One of the first police promotions under the new mayoral administration has advanced Bill Sneed to the rank of lieutenant, nine years after the police officer shot and killed a mentally impaired woman in front of her home.
Sneed was never indicted for wrongdoing in the 1990 fatal shooting of Jacques Brooks, 26, who was threatening the officer with a 10-inch kitchen knife when he shot her four times in the upper right torso as he sat inside his patrol car. But after conceding that a jury reasonably could find that the officer acted inappropriately, Metro officials settled a civil lawsuit filed by the Brooks family.
Now, family and friends are reeling over the discovery that Brooks’ killer has been promotedagain. The recent promotion is Sneed’s second since the white officer’s shooting of the black woman rocked Nashville nearly a decade ago, fueling charges of racism within the Police Department. In 1993, Sneed was promoted from an officer to sergeant. And now, he’s been promoted to lieutenant in the department’s South Patrol Division.
“I just think it’s unbelievable,” says Larry Woods, the Nashville attorney who represented the Brooks family in the lawsuit, which was settled in 1995. While Woods is prohibited from disclosing the terms of the settlement agreement, sources tell the Scene the city paid the family $120,000 to resolve the case.
“Mrs. Brooks called me very upset, crying her eyes out about it, because she had heard from some of her friends in the Police Department that the guy was getting promoted,” Woods says.
Woods phoned Mayor Bill Purcell’s office and spoke with Police Chief Emmett Turner about the promotion, but he says he was told neither the chief nor the mayor’s office has any discretion to intervene in Sneed’s advancement.
Purcell’s office kept its distance from the issue, says senior policy advisor Patrick Willard. “The mayor’s office didn’t intervene. The promotions were just handled in the normal course of events.”
Don Aaron, spokesman for the Police Department, says the city’s agreement with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which was developed as a result of a lawsuit, dictates a method of testing and promoting officers. Under the relatively new promotion procedures, the city hires independent firms to perform written and oral testing, then the firms compile the scores.
“It goes from the best to the worst in the testing process, and we’re obliged to go down the line in rank order,” Aaron says.
Woods says Turner told him that his hands were tied. “I said, ‘Why are your hands tied? I mean, you’re the chief of police.’ Chief Turner said to me that ‘Our position is we absolutely have to take the next person on the test list.’ ”
But Woods says, “It seems obvious to me as a citizen that the mayor’s office can change that system any time they want to and can opt to make exceptions any time they want to. And nobody seems willing to act down there. It’s a sad situation.”
Aaron points out that Turner does have some discretion but only in very specific kinds of cases. “If the chief skips over someone, he must have good cause,” Aaron says. “For example, if someone is under internal affairs investigation for a very serious offense, the chief can skip over him and see how the investigation shakes out and go from there. But he can’t arbitrarily do it.”
Aaron also says that while the 1995 settlement agreement between the two parties did convey that Metro might have some liability in the shooting, it also recognized Metro’s case in defending itself had some merit.
“The plaintiffs [Brooks family] know that there is a set of factual circumstances that could lead a jury to conclude that the officer acted reasonably,” the settlement document reads. “The defendants [Metro] likewise recognize that there is a set of factual circumstances that could lead a jury to conclude that the officer’s actions might be viewed as unreasonable.”
Helen Brooks, the mother of the victim, says she’s heard the explanation about why Sneed is entitled to promotion according to official department procedure. And she’s heard ministers and others argue that, even if the department didn’t allow the promotion, Sneed should be allowed to move on in his career. But, she says, “Look what he did. He doesn’t need to be out on the street.”
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