No longer is the man in blue an unquestioned figure of authority and a symbol of security. These days, for some citizens, the sight of a police officer’s uniform is a cause for fear and uncertainty. For some Nashvillians, there is no guarantee that more Mark Fuhrmans do not lurk in our midst.
Police Department spokesman Don Aaron maintains that his department has an admirable history in regard to race relations. “I can’t recall any major racial rifts in the department,” he says. Notable exceptions, Aaron says, are the Reggie Miller incident and the shooting of Jackie Brooks, “an African-American woman who had a knife...who had some sort of mental deficiency.”
Observers in the black community, however, bring a different perspective to the issue.
Adrienne Latham, vice-president of operations for Metropolitan Times, a newspaper primarily serving the black community, chooses her words carefully. “It is hard to say where we are overall on race relations,” Latham suggests, “but there are still some concerns with the police department about how fairly African-Americans will be treated, both in terms of people on the street and people within the department.” Latham says she can recall a time in Nashville when blacks, including her husband, were routinely stopped and questioned by police officers. Nothing came of her husband’s encounter with Metro, but Latham insists that, when blacks are stopped by police officers, “oftentimes the heart is beating, and they are fearful.” Such experiences, she says, have happened “routinely” to her friends. Even though there are now “more women and blacks on the force, and they have had [diversity] training,” Latham says, the fear of mistreatment by the police department “is always in the back of an African-American’s mind.”
A perception of racism among police officers may be a sort of cultural legacy among black Nashvillians, but police officers and their supporters argue that, on the streets, Metro has an exemplary record of dealing with citizens of all races.
Kirchner assumed control of the Police Department in 1989. Beginning three years ago, every employee in the department, from police chief on down, has been required to participate in a “diversity training” program as part of yearly in-service training. According to Aaron, the diversity-training classes were established to increase understanding of the “racial, cultural and ethnic diversity of Nashville.” Aaron says the classes began before the Reggie Miller affair and that they were not a response to any specific incident.
Diversity training has its critics. One veteran officer, who asked to remain anonymous, says that, while the first year’s class presented useful information, the last two years’ programs have been concerned, for the largest part, with how to “deal with upper management.” The officer argues that, in recent training sessions, he has “never heard how to deal with different cultures. I think they just label it that so they can say we had diversity training.”
Some observers argue that, given Metro’s relatively peaceful history of race relations, diversity-training sessions are not called for. Wayne Whitt, who began his career as a local newspaper reporter in 1944 and went on to serve as managing editor of The Tennessean from 1976 to 1989, says the department “has been, historically, racially harmonious, for decades.” Whitt asserts that the consolidation of the old city and county governments into one Metro government would not have passed without the support of black Nashvillians. This spirit of cooperation, he says, laid the groundwork for a tradition of good feelings within the police force, and between the force and the public.
On the other hand, Whitt is quick to point out that, in the first days of Metro, the police force was no more color-blind than it had to be. “Certainly the police weren’t out looking to do minorities any favors,” he recalls, “but I don’t know any instances in which there was just rank racism. I don’t remember [the police] framing anybody.” Whitt does not doubt that, in some instances, confessions were coerced, but he points out that such injustices were “not just against black people. I interviewed a lot of people in jail, and sometimes you had to wait a few days [for the bruises to heal] before you could see them. That wasn’t racistthat was hard-nosed cops.” Such behavior, Whitt insists, “would not be permitted today.”
Nashville’s first black police officer joined the force in 1948. Nevertheless, black officers maintain that, as a matter of course, they have been treated differently from their white colleagues. For example, blacks were traditionally assigned to black neighborhoods. As a result, they only arrested black suspects.
“Hang ’Em High Joe” Casey, who took over as police chief in 1974, was a hard-nosed law man who accepted no excuses for misbehavior and took no pity on any lawbreaker. Nevertheless, his regime ushered in a new era in race relations, at least within the police department itself. At least, during his 15 years as chief, there were more promotions for blacks. “I don’t think we had enough black people in higher positions in the department,” Casey recalls. “I promoted through the ranks all the way up to assistant chief. We made every effort we could to recruit and hire as many black officers as we could, both male and female.” Before Casey took over the department, there were a few black officers, but he recalls none in positions higher than sergeant or lieutenant.
