March 22, 2024 10:00am

Local Law Enforcement Oversight

Who polices the police?

Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Who polices the police? According to local Power Poll participants, it should be up to the whole community. Strong majorities of respondents to questions this month about law enforcement accountability support civilian review of police actions and oppose efforts by the state Legislature to protect officers from such oversight. And a large majority — nearly 80 percent — would support a civilian review board for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which does not currently have one.

The issue of police accountability poses challenges for communities across the country. Local law enforcement agencies in general have strong legal protections from both criminal and civil liabilities for any conduct by officers in uniform. Officers rarely face criminal charges for actions up to and including the killing of civilians, and are even more rarely convicted.

In response, over the last several decades many local governments have adopted varying levels of community review of law enforcement activities and complaints about misconduct. Those moves have often come after a particular incident or series of incidents that prompt community outcry.

That was the case in Knoxville, which created its Police Advisory & Review Committee in 1998 after the deaths of several African-American men in encounters with police. PARC is now the oldest continuously-operating police review board in the state. But in recent years, the Republican supermajority in the state Legislature has pushed back on local efforts to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting civilian review boards from conducting any independent investigations of police conduct, mandating that only law enforcement agencies can investigate law enforcement agencies. This month, the state House and Senate passed another bill forbidding local governments from enacting any law enforcement policies for their own local law enforcement agencies that restrict police powers in any way beyond state and federal restrictions already in place.

That law was specifically aimed at Memphis, where the City Council last year passed an ordinance reclassifying minor traffic violations (such as broken tail lights or expired tags) so that they cannot be used on their own as grounds for a traffic stop. The ordinance followed widespread public outrage after the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers, who had initially stopped Nichols on what turned out to be unsubstantiated allegations of reckless driving.The officers have all been charged with 2nd-degree murder and other felonies. Nichols’ family supported the traffic-stop ordinance and appealed to the Legislature to leave it alone, to no effect.

The thoughts of Power Poll respondents were broadly consistent across four different questions, with at least 60 percent showing support for more police accountability rather than less. The strongest support was for the idea of civilian review of police conduct in general — 53 percent said it was “Very important,” and another 32 percent said it was “Somewhat important.”

Seventy-nine percent of those who responded said they would support creating a board similar to PARC for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which currently has no accountability or complaint mechanisms beyond complaining directly to the agency itself. Only 11 percent said they would oppose such a board, and 10 percent said they were unsure.

The most uncertainty came when asked whether the Legislature’s efforts to limit local control of local police made the community “More safe” or “Less safe.” Sixty percent said it would make Knoxville and Knox County less safe; 10 percent said it would be more safe, 10 percent said it would have no impact, and 19 percent were unsure.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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