The Mayor's Tricky Relationship With the Chief
The Mayor's Tricky Relationship With the Chief

Chief Anderson and Mayor Barry in January 2016

A particular section of the Metro Nashville Charter, cited with renewed interest around the Metro Courthouse in recent days, concerns what one might call the chain of command.

“The department of metropolitan police shall be under the general management and control of a director thereof, who is designated the chief of police,” reads section 8.203 of the Metropolitan government’s founding document. The chief shall make regulations governing the department’s operations and the conduct of its officers, the section says, “with the approval of the mayor.”

The upshot? Only Mayor Megan Barry can give Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson orders. But the practical and political reality of that legal fact is being put to the test right now, as a series of controversial events and ongoing contentious policy debates — from body cameras to the push for a civilian review board — have put their relationship at the center of attention. 

The most recent, and perhaps most consequential in terms of the effect it could have on the dynamic between the mayor and the chief, is Anderson’s ongoing rift with the Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Emails obtained by the Scene show the inter-agency conflict playing out over weeks, but the basics are simple enough: Despite Funk’s announcement in February that he’d called in the TBI to take over the investigation into the fatal shooting of Jocques Clemmons by Metro Officer Josh Lippert six days earlier, MNPD never stopped its own investigation. Over weeks, as the TBI raised red flags about the situation, Anderson refused to bow out and has continued to defy calls for him to do so.

Neither the DA — who has been at odds with Anderson before — nor the TBI can order the chief to stand down. But the mayor, who has appeared to take the side of the TBI and the DA, can. Without some kind of clear understanding, the TBI has said it will likely refuse to step into these cases in the future.

The standoff over the Clemmons investigation has highlighted the uneasy dynamic between Barry and Anderson. Even at a time when local policing reforms have gained some traction, few mayors are eager to be seen slapping down the police — see Barry’s decision to purchase $1 million worth of body armor, helmets and shields for MNPD last year, over objections from progressive activists. Moreover, the ultimate nature of Barry’s authority over Anderson would seem to make it awkward to wield — when push comes to shove, it is only as good as her willingness to fire the chief for refusing to yield to it. 

And although one Metro official, closely observing the ongoing drama, tells the Scene that they believe Barry will refuse to lose a power struggle with Anderson, several also expressed surprise at they way she has appeared to shield Anderson from criticism in other areas. 

Just days after a WPLN-FM report revealed that MNPD had been issuing a book to every new recruit that included shockingly racist passages, Anderson appeared before Barry for MNPD’s scheduled budget hearing. Barry stunned some Metro insiders by prompting Anderson to briefly address the controversy and state that the book had been removed from the department’s training materials, before quickly moving on. Later at a meeting of the mayor’s Community Advisory Group on Body Cameras, Kyle Mothershead — a defense attorney agitating for policing reform in several areas — brought up the book controversy only to be quickly shut down by the mayor. 

There have also been times at the advisory group’s meetings when Barry has appeared to intercept questions or scrutiny aimed at the chief or his department, perhaps looking to mollify Anderson, who some involved in the process describe as a less-than-eager participant. 

When it comes to the push for a civilian review board — which looks almost certain to appear at the council soon in the form of a proposed ordinance — MNPD has announced flat-out opposition, while the mayor has left the door open, saying she is not pursuing it at this time, but listening to the discussion. It’s another issue on which she may have to decide how to handle the chief.

Asked whether recent controversies have strained her relationship with the chief, Barry, in an emailed statement, reiterated her “complete confidence in the ability of Chief Anderson to lead” MNPD and cited the department’s 80 percent approval rating in a recent Vanderbilt University poll. She did not answer a question as to whether she has directly asked Anderson to stop MNPD’s investigation of the Clemmons shooting, but said she will continue to work with all parties toward an agreement. [See update at bottom.]

When Barry made the decision to keep Anderson on as police chief after her election in 2015, it was unsurprising. Anderson, at the time, was sitting on a bed of goodwill, praised by Metro officials for his steady hand and for keeping MNPD off of the network news. He even achieved low-level internet fame for his kindly treatment of Nashville protesters — rarely has anyone gotten so much mileage out of a few cups of hot chocolate. 

But the year-and-a-half since has offered a glimpse of the chief whom activists and some Metro insiders always claimed to see: a savvy operator whose skill at the public relations game had helped paper over some simmering issues with policing in Nashville. 

The question now is whether the relationship between the mayor and the chief becomes a little less deferential and a little more like the one spelled out in the charter.

Update, 12:10 p.m.:

Barry’s press secretary Sean Braisted objected to this wording in an email Thursday morning, saying “the MNPD notified the TBI two weeks ago that their investigation was complete, and the TBI did not express any problems with the integrity of their case when they met with the Mayor last week.” The Scene asked if the mayor had told the chief to stop MNPD’s investigation while it was still going on despite objections from the TBI and the DA.

“No, there was no need for the Mayor to intervene in the investigation of the Jocques Clemmons shooting,” Braisted says. “The TBI has expressed confidence in the integrity and progress of their investigation.”

The Scene asked when the mayor became aware of the dispute between the TBI and the MNPD over MNPD continuing its own Clemmons investigation. Braisted emailed the following statement:

“Mayor Barry has been monitoring the progress of the investigation from the beginning. I do not have a specific date, but she was aware early on that the TBI and MNPD were resolving questions as it related to the policies and procedures of the investigation, which is understandable considering this is the first TBI investigation into an officer-involved shooting in Nashville, and General Funk did not ask the TBI to initiate their own investigation until nearly a week after the shooting. As the TBI indicated at their meeting last week, they have confidence in the integrity and progress of the investigation into the shooting of Jocques Clemmons. Mayor Barry remains confident that the MNPD and TBI will soon reach an agreement on an MOU that will resolve any questions about the role of each agency in any investigations going forward.”

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