What do we know about law enforcement use of deadly force upon citizens in Tennessee?
Often, our understanding is based on news events, often dramatic and tragic. Some journalists, such as in Memphis, have deeply examined local police departments to better understand the issue.
But overall in the state, the public’s understanding, and even policymakers’ understanding, is limited by lack of comprehensive information and lack of data.
That’s about to change. A new law offers a chance to improve transparency as well as our ability to identify and target problems.
The new law largely deals with restrictions on use of force by law enforcement officers. It restricts use of chokeholds except when deadly force is justified, requires training on de-escalation techniques, creates a duty for law enforcement officers to intervene if another officer is violating use-of-force restrictions, and limits when an officer can discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle, motorcycle or bicycle.
In a step toward transparency, the law also creates a new monthly reporting system for use-of-force incidents. Beginning Jan. 1, all law enforcement agencies will be required to report to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation monthly and the TBI will produce an annual report beginning in 2023 with statewide and countywide aggregate data. TBI is required to post the report to its website.
Sometimes the gap in transparency in government is because of a gap in collection of data and information about key issues that concern the public.
The new tracking and reporting system moves the state in the right direction.
The law came about after a law enforcement reform task force was convened by Gov. Bill Lee not long after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer had set off nationwide protests, including in Tennessee. Floyd died after officer Derek Chauvin kept a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes as a restraint tactic. Chauvin was found guilty on murder charges. He was sentenced in June to more than 22 years in prison. He also pled guilty to federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights by using unreasonable force.
What information will be collected in Tennessee’s new tracking system? The statute calls for the data to be the same as used in the FBI’s voluntary reporting system, which covers any law enforcement action resulting in the death or serious bodily injury of a person or the discharge of a firearm at or in the direction of a person.
Information collected includes whether the officer approached the subject, the reason for the initial contact, the most serious offense the individual was suspected of, the type of force used, type of resistance or weapon involvement by the individual, and whether the individual had a known or apparent impairment, such as a mental health condition or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It also includes the age, sex, race, ethnicity, height and weight of the officer, years of service, whether the officer discharged a firearm and whether the officer was on duty.
The bill creating the new restrictions and state tracking system had bipartisan support. The sponsors were the chairmen of the Senate Judiciary and the House Criminal Justice committees, Republicans Mike Bell of Riceville and Michael Curcio of Dickson, respectively. But Democrats signed onto the bill as well, including Sen. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville and Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis.
“This bill was the work of all the law enforcement agencies in the state coming together,” said Bell when describing the bill in April. “We had several meetings where I asked them, bring us something that will help not just improve — and many of these agencies were doing this anyway through policy — but also to let the public know that our law enforcement agencies in the state want to be completely transparent. And knowing the environment we’re in, they want to put something forward to say that we want to do all we can to be the best law enforcement agencies in our country and to lead the way in showing… that we understand the times we’re living in.”
During a House committee hearing, Hardaway from Memphis said the bill “is pretty much my Christmas wish list” and that the new transparency will help improve trust.
“Without that trust factor, law enforcement can’t maximize their mission to protect the community,” he said.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. This column is part of a monthly series that explores transparency in government in Tennessee.