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Press Releases

Cohen Reintroduces Legislation to Collect Data on Police Shootings

Press release from the Office of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; January 13, 2015:

Congressman will also introduce legislation requiring police shootings to be prosecuted by independent agency

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today reintroduced his National Statistics on Deadly Force Transparency Act, which would close a loophole in federal law that prevents adequate collection of comprehensive national data regarding justified and unjustified fatal interactions with police. Without accurate and comprehensive data, racial disparities, abuses, and instances of excessive use of force are difficult to identify and unlikely to be fixed.

“Before we can truly address the problem of excessive force used by law enforcement we have to understand the nature of the problem and that begins with accurate data,”said Congressman Cohen. “I am introducing this bill so that our country can do a better job of honestly assessing racial disparities and other problems in our justice system and begin to fix them. It is a step in the right direction and a critical component of the healing process.”

The 1994 Crime Bill requires the Attorney General to collect statistics on the use of excessive force, but the law does not provide any enforcement mechanism nor does it adequately define what “excessive force” is. As a result, the federal government has been unable to gather data from many local police departments and there are no reliable statistics on how often law enforcement uses deadly force. Congressman Cohen’s legislation would incentivize states to require local law enforcement agencies to provide data to the Attorney General on:

  • The date of each instance when deadly force was used;
  • The identifying characteristics of the victim and officer involved, including the race, gender, ethnicity, religion and approximate age of the victim;
  • Any alleged criminal behavior by the victim;
  • An explanation, if any, by the relevant law enforcement agency of why deadly force was used;
  • A copy of any use of deadly force guidelines in effect at the time at the law enforcement agency;
  • The nature of the deadly force used, including whether it involved a firearm; and
  • A description of any non-lethal efforts that were taken before deadly force was used.

This data would be made publicly available, but would not disclose any personally identifying information. Congressman Cohen also plans to introduce legislation this year that would require incidents of deadly force used by police to be investigated and, if need be, prosecuted, by an independent actor. Currently, these cases are rarely prosecuted effectively due to an obvious conflict of interest between local police and the prosecuting District Attorney, who relies on a close working relationship with those same police officers to carry out other prosecutorial duties.

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Press Releases

Tennessee Highway Patrol to Receive Top Honor for Impaired Driving Enforcement

Press Release from the Tennessee Department of Safety, Oct. 15, 2013;

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Highway Patrol has been recognized among the country’s top state police and highway patrol agencies by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

The THP earned second place in the national organization’s 2012 law enforcement challenge and won the special category award for impaired driving. Colonel Tracy Trott will accept the awards on behalf of the state’s highway patrol at the IACP annual conference in Philadelphia, Pa., next week.

The THP took top honors in the impaired driving category based on its year-round efforts to detect and apprehend drunk drivers and to address this traffic safety issue through policies, officer training and public information and education.

“DUI enforcement continues to be one of the most important duties of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. In 2012, state troopers increased the number of impaired driving arrests by over 25 percent from 2011. We are proud of the steps we have implemented to make our state safer, and more will be implemented as we move forward,” Trott said.

The THP has earned second in the overall National Law Enforcement Challenge for three consecutive years.

The National Law Enforcement Challenge is a competition between law enforcement agencies of similar sizes and types. The THP competed in the State Police/Highway Patrol category for agencies with 501-1,000 officers. As part of the challenge, the state’s Highway Patrol submitted an application documenting its efforts and effectiveness in traffic safety enforcement.

“This is a tremendous honor for the Tennessee Highway Patrol and every Tennessee State Trooper. This honor would not be possible without their commitment to traffic enforcement and public safety. They are truly Tennessee’s finest,” Commissioner Bill Gibbons said.  Commissioner Gibbons heads the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The IACP is the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization of police executive with more than 20,000 members in some 200 countries.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s (www.TN.Gov/safety) mission is to ensure that our state is a safe, secure place in which to live, work and travel; enforce the law with integrity; and provide customer-focused services professionally and efficiently.

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Press Releases

Study: Texting Bans Don’t Reduce Crashes; May Actually Increase Them

From the Highway Loss Data Institute, Sept. 29, 2010:

ARLINGTON, VA — It’s illegal to text while driving in most US states. Yet a new study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) finds no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers. In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes. This finding is based on comparisons of claims in 4 states before and after texting ban, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states.

