For today’s Daily Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake about the explosion that occurred in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning.

Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake speaks at a news conference on December 27. (Source: Metropolitan Nashville Police Department)

Chuck Wexler: When did you first find out about this incident?

Chief John Drake: It was about 6 a.m. Christmas morning. I was lying in bed thinking, “I’m looking forward to three straight days off and enjoying Christmas with my family.” Then the phone rang. They said that an RV had exploded downtown, and they’d call me back with an assessment. I was thinking there had been an unfortunate accident with a propane tank in a camper. Then I got a second call saying that it was an intentional act, it was a bomb, and there was a lot of damage. I went downtown and couldn’t believe my eyes.

Wexler: How did you process all the information you were receiving once you arrived downtown?

Chief Drake: When I first got there, it was surreal. It looked like a bomb had been dropped out of an airplane. There was shattered glass everywhere and a crater in the ground.

My next thought was about what secondary targets could be out there. I called some people to make sure that we were checking for possible secondary targets. I called the Tennessee Highway Patrol to check their state assets. And I tried to make sure that there wasn’t anyone injured.

We’re still going through all the rubble, but we don’t believe we had any loss of life except the bomber.

Wexler: Was your first thought that it might be terrorism?

Chief Drake:  Absolutely, that was my first thought. You think, “Who would do that? Why downtown? Why would they do it next to an AT&T communications building that’s a hub for the Southeast region?” You begin to wonder about the motivations and who may have been involved. It seemed like there might be a message being sent based on the location. That was the first thought I had.

Wexler: When did the FBI become involved in the investigation?

Chief Drake: The FBI became involved early on. I had rushed to the scene, and within a couple minutes there were FBI agents on scene. Then the ATF showed up. Within 30 minutes we had agents there ready to process the scene. Because of the location next to the communications building, they made a determination that there could be an aspect of terrorism, so the FBI took the lead.

Wexler:   Tell us about the warnings that were coming from the RV before it exploded.

Chief Drake:  When officers got the first calls, it was for shots fired in the downtown area. Officers responded, not knowing if they would encounter an individual with a weapon. When they got there, they saw an RV with all the windows covered so they couldn’t see inside. It was making announcements warning people to stay away because it would detonate. Then music would play, and then it would go back to a countdown.

Officers quickly set up a perimeter. Their first instinct was to get people out of harm’s way. They started knocking on doors and coordinating to get people out of the way.

Wexler: Tell us a bit about those six officers who risked their lives to warn others.

Chief Drake: The majority of them have been on the department for less than three years. When you don’t have as much seniority, you work the overnight shift. They were working the Downtown Precinct. The sergeant has been with the police department for 11 years. When I met with them, they all seem to have really good character and good dispositions. They care about the community and being good police officers.

When they got this call, they immediately went into action. They could’ve set a perimeter, stayed out of harm’s way, and tried to have someone call people out. But instead, they started knocking on doors and evacuating people. They didn’t think of their own safety. They wanted to save as many people as they could. Had they not taken those actions, we would’ve been talking about loss of life, rather than about the unfortunate destruction of some historic buildings.

During our press conference, I could see how close all of these officers were. As we finished the press conference, one officer called for a group hug. But it wasn’t a fun group hug, it was a group hug because they wanted to show they cared about each other. I asked to join in, and they said, “Come on, Chief.” There was a picture of us all embracing that went around the world.

Source: Metropolitan Nashville Police Department

Wexler: How soon did you know that the bomber may have been in the RV?

Chief Drake: It wasn’t clear immediately, but there were some possible human remains in the street. There were no other signs immediately visible to me. The initial thought was that it could have been a suicide bomber, but it wasn’t confirmed until a couple days later, when the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the FBI were both able to confirm it in their labs.

Wexler: What can you tell us about the previous report the department received about the bomber, Anthony Quinn Warner?

Chief Drake: The initial response to that was by patrol officers in the South Precinct. They responded to a female who called in to make a suicidal person report about herself. As officers responded, they encountered a female on the porch, and she had a couple unloaded handguns on the porch. They belonged to Mr. Warner.

They determined that they needed to call mobile crisis to see if they could get her some type of care. She then received care for a period of time.

While they were talking to her, she told them that Warner was making bombs at his house out of his RV. The officers had cars go by the residence and loudly knock on the door. They also decided to make a report about what this woman had told them. That report was sent to the hazardous devices team for follow-up investigation. They went to the residence for several days to try to encounter Warner, and actually had a patrol car stand by in case they did make contact. But they never did.

It was turned over to our specialized investigation division, who contacted the FBI. They ran him in their database, looking for military records and any other information, and it came back with nothing.

The hazardous devices officer went back and contacted the attorney about a week later, and asked if he would have Mr. Warner give us permission to search, because we didn’t have anything that would enable us to get a search warrant. The lawyer told him that they would not let him do that.

From that point on, there wasn’t anything else done. It remained open. But Mr. Warner had no prior history other than a marijuana charge in 1978. He had remained squeaky clean. And there were no other calls on this individual for over a year.

Wexler: How many calls like that do you get a year? Is it challenging to know which to investigate?

Chief Drake: It is challenging. Minor record reports are done all the time for follow-up. They have bomb threats that come in and are investigated. The majority of them lead to no further investigation needed. Obviously the end result of this one was different. But we get a lot of reports like that.

Wexler: Did the bomb impact your communications system?

Chief Drake: The bomb went off next to the AT&T building, which is the hub for the Southeast region. Phone service was out as far away as Alabama and Kentucky, and the airport was shut down temporarily. The sprinkler systems flooded the generators, so we lost cell service with AT&T. The majority of the police department has AT&T, so we had to either use personal cell phones with a different carrier or get alternate phones from a different source. It was a significant challenge to communicate in the early stages.

Wexler: Did AT&T bring in deployables (mobile or portable communications systems) to help restore service?

Chief Drake: They did. There was bomb debris being collected, and there were particles blown out of the downtown area across the river into Nissan Stadium. It was a huge detonation and a huge crime scene. So trying to get deployables in was challenging, to make sure we didn’t disturb any potential evidence.

Wexler: How has this incident impacted your department and your community?

Chief Drake: It’s impacted us a lot. It shows some vulnerabilities in areas we need to shore up to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And it has sent shocks within the city. People want to make sure they’re safe, and having someone driving around town with that type of bomb is alarming for a lot of people. We had to reassure them that it was a lone wolf scenario and we didn’t believe there was anyone else involved.

It has also shown that we have to be resilient and rebound from this. It’s going to take some time. But we try to make sure we put measures in place to see what the best practices are and if there’s any more that could’ve been done. Overall, it shows the resiliency of this city.

Wexler: Nashville has been through a lot this year, between the tornados, the pandemic, demonstrations, and now this. Has the heroism your officers demonstrated been uplifting for your department?

Chief Drake: It really has. Law enforcement has taken it on the chin for various reasons. It was good to hear these officers’ account. They cry, they laugh, and they care. Police officers are people. We felt it was important to let them tell their story so people could see that.

And it’s been far-reaching. I’ve had people contact me from around the world, just to show their support and their heartfelt thanks for what the officers did. That really, really made us feel good here.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.