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Metro Nashville Police Department attempts to close demographics gap

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

By Connor Burnard, Studio M staff //

On Dec. 19 a new class of 49 police recruits graduated from the Metro Nashville Police Department Training Academy. These cadets were recruited and trained using strategies encouraged by Mayor Megan Barry and the Metro Nashville government to improve diversity at the MNPD.

The MNPD’s Police Training Academy sits on Tucker Road in the Bordeaux neighborhood of Nashville, Tenn., where it was built in December 1974. The Academy began training sessions in January 1975 and has graduated over 80 sessions in 42 years. (Photo by Connor Burnard)

In 2016 Mayor Barry created the position of Chief Diversity Officer and appointed Michelle Hernandez-Lane to the role to help diversify the Metro Nashville government, including the Metro Nashville Police Department, a force with demographics that are significantly disproportionate to the demographics of Davidson County, with graduating classes of approximately 80 percent white cadets when Barry took office. Of the 61 police officer trainees on Metro’s payroll as of Oct. 2, 52 are white, seven are black, one is Hispanic and one is Asian.

While the role of Chief Diversity Officer is now unfulfilled since Hernandez-Lane became head of Metro’s Procurement Division in June 2017, recruitment and training techniques in the MNPD continue to attempt to bridge the gap between the police and the communities they serve.

“If you are in the business of service, which we are… our department should reflect the community we’re serving,” said Sgt. Clifton Knight, a 12-year veteran of the MNPD and a recruiter for the department. “It builds trust… We see each other and have an understanding, ‘It’s relaxed, I see somebody that’s like me.’”

In a July 2016 article, The Tennessean detailed some of these diversification efforts and highlighted the unusually large disparity between the MNPD and Nashville’s citizens. In 2013, the MNPD had 85 percent white officers, while Nashville had a 56 percent white population.

According to the Metro Nashville Open Data Portal, over 79 percent of all full-time MNPD employees were white as of October 2017. Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau for July 2016 say Davidson County’s white population has remained at just over 56 percent.

In addition to having a 23 percent higher white population, the October 2017 MNPD statistics include just over 13 percent black full-time employees, opposed to Davidson County’s 28 percent black population. The MNPD also only had about two percent Hispanic or Latino employees, while Davidson County had a Hispanic or Latino population of about 10 percent.

“We try (to recruit diversity,) but the numbers don’t reflect that, so that sometimes may look like we’re not trying, but we’re going to always keep trying,” Knight said. “We’re not there. Can we be better? Yes. Is it as bad as I think the public perceives? It’s not. … We can always be better, but we’re trying, and I think that’s the key.”

According to some MNPD officers and officer trainees, efforts to diversify the department are continuing and have been a part of training and recruiting for years.

Knight detailed a number of community events that the MNPD hosted or participated in as part of the effort to increase recruiting in diverse communities, like presentations at comprehensive high schools in inner-city Nashville and historically black universities like Tennessee State University and Fisk University and attending Nashville Pride and neighborhood events in diverse Nashville areas like Woodbine and Lockeland Springs.

“My idea is to try to recruit so we can reflect the citizens and growth of Nashville, and I think we’re making the effort to get there, and we will,” Knight said.

Officer Gary Bridgeman, a member of the training staff at the MNPD’s Police Training Academy, agrees with Knight about the importance of representation of the community in the demographics of the police department.

“If a person wants help and they look and they don’t see a face that looks familiar, then what’s going to end up happening is they’ll feel they don’t trust us,” said Bridgeman.

Bridgeman also emphasized the intensity of the department’s training in racial sensitivity to be respectful.

“It should not be based on color or demographics or what you make or what you drive,” Bridgeman said. “You treat everybody with dignity by showing them respect. Everybody, even if it’s a suspect. … If you have a bias, if you have an inclination that is against somebody, this isn’t for you.”

The MNPD’s Police Training Academy is located on Tucker Road in the Bordeaux neighborhood northwest of downtown, which is home to the second-most diverse zip code in Davidson County with an 80 percent nonwhite population, according to 2010 Census Bureau estimates.

Chad Brooks, 29, and Jeremy Arrington, 23, two of the seven current black police officer trainees at the MNPD Academy, are both recent MTSU graduates. They say they hope their decision to join the MNPD will allow them to participate in an amendment of the tumultuous recent climate of police-community relations.

“With the African-American community, with all the atrocities that have been going on in the past, say, three years, it’s a hype moment for me to be that positive image,” said Brooks.

“It’s something that I always wanted to do, but in (the opinion of some)… the police are always bad, always wrong,” said Arrington. “To change that, for the new recruits, there’s going to have to be a major effort within the community… to show them how much we are involved and how much we do care.”

Corey Ethridge and Stephen Johnston, also current police officer trainees, say that increasing diversity and awareness can help officers be more reliable for the public.

“Obviously, you don’t want to go around offending the people who call you to protect them or call you because they have an issue they need your assistance with,” said Etheridge. “In my (training) class … we have all these people from different states, so they bring different cultural awarenesses from the areas that they’re from.”

“The goal is to provide the absolute best service that we possibly can to the public,” said Johnston. “I don’t think having a diversified police department is going to have any kind of negative consequences at all. If demographics do (change), it just helps provide better service to the people.”

In order to improve race relations between communities and their police departments, the general public should avoid generalizations and keep an open mind to the good that police do, according to Officer Victoria Cunningham, a member of the training staff at the Police Training Academy.

“Every lawyer isn’t crooked, every doctor isn’t trying to take all your money. If everyone remembers that and looks at that as far as police go, I think that would help,” said Cunningham. “As far as recruiting goes, you have to keep pushing. You cannot give up, showing the positive side (of police work).”

Although diversification to match the demographics of the citizens of Davidson County is a key focus in some of the MNPD’s recruitment and training techniques, the main goal of the department is to unify, according to Bridgeman.

“When it comes to the concept of diversity, we’re really big on the unifying side,” Bridgeman said. “Because it’s really good to have all of our differences. Those are valuable and they bring things to the table. But hand-in-hand with that is the ability to work together.”

Connor Burnard is a sophomore studying physical geography at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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