We ride for the South. Don't you?

In February 2017, Jocques Clemmons was killed by a police officer after a traffic stop and foot chase in the parking lot of James A. Cayce Homes in East Nashville.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department conducted an internal investigation of the incident and the Nashville District Attorney decided not to prosecute the officer responsible for Clemmons' death.

Clemmons was Black; the officer was white. The same goes for many of the police shootings that have happened in Nashville. Rarely have police been punished in these cases. A 200-page report released in 2016, "Driving While Black," found that of the more than 700 complaints filed against MNPD annually, 98 percent are decided in favor of the police.

For at least 45 years, Black community members have been advocating for the city to create a community oversight board to hold the police accountable. At its most basic, a civilian or community oversight board informs the public about how police are handling cases. Advocates say that strong community oversight boards conduct investigations that can lead to officers being punished for wrongdoing, and make recommendations that change how police departments operate. Clemmons' death was a catalyst to finally make it happen.

Now, after years of setbacks, lawsuits, and grassroots fundraising, a referendum to create a community oversight board in Nashville is on the November 6 general election ballot. Other races in Tennessee are getting national press (in part thanks to a certain pop star), but this issue could have a bigger effect on the day-to-day lives of Nashville residents.

Community members sign the referendum petition at a public event.

Listed as Amendment 1, the measure would allow for a community oversight board that would have the power to investigate allegations of misconduct against MNPD. The board could make recommendations for disciplining accused officers, suggest policy reforms to public agencies, and forward its findings to prosecutors.

"The police chief retains final authority over the discipline and personnel decisions," says Theeda Murphy, a member of Community Oversight Now, a coalition of social justice groups that formed in response to Clemmons' death. "However, he will be required to explain why if he decides not to follow the board's recommendations," she adds.

CON did not have an easy time bringing the community oversight board this close to fruition. At first, the group was working with then-Mayor Megan Barry on the initiative. There were a lot of details to hammer out, and Barry wasn't supportive of the idea. Some opponents felt the specific proposed language was overreaching. Others were concerned about how to measure the effectiveness of a community oversight board.

Then, in February, the group filed an ethics complaint against the mayor. Barry had admitted to an extramarital affair with her bodyguard, then-Metro Police Officer Sgt. Robert Forrest, and CON was concerned that she could not be an "honest broker" between the police and the community given her relationship with Forrest.

A few weeks later, Barry resigned, and her vice mayor, David Briley, won a special election in May to fill the remainder of her term.

Nick Cavin collects signatures for the oversight referendum at a public event.

Briley hasn't endorsed the referendum, though he has been more open to discussion than Barry was. When he took over, the future of the community oversight board depended on the coalition gathering enough petition signatures to place the issue on the November 6 ballot. Volunteers spent months knocking on doors and succeeded. But then Nashville's police union tried to block the referendum.

In August, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police filed a lawsuit asking the Davidson County Circuit Court to take Amendment 1 off of the ballot. Attorneys for the FOP argued that CON and the city erred when they based their count on an August 2016 local election, in which 47,074 people voted. City law says that 10 percent of voters in the preceding general local election must sign a petition for a referendum to get on the ballot, making the magic number in this case 4,708.

However, 82,368 people voted in the May special election to replace the disgraced Mayor Barry, which would set the threshold at 8,237 signatures. The FOP argued that the more recent election (or one of several others) should have determined the number of signatures CON needed. But that wasn't a general election, so the court dismissed the case . The FOP tried to take the case to the State Supreme Court, asking for an expedited review. The fast-track request was rejected, but the case isn't closed.

"The referendum will appear on the ballot and the public will be able to vote," Murphy explains. "However, the case is still pending which means that the results of the election may be questioned at a later date."

Both the FOP and Nashville Firefighters Association are encouraging the public—through official statements, yard signs and radio and TV advertising—to vote "no" on Amendment 1, citing the costs and the fact that it can be difficult to quantify the success that a citizen oversight board can have. The opposition group, called "Vote No on the $10 Million Tax Hike," also questions whether the board will be a fair representation of local citizens.

