A Conversation with John Drake, Recently Appointed Chief of MNPD

Native Nashvillian Has Long Track Record of Reaching out to Diverse Communities, including LGBTQ+ Community

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In 1988, John Drake, a young African American man, born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, was hired by the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD), beginning his police service in the Patrol Division. Thirty-two years later, on November 30, 2020, he was appointed Chief of Police.

During the intervening years, Drake has served his community and MNPD in many capacities. Besides Patrol, he also served roles as diverse as the Narcotics Unit, where he investigated serious drug crimes, to the Police Athletic League, where he began a children’s basketball program that quickly expanded from 100 to 1,300+ participants.

As a leader in MNPD, Drake has policed the police from the Office of Professional Accountability, led the Investigations Unit in the Hermitage Precinct, and served as the first male captain of the Domestic Violence Division, where he implemented processes and procedures that still find wide application. He has served as commander of the Central Precinct and as Deputy Chief over the Support Services Bureau, with oversight of units ranging from SWAT to Fleet Operations. And from August 2020 until his formal hiring in November, Drake has served as Interim Chief of MNPD.

I spoke with Chief Drake this week about his appointment, and how he hopes to reshape the MNPD and its role and reputation in the Greater Nashville community.

Grady: What were some of the priorities that city leaders expressed when looking for a new chief, and how did you, as an applicant, fit those priorities?

Drake: What they expressed was that [they wanted] someone that could be a relationship builder, with the community, someone that was a good listener and also a good communicator.

Then they wanted to see about someone that could reimagine how we police. And I had some ideas that we’re implementing. The biggest one is community engagement, moving away from the proactive style of policing and saturating neighborhoods, but actually trying to identify problem people and prevent those issues through arrest or intervention.

We know we can’t arrest our way out of it, but we want to use our stakeholders, different groups. Some of this is drug addiction, mental illness, and other issues. So maybe we can get people the help they need and keep them from going down the path.

Then, there’s the pandemic… I’ve been able to try to gain compliance not only in the downtown core, but throughout the city. We’ve got officers pretty much around the clock trying to help mitigate this virus.

Grady: When you talk about involving more social services, what does that look like from your perspective? I know that many people who describe their community proposal as defunding the police would describe their goals similarly.

Drake: Well, when I look at defunding, when you look at a police budget, about 90% of it is personnel, so any money that we take away from it is means a reduction of officers. We’re 100 officers short: we’re allocated for 1511. We have 1411. Even if we were fully staffed, we would still be about 300 officers short of what we think we need to keep Nashville safe the way we wanted.

But I do think that we should be involving more social services. But I feel we should be involved with that, so we’re looking at crisis intervention. When someone’s in crisis, sometimes when officers respond in uniform, it escalates the situation. And so my vision is that we have plainclothes officer teaming with mental health experts that can co-respond to these calls to help people that are in crisis.

From there, we can team with places like Sheriff Hall’s Behavioral Care Center, to get people in for services, because a lot of this has to do with underlying factors. It’s not just people wanting to commit criminal acts. They’re addicted or have unaddressed mental health issues and all those other factors.

I see our school resource officers doing more and teaming more with maybe social workers in schools, and not playing the bully role of arresting kids. They’re not there for security, they’re there to build relationships. And then, if they do have to make an arrest of someone that’s violated a law—gun in school or something like that—then do so, but actually be there to help teach, to help mentor, and work with people from social services.

Grady: The staffing issue seems like it’s a perennial issue. But it also is an opportunity. I hear from a lot of people that they wish we had a police force that better reflected our communitymore racial diversity, more LGBT officers, etc. What is your vision for recruiting to fill those positions and building the police force?

Drake: That’s hugely important. One of the first things I did was … we started a recruitment unit with full-time officers. When I first applied for the police department, which was a LONG time ago, I had to go to the Stallman Building and physically fill out the paperwork. It was so much you took it with you brought it back and went through the process. When technology evolved, you went to a nashville.gov website and clicked on all these links.

So now we will also go out and proactively recruit people like we would do athletes: we want you on the police department. So we have a recruitment unit that includes LGBTQ officers, female officers, African American officers, Hispanic officers… And they can actually go out and recruit.

The way I look at it, we only have 24 female African American officers. We only have 156 women, and 211 minorities, and that’s unacceptable for an agency that’s in such a diverse city? When we look at the ranks, we have to build diversity, to recruit diversity. If we build a diverse body of officers, men and women, then we will be able to promote more diverse leaders to Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and so forth.

We just made promotions that better reflect the diversity of Nashville. But it’s important to know that they’re very knowledgeable. Everyone that makes the Captain and Command level is more than knowledgeable enough to be in a leadership position. Our executive team now has three African American men, including myself, two female officers, one LGBTQ… So it’s well balanced, and very diverse. And I think it just builds a great work atmosphere, and people learn to work together understand each other, and it makes a positive environment.