The new findings, released today at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association, are consistent with those of a previous HLDI study, which found that banning hand-held phone use while driving doesn’t cut crashes. HLDI is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HLDI researchers calculated rates of collision claims for vehicles up to 9 years old during the months immediately before and after driver texting was banned in California (January 2009), Louisiana (July 2008), Minnesota (August 2008), and Washington (January 2008). Comparable data were collected in nearby states where texting laws weren’t substantially changed during the time span of the study. This controlled for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans — changes in the number of miles driven due to the economy, seasonal changes in driving patterns, etc.

“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in 3 of the 4 states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws,” says Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HLDI’s new findings about texting, together with the organization’s previous finding that hand-held phone bans didn’t reduce crashes, “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes,” Lund adds.

“They’re focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it. This ignores the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem.”

(Read the rest here)

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Liberty and Justice News

Juvenile Sex Offender Bill Debated

A bill to add juveniles convicted of sex crimes to adult sex offender registry rolls could come up for a committee vote this week.

House lawmakers heard more than three hours of testimony last Tuesday on a piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, who says it is necessary both to protect the public as well as line Tennessee up to receive a bigger chunk of federal law enforcement subsidies.

The bill would apply to offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 who are convicted of aggravated rape, rape, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated rape of a child, rape of a child if the victim is at least four years younger than the offender, or attempt to commit any of those crimes.

A juvenile would be placed on the registry after their second offense. Those who mental health officials deem to be at “high risk” to re-offend would be added to the registry after their first offense. Offenders would be on the registry for 25 years.

“Frankly, I don’t care if the rapist living next door is 51-years-old or 15-years-old – I think I have a right to know where he is,” said Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookville, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Testifying in favor of the measure, Sumner County District Attorney General Ray Whitley declared that “knowledge is power,” and said the bill ultimately serves the purpose of giving parents a better ability to protect their children from attack by sexual predators, regardless of the offender’s age.

“Do you want to place emphasis on protecting the juvenile offenders, or do you want to place emphasis on juvenile victims – the little six-year-old, the little four-year-old whose parents might not have known that there is a violent sex offender living next door or going to church with them?” said the prosecutor. “Who do you want to protect?”

Opponents of the bill say it goes too far, and that it basically crosses a line at which giving a lasting stigma to a youthful violent sex offender becomes more risky to the community than not allowing the public immediate access to juveniles convicted of the crimes.

“For most of these kids, this is a life sentence,” said Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Carlton Lewis. Adding them to sex offender rolls would result in the juveniles being “branded for life,” he said.

Another judge said juvenile offenders should not be treated the same as adult offenders.

“If we want to treat sex offenders like we treat adult sex offenders, let’s adjudicate it all in Sessions Court and Criminal Court, said Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin. “That’s what Juvenile Court is about. Juvenile Court, sometimes, is about taking chances.”

Supporters of the legislation, like one woman who testified that her 5-year-old son was molested, said public identification of sex offenders is a necessity, even if the offenders are juveniles. She also said she would check the registry to make sure her son was not around juveniles who have had a history of sexual offenses.

One mother of a juvenile sex offender said she too supports a registry. Not only would it make neighborhoods and communities safer, but it’d also help protect offenders liker her son “from his own self and his own actions,” she said.

Ultimately, developing a juvenile registry might lead to fewer cases being reported, said Trudy Hughes of the Blount County Child Advocacy Center.

“In 90 to 95 percent of these cases, there is a knowing and trusting relationship between the parties involved,” she said. “That often impacts reporting already.”

Dr. Bill Murphy, a psychiatrist who treats juvenile sex offenders in Memphis, said “most of the research would say” establishing a registry would be ineffective in protecting the community, he said.

Murphy added that it would also be difficult for law enforcement and probation officers to keep up with those on the registry because they are already stretched thin just keeping tabs on adult offenders.

Lawmakers on the panel say they’re interested in trying to balance concern for public safety and the effects the law could have on juvenile offenders.

