With calls across the nation for reform of both law enforcement agencies and the greater criminal justice system, police in Williamson County and abroad are forced to self-evaluate the role of law enforcement and the impact they have on the communities that they swear to serve and protect.
The most recent series of protests were sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., and since then protests have taken over streets, plazas, parks and government buildings across the nation.
Middle Tennessee has also seen its share of demonstrations, including the month-long occupation of a portion of the state capitol grounds, as well as outpourings in Williamson County from Brentwood to Spring Hill, Nolensville and Franklin.
While the conversations around police reform are not unheard of in large metropolitan areas like Nashville, the debate has now come to the suburbs in the forms of both public protests, and in June, a claim of racial profiling against the Brentwood Police Department after a Black teenager was pulled over for an expired tag.
As reported by The Tennessean, this traffic stop sparked a claim of racial profiling by the teen’s family on social media and eventually led to an apology from BPD Chief Jeff Hughes as well as “constructive conversation” and a review of policy.
The Home Page sat down with representatives from several law enforcement agencies across the county to discuss the recent calls for change, and what law enforcement can do to address the issues and complexities of policing in America.
Williamson County Sheriff Dusty Rhoades said in a phone call that the recent wave of protests will no doubt change policing to some degree, but stressed that many of the policies that have been in the national spotlight, such as the use of chokeholds or no-knock warrants, as was the case in the March shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., are not allowed in the county.
“Chokeholds have been outlawed in Tennessee for over 20 years, and we don't do no-knock searches,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades said that WCSO has been utilizing less-than-lethal equipment and weapons, as well as emphasizing de-escalation training, but said that the profession of law enforcement is restricted by both budgets and the amount of training time that deputies actually receive before hitting the streets, typically about 12 weeks.
Rhoades also said that while law enforcement agencies have broadly been accused of racial profiling or discrimination that race is not the defining factor.
“To me, when it comes to law enforcement, there is no color, it’s either good or bad,” Rhoades said. “We stress to our people, you treat people like you want to be treated, and I think if everybody kinda took that attitude then things might be a little better.”
These sentiments are shared with many agencies as well as the challenges in handling the wide array of situations and scenarios faced by officers and deputies alike, and while each agency said that they already have many policies in place to foster accountability and public safety, agencies are also seeking ways to improve how they police.
DEFUNDING AND REFORMS
While the phrase “defund the police” has been growing in popularity for protesters, the real meaning, a call for systemic reforms or at least a restructuring of funding and duties, is something that many agencies may actually be on board with.
Although some caution that hastily dismantling budgets could unintentionally hurt victims by cutting positions such as victims rights advocates or additional community outreach programs.
“For years, many police chiefs around the country have been echoing that police departments have been overburdened with responsibilities for which they are not trained to handle," Franklin Police Department’s Deputy Chief Greg Policastro said in an email.
"For example, dealing with people who suffer from mental illness and the homeless. But, we are not trained as social workers or counselors, who are much better equipped to handle these challenges. The 'reform' may be more of a 'restructuring,' which would entail relieving the police from handling these complex issues by partnering with others in the community equipped to address the root cause of societal issues."
BPD Assistant Chief Richard Hickey said that BPD has always had internal conversations about how they can be better officers, but said that both the national protests as well as the claim against the department made their conversations more important than ever, emphasizing that BPD officers are trained and expected to embody the Golden Rule.
Part of those conversations, Hickey said, is discussing how BPD can address the perception that police are bad or inherently racist or influenced by an inherently racist justice system.
“We have had lots of conversations lately about how do we address this perception, even when we know that we’re trying to do the right thing and we’re doing our best or doing the right thing," Hickey said.
“I think we would be remiss if we don’t look at ourselves and see what we can do better,” Hickey said. “Even if we know that we’re doing our best or doing the right thing, we’ve got to look at ourselves and say, ‘Hey, is there something that we can do better?”
Nolensville Police Department’s Chief Roddy Parker said that those conversations are not just department-specific.
“I went to the [Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police] monthly meeting yesterday and that was one of the topics that we talked about, what can we do better as far as communication and making sure that we are doing things how we need to do them and holding our people accountable,” Parker said.