In response to charges that police officers continued to indulge in prejudice-driven power plays, Casey stands up for his officers. “In my 38 years with the department, I don’t think there was a time when there was an officer who didn’t enforce the law,” he insists. “As far as black officers backing up white officersand white officers backing up black officersI never saw officers not do that to the best of their ability.”
Many of Metro’s African-American police officers belong to the Nashville Peace Officers advocacy group. Unlike the larger FOP, Peace Officers “is not a union,” says the group’s founder, Lt. Luther Hunter. Instead, Hunter says, Peace Officers “addresses issues that adversely affect black police officers.”
Hunter says that the group, which was formed in October 1985, was created because there were fundamental disparities between the treatment of black officers and the treatment of their white colleagues. When the group was formed, Hunter says, “discipline was unfair. There were assignments with no black officers. Black officers had attempted to get jobs in certain areas and had been denied. There was disparity in promotions.”
At first, Hunter says, Metro Government was “reluctant” to accept the black officers’ group. “After a short period of time, though, there were black officers placed in [more desirable] jobs, more officers transferred to homicide, for instance,” he says. Hunter credits NPO with an increase in the assignment of blacks to motorcycle patrol, as well as with the creation of a minority hiring unit, a group he says is the first of its kind.
“The FOP has indicated that they can’t represent black officers in the way we need them to be represented,” Hunter says. “The need for [the NPO] continues because it’s a never-ending struggle to deal with ongoing problems.”
The Nashville Peace Officers Association is affiliated with the National Black Police Association. Nationwide, the association’s membership includes some whites and Hispanics, but the overwhelming majority of its members are African-Americans. There are more than 135 chapters in the U.S. Lt. Hunter has been president of the local organization since its inception. Of 135 blacks on the force, 120 are NPO members.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Bob Nash is in his sixth year as president of the Nashville chapter of the FOP. Of the 1,140 officers on the Metro police force, 900 are FOP members. When police officers discuss employment matters with the department’s management, representatives of the FOP represent labor at the bargaining table. FOP is also the familiar fraternal organization known for supporting civic causes and charities. No officer is required to join FOP or Peace Officers. And membership in one organization does not preclude membership in the other; Hunter himself was an FOP member for almost two decades.
“I don’t know that [a separate black organization] is out of the ordinary,” says FOP president Nash, who has attended “a couple” of meetings of the African-American group. “You have a black caucus within the Legislature, an affiliation of black journalists. Sometimes society backslides, so we need groups to prick our consciences.”
For a long time, FOP and NPO both accepted the fact that, in the police department, promotions were inherently political. It was not until the FOP brought a lawsuit in 1989 that the department did away with its tradition of “promotions lists,” composed by superior officers. The replacement plan called for promotions based upon the results of a test, free of politics and designed by a professional testing firm. The idea seemed popular and unbiased, until September 1993, when the results of the most recent tests were made public. Based upon test results, the department’s first 30 promotionsthe only promotions from patrol officer to sergeantwent to whites. The NPO filed an injunction to stop the promotions; the injunction was denied by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Wiseman.
NPO next filed suit against the city demanding that both the promotions and the test be set aside. Metro immediately suspended further promotions on the theory that, if the city lost the case, all test-based promotions would merely be repealed. No one has been elevated to sergeant since the suit was filed, and chances are nearly 100 percent that no one will move up until the case is settled in district court.
In the labyrinthine maze of hiring regulations, it is indeed difficult for any employer to promote workers on the basis of merit and still come up with a work force that precisely mirrors the racial makeup of the community. Quotas have been outlawed, but so have promotions based upon the subjective judgments of ranking officers. Now, if the test is ruled to be unfair, the city might well shy away from promoting any police officer for fear of yet another lawsuit.
NPO’s current suit hammers away at the testing system. Both the police department and NPO concede that blacks traditionally test lower than whites on written exams. Thus, NPO wants less emphasis placed on the written exam. The Peace Officers also charge that the test was created in a rush. A normal six-month process was compressed to four months. Several African-American officers claim that they received inaccurate instructions as to what written materials they were to study in preparation for the test. Lt. Hunter argues that white officers, who have more desk assignments, have more time for on-the-job study.