“I think I’m struggling like most other people,” said Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma. “I think these egregious offenses have got to be put on some type of registry where the public has to be made aware of them. But at the same time, I think we’re painting too many of our citizens into a corner one way or another and condemning them to a life that’s never going to be productive.”

Matheny suggested the cases be handled in juvenile court, then have a different judge review the case and the progress the teen has made in therapy 90 days before the teen’s 18th birthday. That final judge would decide if the teen belongs on the registry.

Another suggestion was to have mental health professionals assess and decide whether the teen belongs on the registry. A third suggestion in committee would make the registry only available to law enforcement.

A companion bill in the Senate has yet to be taken up by that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

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Press Releases

Rep. Maggart and Sen. Black Want Violent Juveniles on Sex Offender Registry

Press Release from State Representative Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville) and Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), Dec. 7, 2009:

NASHVILLE – Rep. Maggart and Sen. Black will push for passage of legislation in January to place violent juvenile offenders on Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry as required under the federal Adam Walsh Act. The legislators introduced legislation today to place offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 years of age on the Registry.

“We are trying to protect children who are victims of this crime,” said Rep. Maggart. “The safety of children overrides concerns regarding information being available about the juvenile who must register as a result of being convicted of this violent crime. We are talking about rape, aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child. These are serious adult crimes committed by a juvenile that most commonly occur with very young victims who must be protected.”

The adoption of this legislation would put Tennessee into compliance with the requirements for juveniles to be placed on state’s Sex Offender Registries under the Adam Walsh Act which was scheduled to go into effect in 2009. Tennessee was awarded over $50 million in Byrne Grant funding last year, 10 percent of which could be in jeopardy unless the state adheres to these requirements.

However, in June U.S. Attorney General Anthony Holder signed a one year agreement to extend the deadline for states to comply with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. Only Ohio has complied with the law thus far.

“Tennessee has made very good progress at protecting children against child sexual predators, but we have still have a hurdle to overcome by placing these violent juvenile offenders age 14 and older on the Registry,” said Black.

“Although the risk of repeating the crime is not quite as high as adult sex offenders, it still presents enough of a threat to require placing these offenders on the Registry,” she continued. “We would like to believe that juveniles could not commit these types of horrible crimes. However, the fact remains that they do and children must be protected.”

“When there is this threat to the community, parents should have the right to know that the perpetrator has this history of sexual violence against children,” added Maggart. “Whether or not the perpetrator is 17 or 24 years old, child sexual offenders can be dangerous to children in the community and should be placed on the Registry as required by the Walsh Act. Hopefully, we will pass this legislation in the 2010 legislative session.”

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Press Releases

Bredesen Names Gayle Ray to Lead Department of Correction

State of Tennessee Press Release, Dec. 04, 2009:

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today appointed Gayle Ray to be the next Commissioner of the Department of Correction.

Ray will assume her new role on January 1, 2010, following the departure of current Correction Commissioner George Little, who earlier this week announced he will leave Bredesen’s cabinet on December 31 to become chief administrative officer for newly-elected Memphis Mayor AC Wharton. Ray currently serves as deputy commissioner in the Department of Correction.

“I’m pleased to appoint Gayle to this position and appreciate her willingness to serve our state in this important role,” Bredesen said. “Her experience in corrections and law enforcement includes service at the state and local levels, and she is the right person to assume leadership of our efforts to the department.”

Tennessee’s Department of Correction is responsible for supervising and rehabilitating convicted offenders. The department operates 14 prisons and correctional facilities across the state that house more than 19,000 inmates. The department also operates the Tennessee Correctional Academy in Tullahoma, which serves as the state’s primary training and staff development program for correction workers.

“I appreciate the opportunity to serve Governor Bredesen and the State of Tennessee as commissioner,” Ray said. “Under the leadership of Governor Bredesen and Commissioner Little, the department has made great strides to ensure public safety by better preparing prisoners for a successful return to the community, and I intend to continue leading the department toward this important goal.”

Ray served as sheriff of Davidson County from 1994 to 2002, during which time the Metro jail system became the first jail system in the country to be fully accredited. She also developed systems to help offenders with mental illness, initiated graduated sanctions and started a number of rehabilitative programs to help offenders re-enter the community.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Middle Tennessee State University, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Arkansas and a Master’s of Business Administration from Belmont University. Ray is a recipient of the Athena Award, the YWCA Academy for Women of Achievement Award and the Public Relations Society of America’s Apollo Award.

