Tennessee governor signs off on eliminating community boards with police oversight power

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI from the Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday signed off on legislation that will gut Tennessee’s community oversight boards and instead replace those panels with review committees that have no power to investigate police misconduct allegations.

FILE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The Republican Lee says he plans to call the Tennessee’s legislature into special session in August to consider ways to further tighten Tennessee’s gun laws. (AP Photo/George Walker IV, File)

Lee, a Republican, quietly enacted the measure after the GOP-dominated General Assembly easily pushed through the proposal during this year’s legislative session despite objections from local officials and Democratic lawmakers. They have pointed to the killing of Tyre Nichols — who died after a brutal beating by five Memphis police officers — as a reason to maintain police accountability across the state.

Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1, community oversight boards will now be transformed into “police advisory and review committees,” which will only allow the mayor-appointed members to refer complaints to law enforcement internal affairs units rather than allowing the board to independently investigate the complaints.

Republican lawmakers pushed for the bill as part of a long string of proposals targeting Nashville and other left-leaning cities this year in an attempt to undermine local authorities. Supporters argued that the law was needed to provide uniformity across the state and said, without showing evidence, that some community oversight boards had hindered police investigations.

This is the second time over the years that Republican lawmakers have sought to limit community oversight boards. In 2019, the Legislature required community oversight board members to be registered to vote and prohibited limiting membership based on demographics, economic status or employment history. Additionally, while documents provided to the community oversight boards were deemed confidential, the board’s subpoena power was reduced.

The move came as Nashville voters approved creating a community oversight board just the year before that had subpoena power.

Separately, Knoxville has had a police review committee since 1998 — which includes subpoena power, but it’s never been exercised — and Memphis established its civilian law enforcement review board in 1994 but cannot subpoena officers to come in and testify.

Lee signed off on the contentious bill as he continues to move through the remaining bills passed in the legislative session that ended last month. He has never vetoed a bill in office, but occasionally he has let bills become law without signing them to signal his disapproval or concern over a change.

This week, Lee signed the proposal he backed to raise the minimum teacher salary gradually up to $50,000 for the 2026-2027 school year, while also banning educators from deducting dues for professional organizations from their paychecks. The second component takes aim at the Tennessee Education Association.

In recent days, he also signed bills that protect teachers from lawsuits if they don’t use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns; block state economic incentives for companies when unions try to use the simpler “card-check” method to unionize, with an exception for a big Ford project; and a series of business tax cuts paired with three months of tax-free shopping on many grocery items.

In the wake of a deadly school shooting in March, Lee also has signed off on increased protection from lawsuits for companies in the gun industry, while also approving funding for a variety of school safety upgrades. Lee has announced a special legislative session in August in which he hopes lawmakers will pass a proposal to remove firearms from people judged dangerous to themselves or others.