Murphy feels that pushback against the community oversight board is rooted in a misconception that oversight is anti-police.

""Police and community relations are at an all time low. Once people understand that oversight is about transparency and accountability, they support it, regardless of political party."

"Police and community relations are at an all time low," Murphy says. "Once people understand that oversight is about transparency and accountability, they support it, regardless of political party. But getting people to know that the referendum is not anti-police, or even that it exists, has been another hurdle for the group."

Neither the FOP nor the firefighters association returned requests for an interview.

The Office of Mayor David Briley declined to provide a spokesperson to be interviewed for this article, but offered a circumspect written statement from the mayor. "I fully support civilian oversight of the police department, and am committed to strengthening the relationship between MNPD and all of the communities it serves," he said, adding that community oversight boards create "trust and accountability." He also promised that if Amendment 1 doesn't pass, he will work to instate a community oversight board regardless.

The community oversight board idea is not unique to Nashville. More than 200 cities already have boards in place with varying degrees of success.

Sheila Clemmons-Lee (blue shirt) and Susan Hudson McBride embrace after the Election Commission confirms the referendum will be on the November ballot.

"People ask all the time, 'What's the best model?' But there is no one best model," says Liana Perez, director of operations for National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. "It needs to be based on the needs of community. All good practices have transparency and access to records, but no two models are the same."

Murphy says the vision for Nashville's community oversight board is based on examples in cities where CON feels these boards have been especially effective.

"We have been taking suggestions and drawing information from the community oversight boards in Oakland, Rochester, and Berkeley, in particular, as these boards demonstrate the independence, funding, and compulsory power needed to make an oversight board effective," she says.

The Nashville community oversight board would be made up of 11 members. Seven of those members would be nominated by community organizations, while the remaining four would be nominated by City Council representatives and the mayor. All nominees would be approved by a council vote. Amendment 1 specifies that four of the community-nominated members must reside in economically distressed communities. And no one who has worked in law enforcement in the past five years is eligible. The baseline budget for the community oversight board would be $1.5 million to cover the cost of support staff and investigations––none of the board members would be paid.

The hope is that with a large number of community-nominated members, the board will be attuned to the public and avoid missteps that have happened elsewhere. In 2015, the Atlanta Citizen Review Board (which was established in 2007 after police shot to death a 92-year-old Black woman in her home) created a "Don't Run!" campaign, urging people who are stopped by police not to flee in fear. But what the community wanted was for the police to stop shooting people who were running. Amid public outrage, billboards and other ads were taken down within a week.

While Amendment 1 made it onto the ballot, CON's challenge now is to make sure the issue isn't drowned out by a lot of local political chatter.

While Amendment 1 made it onto the ballot, CON's challenge now is to make sure the issue isn't drowned out by a lot of local political chatter.

In Tennessee there's a high-profile senate race between Taylor Swift-endorsed Democrat Phil Bredesen and President Donald Trump-endorsed Republican Marsha Blackburn. The gubernatorial race includes Democrat Karl Dean, former mayor of Nashville, against Republican Bill Lee. And there's some serious voter fatigue in Nashville, due to the high number of special elections and other ballot initiatives this year (some Nashvillians have already gone to the polls five times in 2018, in part due to Barry's affair and resignation and the subsequent special elections and runoff for the new vice mayor).

Door-to-door canvassing, social media and community meetings have made up the bulk of CON's outreach. The group will launch radio ads closer to election day, as the opposition group has. Murphy says CON is working to reach voters across the political spectrum.

"Certainly oversight of police has been a Democrat issue and the Democrat base appears to be quite energized during this election cycle," she says. "However, we believe that the oversight issue can appeal to Republican and conservative voters who believe in limited government and local community control of government. We feel that the issue of oversight is not partisan or divisive."

Margaret Littman

Margaret Littman is a journalist and editor in Nashville, where she writes about what she sees and what others see. Since moving to Nashville she acquired a 1969 Ford pick-up truck, but not the ability to carry a tune. Read more of her work at littmanwrites.com