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Liberty and Justice News

Senator Set to Reload in Guns-and-Booze Battle

The chief Senate advocate for allowing legally permitted handgun carriers to possess their firearms in certain eating establishments where alcohol is served said he’s close to unveiling “a general improvement on the law” for the coming session.

While the language is still in draft phase, the changes that Sen. Doug Jackson says he and fellow co-sponsors plan to propose for the guns-in-restaurants law will clarify some key issues of contention and address the constitutional worries a Nashville judge outlined in a ruling last month.

“If somebody is concerned about vagueness, that is going to be addressed,” Jackson, a Democrat from Dickson, said Friday morning.

In a Nov. 20 bench ruling, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman took aim at the Tennessee Legislature’s recent firearms-law adjustment, saying it was “fraught with ambiguity.”

Before the 2009 General Assembly made it legally permissible for a non-drinking gun-permit holder to carry in certain businesses where both food and alcohol was sold,  state law unequivocally banned pistol packing anywhere beer and cocktails were served.

Bonnyman said she had specific problems with a new provision that states, “the serving of…meals shall be the principal business conducted” in order that handguns might be allowed on the property.

“The new exception of the prohibition against firearms where alcohol is served creates ambiguity where none existed before, and is vague on its face in that it fails to satisfy the constitutional standards of fair warning and fair enforcement,” said the judge.

Furthermore, she added, police officers “are no better suited to make the difficult judgment call as to whether the serving of meals constitutes the principle business of an establishment, such that the presence of a handgun on the premises would be legal or illegal.”

Beyond clearing up the uncertainties Bonnyman outlined, Jackson said the bill-language he plans to introduce will also clarify what sort of signage a restaurant-owner should post to avoid any legal confusion as to whether guns are permitted in the place of business.

Every establishment-owner has the “preeminent right” to ban guns if he or she chooses, and violators are subject to $500 fines, said Jackson.

“We’re going to address that issue head on,” said Jackson. “We want the property owners to know what is an effective posting. And by the same token, we also don’t want the permit holders to be guessing what is, or is not, an effective posting.”

In his view, Jackson said drawing distinctions between primarily eating establishments versus 21-and-over bars and taverns is mostly just an effort “to create standards of behavior for people who legally carry guns.”

“What we’re doing is regulating law abiding citizens,” he said. “As to whether those regulations are necessary, there is a debate, but I would suggest that if you look around the country at all the states and all the body of law, what you are going to find is that law-abiding citizens simply are not the problem.”

He predicted the Legislature “will act quickly and decisively” in 2010 to pass revisions to the guns-in-restaurants law.

“I suspect there will be a lot of support, just like there was last year,” Jackson said. “We’ll address the judge’s ruling, and then we’ll move on to bigger issues.”

Opponents of the law – which was approved over the veto of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen – promise another tough fight ahead and say a recent Middle Tennessee State University poll showing 60 percent of state residents opposes allowing guns in restaurants, and 80 percent oppose guns in bars, indicates the general public does not support the new law.

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Liberty and Justice News

Seeking Consensus on Traffic Cameras

Instead of slamming the brakes on red-light traffic cameras, House Transportation Committee members have tentatively agreed to try and hash out a three-part proposal to guide and regulate their use instead.

The rough plan, which includes a series of studies and a possible moratorium on new red light cameras, would give lawmakers more tools – and time – to decide the ultimate role the new technology will play in Tennessee communities.

Still, a number of lawmakers haven’t backed off their basic objections with the red-light cameras, saying both that the photos they take subvert civil liberties and that the private camera-vendors collect too much profit off the issuance of violations.

But the hope is to approve one comprehensive plan and move it through the Legislature, according to Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who chairs the committee.

The panel batted around ideas Wednesday, including a plan by Maryville Republican Rep. Joe McCord to shuffle profits from citations to drivers education or trauma services statewide.

