Following the highly-publicized and controversial officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, protests erupted nationwide. In many cities, police responded to demonstrations with overwhelming force and military hardware, and rioters reacted by setting fire to storefronts and looting local businesses. However, Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson took a dramatically different approach, instead treating the anti police brutality rallies as a type of parade or community event. Consequently, no violence or property damage took place.
At one point, protesters took over I-24 and engaged in a technically-illegal die-in, inconveniencing Nashville drivers. Recognizing that arresting all of the protesters and clearing them from the roadway would elevate hostilities and take several hours to complete, Chief Anderson, channeling the Music City’s culture of politeness, blocked I-24 to protect the protesters and drivers. The demonstrators made their point and exited the roadway within around 20 minutes. However, detractors, who would have rather seen Nashville’s top cop unleash maximum force on demonstrators, complained about the Chief’s soft response. The Tennessean is reporting that Chief Steve Anderson issued a Christmas message on December 26 in which he responded to critics, and, in so doing, laid out his philosophy on law enforcement in which Nashville police are instructed to focus on community safety, rather than revenue generation and arbitrary crackdowns over political ideology. He also expressed his view that open-mindedness holds the key to a resolution of the core issues behind the police brutality protests and said, “It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.”
Chief Anderson’s letter opened by thanking Nashville police and acknowledging that “not everyone will understand or agree with the manner in which we have responded during these demonstrations.” He told his subordinate officers, “As a member of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, you have responded to these events in a manner that clearly shows that this is a professional police department staffed by professional individuals who respect the points of view of all persons. Again, thank you for showing the Nashville public that, individually and collectively, they have a police department they can be proud of.”
However, he did not stop there. Anderson also included and responded to a letter from an anonymous detractor who complained that failing to arrest the protesters for taking over I-24 would lead to a collapse of the rule of law, endangering community safety. Nashville’s Police Chief said that the letter was representative of the views of people whose “thought processes are driven, not by what has occurred during the demonstration, but more by the social positions taken by the demonstrators.” He continued, “Clearly, they are more angry at the thoughts expressed by the demonstrators than how the demonstrations are being conducted. While I respect their right to take that position, we cannot allow those views to be a part of our decision making process. Decisions need to be made with a view toward what is best for all of Nashville.” Chief Anderson’s operating policy is to remain neutral on the political views of protesters in keeping with the First Amendment.
The critic also asked how he is supposed to teach his son to respect police who would allow protesters to get away with such lawlessness. The letter calling for a crackdown implied that Chief Anderson may have been ordered by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean not to arrest protesters.
Anderson responded generally by taking ownership of and standing by his decision, saying, “comparing the outcome here in Nashville with what has occurred in some other cities, the results speak for themselves.”
However, he also took the opportunity to explore a teachable moment regarding officer discretion in incidences in which minor violations of the law have taken place. He asked if the individual who wrote the letter would make the same complaint if he were issued a warning after committing a minor traffic violation. Chief Steve Anderson then confirmed a long-standing rumor by admitting that officers in his department institutionally give warnings rather than citations to citizens found clear of warrants and repeat offenses who commit minor traffic violations. Said Anderson, “In the year 2013, our officers made over four hundred thousand vehicle stops, mostly for traffic violations. A citation was issued in only about one in six of those stops. Five of the six received warnings. This is the police exercising discretion for minor violations of the law. Few, if any, persons would argue that the police should have no discretion.”
There is no doubt that Chief Anderson could raise significantly more revenue for the city if he ordered crackdowns on every minor offense and technicality, but his policing style is focused on community safety and harmony, rather than revenue generation. The below video contains footage of a police encounter with an officer from the Metro Nashville Police Department which was filmed by a Tennessee-based cop watcher.
Note in the video above that the cop watcher was given a polite warning about his non-functioning headlight, which could be a safety hazard, and was then allowed to go on his way. The two had a friendly, agreeable conversation about an incident in which Chief Steve Anderson criticized the Secret Service for asking his officers to fake a warrant, which they refused to do, in an effort to illegally search the home of an Obama critic.
The cop watcher in the above video had also previously recorded a July 4, 2013 stop in another county in Tennessee, in which officers appeared to coach a K-9 unit to signal the presence of drugs in an effort to conduct an illegal search. That video, seen below, went viral nationwide and demonstrates the difference between the conduct of police officers under Steve Anderson’s leadership in Nashville and others working in rural counties across the state.