“So that conversation is going on within the police ranks but we also want to have that conversation with the community to make sure that we are doing everything that we possibly can to serve them with respect.”
Sheriff Rhoades said that in the big picture law enforcement nationally faces the challenge of keeping bad cops out, something that he said is not as much of an issue in Tennessee as chiefs and sheriff’s in Tennessee can fire a problem officer at any time.
This ability to discipline an officer when needed without facing off with a powerful police union, he said, helps law enforcement leaders in Williamson County hold their agencies accountable, something that may not be as easy in larger agencies.
TRAINING, TRAINING AND MORE TRAINING
Policastro said that part of their effort to better tackle these challenges includes policies that ensure that officers undergo 40 hours or more of continued education and training including crisis intervention and de-escalation.
“We are always looking for ways to improve our operations. In doing so, we consistently examine our policies and training to ensure that both are in line with the best practices of our profession and meet the needs of Franklin residents,” Policastro said.
Earlier in the month Gov. Bill Lee announced the Law Enforcement Reform Partnership which the state said aims to review and update use of force and duty to intervene policies over the next 60 days, increase accessibility to the National Decertification Index which tracks officer misconduct nationally, and increased training across the state for every agency.
Unfortunately for most officers, regardless of the department, their ability to handle the growing number of mental health calls is limited, and the widely discussed idea of hiring social workers or crisis intervention specialists is easier said than done both in implementation and in funding.
“Adding social workers or other community support groups may very well have their place in partnership with police departments,” Policastro said. “It is not a change that should occur without much discussion and careful planning. Should such concepts come to fruition, I envision the first steps in this process to be creating and funding pilot programs to work through the issues or rough spots that will arise, before offering such services on a larger scale. As to the funding, if such changes are what the public are seeking, they must be willing to support the funding as well.”
That sentiment was echoed by Parker.
“I just think it’s a mistake to think that shifting money from enforcement to social services is the answer,” Parker said. “It might be part of the answer, with enhancing those social services or mental health services, certainly. We deal with that all the time even in Nolensville and we’re kind of left holding the bag on that, so it would be great to have an in-house counselor that I could call to the scene to talk to someone who could talk to someone who is going through an episode.”
In addition to the challenge of responding to various mental health calls, police officers and deputes themselves often face their own struggles with the stresses of the job.
"In the 28 years that I've been here [with BPD] that's another area that's gone from night to day," Hickey said. "When I started I never knew about any support services that we had. There may have been some that were in place but it wasn't something that we talked about a lot."
Hickey said that now the department has embraced employee assistant programs, the use of chaplains, mandated counseling after high-stress or critical incidents as well as debriefings.
These services are available across the county at various agencies and serve as internal tools to help law enforcement officials cope and process stress, anxiety, trauma and grief that are part of the job, a job that every representative said has taken some kind of hit to morale over the last two months.
GETTING AND KEEPING GOOD OFFICERS
In addition to conversations and concerns around policy, law enforcement agencies across the county also struggle with the silly filling the ranks with qualified candidates.
This, nearly all of the officials we talked to said, is due to several factors including low pay for a high-stress job that at least over the past few years has been cast in a more negative light publicly.
According to Forbes, who utilized data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police officers in Tennessee make an average annual salary of $45,370.
While calls to cut funding for departments continue, the only way to attract and retain good candidates may be to simply pay more across the board, Parker said.
The national trend in shortages of police, jobs that many Williamson County law enforcement agencies have said that people just don't seem to want to take on, means that the challenge for law enforcement may only grow, and compound other issues such as attracting diversity in the ranks.
“It’s hard to get quality candidates but we want more diversity in the ranks,” Parker said. “We’re not afraid of diversity, we’ve just got to figure out how to make this more attractive because again, people are not standing in line for this [job.]”
At the end of the day, Parker said, law enforcement agencies want good officers who will act ethically and who will lead by example.
"If people want to affect change, join," Parker said. "We've got an opening right now. I know other departments that have openings that they can't fill with qualified individuals, so if you want to affect change, be a part of the change. Come be the type of police officer that you think we should be."