McCord, a vocal opponent of red light cameras, introduced legislation last year banning the technology. He has since dropped the ban, saying he now sees a safety value of the system, but he’s still uncomfortable with how the ticket-generated revenues are divvied up.

Many on the 12-member House Transportation Committee agree that the private traffic-camera service-providers currently have too much unchecked, profit-driven power over motorists.

The vendors capture alleged violations on camera, examine the pictures, cross reference the information with the Department of Motor Vehicles, then mail out the citations. In return, they receive the lion’s share of fines collected.

Harmon wants the state comptroller to take a hard look at the traffic cameras and report back to lawmakers on issues like what impact the systems have on vehicle crashes, the make-up of traffic-camera service contracts, and detail as to how citation revenues are spent.

Harmon also wishes to see the state Department of Transportation conduct an engineering study on each intersection proposed to use a traffic camera, and added he hopes to ban all unmanned speed cameras on state highways.

While many lawmakers on the panel generally seemed supportive of Harmon’s ideas, some still argue the cameras are unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. “If it intrudes a little, it’s too much,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican.

A study (pdf) by the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research released earlier this year argued that traffic-enforcement cameras are unwise, unnecessary and unsafe.

The City of Gallatin collected nearly $1 million in traffic citations linked to the traffic cameras in 2007, according to TCPR’s study. At least 16 Tennessee cities use some sort of traffic camera: Chattanooga, Clarksville, Cleveland, Gallatin, Germantown, Jackson, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Knoxville, Memphis, Morristown, Mount Carmel, Murfreesboro, Oak Ridge, Red Bank and Selmer.

“There’s a lot of money being made here,” said TCPR policy director Justin Owen, an attorney who co-authored the report.

Instead of installing cameras, he says lawmakers should require municipalities to extend the length of the yellow light, giving drivers more time to travel through the intersection instead of stopping short for fear of a traffic ticket.

“The mere presence of the watchful cameras encourages drivers to attempt to stop at yellow lights even if passing through the light would be safer. Coupled with a decrease in yellow light timing, this can readily explain the increase in the number of rear-end collisions that occur at intersections with red light cameras,” stated the TCPR report.

Rep. John Tidwell, an engineer from New Johnsonville, says he’ll push lengthening the yellow light next year.

The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police maintains that the cameras help enforce the rules of the road, reduce crashes and generally improve safety, said Maggi Duncan, executive director. The association plans to push for the red light and speed cameras this legislative session.

The committee hopes to formulate an initial legislative proposal at their next meeting on Jan. 11.

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Liberty and Justice News

Lawmakers Focusing on Possible New Traffic-Camera Rules

Traffic cameras may be growing in popularity among local governments and law enforcement agencies across the country, but some state lawmakers are questioning whether they belong in Tennessee.

Some say the cameras – which snap pictures when motorists drive through a stop light – are simply a tool to raise money.

“There’s no doubt that in some places it’s not about safety. It’s about revenue,” said Rep. Richard Floyd, a Chattanooga Republican.

House lawmakers examining the use of the high-tech traffic enforcement tools plan on introducing bills next year that could create statewide guidelines on the sorts of intersections where cameras could be used, and lengthening the duration of a yellow light before it turns red.

New Johnsonville Democrat John Tidwell, a civil engineer, said yield signals made one second longer will help reduce vehicle crashes, and he hinted he’ll push that issue in the coming session.

Also under discussion are laws to prohibit speeding-enforcement and stoplight-cameras completely.

The cameras are typically operated by private companies that set up the equipment, snap photos, evaluate violations and mail tickets to vehicle owners. Those organizations also receive a chunk of the revenues collected by violators, which is adding to the unease and outright opposition some critics are voicing.

Red-light cameras are under fire right now in a lawsuit arguing that traffic enforcement systems are operating illegally because they’re not properly licensed. Other suits attacking the practice have cropped up around the country.

Lawmakers Tuesday heard from Gordon Catlett, a patrol-support commander for the Knoxville Police Patrol Division who is a supporter of the cameras – and threat of a ticket – to change driver behavior.

“A lot of us treat a traffic signal like a yield sign,” he said.

The Transportation Committee will meet again Wednesday morning to discuss possible alternatives to traffic cameras, and ways to tinker with the system already in place.