Town Hall Meeting or Public Relations Event?

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by Terry Lee Derrick
Staff writer

Tonight I attended what was called a town hall meeting with the Chief of Nashville’s police department Ronal Serpas. The meeting was arranged by the Tennessee Equality Project, which is affiliated with the Human Rights Campaign who also had representatives in attendance. One of the things that stood out to me the most about the meeting was that neither the TEP nor HRC participated in the event personally as far as questions or explanations. The TEP had met with Chief Serpas privately in the last few days and had asked, and presumably had answered for them, questions regarding the chat room arrest incident that prompted the town hall meeting as it were. About the only thing that was said by either of these parties was a member of the HRC coming to the defense of the police’s use of tasers by way of his experience in the military.

I think it was an injustice to the people in attendance to not know what questions had already been asked or how they were answered. Everyone there was left to their own devices to ask questions of a very defensive and aggressive Chief Serpas without knowing what if anything had already been discussed or if any pertinent questions had been satisfactorily answered.

Chief Serpas made several vague statements to the effect of “What if I were to ask one you about your business…” which seemed to imply that those of us there were somehow wrong for asking him about his; which was the point of his being there I thought. I believe the point of the meeting was for him to help us understand his business, not necessarily to defend it, even if his defending was a part of that process. He said he felt defensive and he behaved in an “offence is the best defense” kind of manner throughout.

I asked several questions none of which seemed to illicit an answer that was not evasive or political. I asked if using the money and manpower that was involved in their chat room stings to arrest a few individuals with small amounts of drugs was really addressing the larger problem of drug manufacture and sales. After some skirting of the issue Serpas finally said “We have made over 300 drug related arrest (the six Hermitage officers I presume) sixteen of which were from those operations and I am proud that we have been able to do that for the community”, or something to that effect, to which the crowd at the meeting actually applauded this overtly general and political sweeping generalization. When I pressed him to address the small amount of progress from this specific operation he managed to evade the question yet again. When I asked him how officers whose specific job is drug enforcement had no knowledge of whether a certain substance was illegal or not he replied “The suspect said it was” to which I had to laugh and ask “Is the suspect being depended on to be the expert?” And why are they taking so long (months) to decide if said substance is illegal? That certainly looks like trying to cover ones behind some way.

I was truly surprised, shocked really, how so many at the meeting were so anxious to “make nice” and move on; or so it seemed. The general feeling, with the exception of a few brave souls, was “Oh thank you very much for being here and telling us you like us and understand us and have no agenda against us” the end.

What I have witnessed since my move to Nashville when it comes to the police or politics is that a lot of people here are very well trained to not question authority and if they have the temerity to do so then they will be admonished like children as those of us at the meeting were by the police Chief tonight. This kind of role playing and anxiousness to “make nice” does not help us; it only window dresses and is a game we can’t afford to keep playing.

I really think tonight’s event would have been greatly helped by the overt support of the HRC and TEP by speaking to those of us gathered there about what their exchange and opinions were regarding their meeting with the Chief. I felt the people there needed, and should have had, that kind of support.

I appreciate all parties showing up and participating but we have to be more persistent in the future in our willingness to ask the hard questions and also having them answered.