In the weeks after the killing of George Floyd, protestors took to Nashville streets and Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he would work with Tennessee law enforcement agencies to seek out possible reforms.
That work has reached the Tennessee General Assembly, where the Senate on Monday unanimously passed police use-of-force reforms in a rare act of substantive bipartisanship. The policies were drafted with the help of law enforcement representatives, Senate sponsor Mike Bell (R-Riceville) stressed.
The legislation, which is set to be considered by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday, includes several changes to the state’s policing laws, though Bell said some departments already have policies incorporating some of the changes. The proposed law would ban chokeholds unless an officer believed deadly force was authorized, require the teaching of chokeholds at training academies, require law enforcement agencies to develop de-escalation policies, require other officers to intervene in cases of excessive force, prohibit firing at moving vehicles unless the officer believes deadly force is authorized and prohibit the issuance of no-knock warrants.
“Knowing the environment we’re in, they want to put something forward to say ‘we want to do all we can to be the best law enforcement agencies in our country,’” Bell said during committee debate last week. “We understand the times we’re living in.”
Some Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.
Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) called it “a good step in the right direction.”
Later during their Monday floor session, senators unanimously passed another criminal justice bill, this one sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari and designed to get parole officers to meet with incarcerated people before they are released to create a plan for after their release. Additional legislation is under consideration in legislative committees this week.
This is not Tennessee lawmakers’ first action in response to the George Floyd protests. During a special session called by Lee last year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed — and Lee later signed — a new law making it a felony to camp on state property, a response to a group of racial justice protestors who remained outside the Capitol for two months in the wake of Floyd’s death. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider this week another bill making it a felony for protestors to block traffic.
Some community members have questioned Lee’s and the lawmakers’ commitment to reform when they primarily or exclusively consult with law enforcement itself on possible reforms.
“The issue with the bill is that these measures do not prevent the deaths of Black folks by police officers,” says Audrey Tesi of Black Lives Matter Nashville. “It doesn’t get to the root of the overarching problem. A comprehensive solution would involve the redistribution of funding and resources from police departments to low-income communities of color. These funds and resources could be used to invest in education, health care, mental health co-ops, etc. in these communities.”