Metro police, gay leadership clash over suspicious drug arrests

When Chris Sanders put down his copy of the alt-weekly newspaper, Nashville Scene, in late June, he knew some clarification was required.

“We wondered – are discriminatory practices being employed by the metro police force?” he said.

Sanders is a board member of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), a grassroots organization formed last year to combat a proposed anti-marriage amendment to the Tennessee constitution. Recently, the group has expanded its reach to promote and endorse equality for GLBT Tennesseans beyond just that issue.

The article in question, “Policing Gays,” detailed the experience of a gay man pseudonymously named Steve and lambasted the Metro Nashville Police Department for its continued use of “confidential informants” in order to maintain the peace.

As detailed in the article, Steve unwittingly coordinated a tryst online with a confidential informant monitored by police and, when he arrived at his supposed suitor’s apartment, he was busted for possessing a controlled substance: amyl nitrates. Though explicitly reported in the article, the details of the sexual exchange that was planned between Steve and his intended short-term inamorato was of little interest to police. The bust, police claim, was purely for the sake of apprehending drug users.

Suddenly believing that the four youthful plainclothes officers who met him at the door to be gay bashers (in place of the single male who’s photo he saw online), Steve ran for his life. It took an unbelievable three shots from a Taser gun before he was contained.

As detailed in the story, Steve had only a bottle of amyl nitrates – “poppers” – in his possession when he was arrested. Though all 16 of the other arrests that came about during that sting contained illicit drugs such as cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and marijuana, the focus on Steve and his poppers turned the story in a direction that temporarily outraged Nashville’s GLBT leadership and either enraged or confused others in the community. (see related story, “News Analysis”)

“Rhonda White called the chief of police for a meeting,” Sanders said. “Over the weekend (June 25, 26), it was set up. It took place on the 27th at 3:00pm.” He said everyone in the accompanying photo – in addition to the photographer, Nashville Police Spokesman Don Aaron – were in attendance.

“There was a lot of airing of views about the story itself,” Sanders said. “TEP asked questions with respect to the police use of chatrooms.” He said both Brandon Hutchison, president of TEP, as well as Chief of Police Ronal Serpas were forwarding “letters to the editor” to Nashville Scene. They were scheduled for publication in the July 6 issue.

Sanders found the meeting productive. It identified ways local police and the GLBT community could work together in the future.

“There was some discussion of what next steps might look like,” he said. “You’ll see conversations with TEP about diversity training within the police department.” Though they received no confirmation from the police chief, their glad the opportunity exists now.

“Chief Serpas offered to try to work with us to put together a town hall meeting to discuss the matter,” said Sanders. “We see it as extremely positive. Not only was there a meeting but there was real discussion with next steps.”

Though the TEP leadership is confident metro police will look into the actions of the officers involved in the sting, they promise to monitor for suspicious arrests.

“We trust that they’re reviewing the matter,” said Sanders, “but we’re going to be watching, at the same time.

Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

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