Grady: What do you think are some of the benefits of having a diverse police force and diverse leadership?

Drake: People fear what they don’t know, and so until we get to know each other, then it’s going to always be that division. If we can get out into our communities, and whether it’s African American community, or Hispanic or LGBTQ, and start communicating, collaborating, and then I think it’s going to lead to great inroads in the future. And I just think that’s just a positive way for us to do it…

Grady: You mentioned earlier that when officers show up in uniform, it can sometimes escalate situations. How do you how do you overcome that psychological barrier? And how do officers maintain their calm when things get heated?

Drake:  Well, the main thing is to engage the community to learn each other people. People fear what they don’t know. So as we get out in these communities and engage, then that’s going to help.

So we build those relationships, and when things happen, we have to learn to de-escalate, whether someone’s yelling at you, or whatever is going on—and learn to show restraint. And then people respect you more later, so I think it’s important to retain your composure in those types of situations.

Grady: Do you have a vision for developing your officers, and providing them additional training, going forward?

Drake: Oh absolutely it is a huge priority, even for leadership to continue developing. I’ve gone through all kinds of leadership programs around the country and have mentors that helped me along the way. I went through a program called the Police Executive Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., and so I’m assigned a mentor, Michael Harrison, who’s the commissioner in Baltimore. And so we talk all the time. Whenever I need to talk about anything, whether it’s police related, being a chief, or just talking about life, I can do that.

So I feel continuing ed is very important. One, if you have your degree, you can move up into the leadership ranks, so you really need to get that. Two, whatever division you’re in, build upon that. If you’re in homicide, you can go to those schools to learn to be the best detective you can be. Or if you’re on a bike, you can go to a bike school to be the best… It really enhances what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re doing for the community.

We do that quite well—we send a lot of people all over the country, and then we do a lot of train the trainer programs, so they can come back and train officers, as well. And so I think it’s a win for everyone you.

Grady: Where do you see opportunities for the police to grow in their role in Nashville in positive ways?

Drake: I think the most positive way is just engage in community. Having a diverse workforce that can go out and mix and mingle with the community. People talk to people they can relate to. If you’re African American, I go places … I can go to the Citizens Police Academy, and there’ll be someone that’s African American or Hispanic will want to take a picture or want to talk about something. Or if someone knows you’re LGBTQ, they may want to talk to you more. So I believe building a very diverse workforce is one of the major things we can do to help build those relationships.

Grady: Do you feel like the liaison positions have shown the effectiveness of that? Or have helped in some of these situations?

Drake: I think so. And we’re actually expanding upon that even more. So we’re combining that with Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships. And so, not only with the LGBTQ community, but all the communities.

For instance, the Kurdish and Muslim communities expressed that they haven’t had a relationship with the police department… So we’re going back to that, having meetings with them, and they’re going to do a town hall the first part of January.

Another example, we have a Laotian officer that can connect us with that community and build those inroads. it’s a very big and diverse community, that we need to be able to service more and relate to and have those communications.

Grady: So you, personally … what are your goals and priorities as you’re just getting you’re getting your feet wet as the as the permanent chief. What do you want to do most?

Drake: What I want to do most is just reimagine how we connect with communities. And so we’re doing that. Second is to build the diversity within a department to more reflect the community. But then also we need to have a new approach to violent crime.

Violent crime is up around the country, and it’s up here too. We have homicides up over 34%, aggravated assaults up over 18%, thefts from vehicles … we have over 2000 guns stolen from vehicles. All that is connected. Something that’s troubling to me … in one week alone, we had a 12- and 14-year-old that were stopped in a stolen vehicle that had a gun. They were trying to ditch the gun, and it went off as officers approached, but thankfully no one was hurt. That same week, we had another situation on the interstate where we have a 12- and 14-year-old killed, and a 16- and 14-year-old that were injured, by gunfire and a stolen vehicle at 3am.

So we are trying to figure out a way to connect with families, to send a message out to families and say, “Hey, if you’re experiencing problems, reach out to us, let us try to connect you with advocates or other services to help you with your kid in need.” Because some people feel like they’re traveling this road alone, or they may be embarrassed, and I know how that can feel. But if we can show where were wanting to do more to help the families, I think it’s going to go a long way.

Grady: Is there anything that you would like to say directly to the LGBT community about, about the relationship there?  I know that you’ve been part of fostering the relationship with our community.

Absolutely, we appreciate the partnerships we have, and we want to expand on that. We want to do more, so if there’s anything that anybody wants us to do more of, or feels that we’re not doing enough of, let us know. We want to continue building those connections to become more of a community where everyone feels safe and accepted. We want to connect and be a servant to you.