According to Hunter, the city offered to settle the case for $20,000 before it went to trial. Police department sources dispute the exact figure but admit that discussions took place. “It’s always cheaper to settle,” one insider notes. Sources say that Metro offered to pay the NPO’s legal fees and to resume promotions from the test-based list, in exchange for NPO dropping its suit. The offer was declined. “We filed a lawsuit to bring about change,” says Hunter. “If forced to do it again, we’d do it over again.”
Meanwhile, the FOP’s Bob Nash states emphatically that there is racial harmony on the force. “We pretty much come to the job with policies and rules and regulations, and you leave your personal baggage at the door,” he insists. “I think the job builds more camaraderie. For those circumstances where there is danger and you have to count on others, I think that forms some pretty strong bonds.”
Hunter agrees. “We go to work every day together,” he says. “Just because you have differences doesn’t mean we can’t get along.” Another veteran officer, who asked not to be identified, stated that in her years on the force, she had never heard any police officer, black or white, use racist language while on patrol.
Both the FOP and the NPO also seem likely to agree about their choice for Kirchner’s successor as police chief. Among the rank and file of department employees, the popular candidate appears to be a black man, 53-year-old Assistant Police Chief Emmett H. Turner, the highest-ranking minority officer on the force. If appointed, he would be the first minority police chief in Nashville’s history. An internal survey of FOP membership is expected to result in an endorsement for Turner.
Hunter, at the same time, says it is “no secret” that the NPO supports Turner. The reasons, however, are “not only because he’s an African-American,” Hunter says. “He’s qualified, a people’s person. He’s respected; he has the administrative abilities, the education.”
In December, Turner, who is a member of both the FOP and the NPO, will mark 27 years of service on the force. He began his career as a patrol officer and progressed through the ranks, working in areas ranging from youth guidance to long-range management planning. He has not openly campaigned for the job of police chief, but he has made it clear that he feels qualified for the position. “I think my strengths are that I am fair and consistent regardless of who I deal with,” Turner says. “You have to have the leadership ability. The new chief must be chief for everyone.”
Hunter, meanwhile, is incensed that, even though a popular candidate like Turner is close at hand, the mayor’s committee has still chosen to conduct a nationwide search. He contends that, “in 1989, when Kirchner was appointed, nobody felt the need to go outside the department. But when we get a [black] person knocking at the door, all of a sudden, then we have to change the rules.
“What the city has said is that our African- American is not qualified. I don’t care how you paint it, frame it, say it, that’s what it is. They changed the rules, and that seems to be the bottom line with blacks as a race of people. Once we get ahead, once we get a chance, the rules get changed.”
According to Nash, the “vast majority” of FOP members have made it clear that they want Nashville’s next police chief to come “from the inside. There certainly are times when going outside makes sense, due to political infighting, to come in and clean house, but we’ve got a cohesive group and clear-cut strategies.” Some sources close to the police department express real concern that a choice from outside the department would be bad for morale, both within the force and, to a lesser extent, in the community at large.
The mayor’s committee has not ruled out the possibility of selecting a current member of the force to become chief. Of the five members of the committee, two are blacks: vice-president Latham, and Saul Chaffin, director of security at Vanderbilt University. Still, Nash says he is disappointed that the mayor’s committee does not include a representative from the ranks of the police force.
No deadline has been set for finding a new chief, although the position is supposed to be filled by Jan. 1, 1996.
Reactions to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial clearly indicated that, in the words of local NAACP president Sheila Peters, there is a “healthy paranoia about the police department” in our nation’s African-American community.
“I think that, since the O.J. verdict, what has come forward is the sense that the white community had no consciousness about what the African-American community was perceiving,” says Peters.
As Nashville searches for a new police chiefthe person who will guide the security forces protecting the new influx of country music fans and sports fanatics, the person who will be charged with keeping the streets safe from drug dealers and drive-by shootings, the person who will help provide the education necessary to reduce violence in our schoolsthere is no use pretending any longer that justice, much less law enforcement, is color-blind. If the Simpson trial has taught us anything, it is the lesson that police officers are fallible human beings who, far too often, view their fellow citizens as stereotypes. And far too often, we have learned, their fellow citizens return the favor.
“It’s easy for most African-Americans to imagine [the police department] setting the O.J. thing up, whereas for whites that is a foreign concept,” says Sheila Peters. “That is something we have got to deal with nationwide. The perception is so strong that, if we don’t take positive steps to deal with it, it will threaten our society.”
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