John Drake was named the interim police chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department in August, and was chosen to serve as the permanent chief on November 30. He spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about how COVID has impacted Nashville and MNPD, what’s behind the local increase in homicides, and why he became a police officer.

Chuck Wexler: Why did you want to become a police officer?

Chief John Drake: I grew up here, in East Nashville. My father was blind and my mother was disabled, so I was pretty much on my own a lot. But when I came home from school, the rule was that I immediately had to do my homework, and by the time I was done, it was dark. That was their way of keeping me out of trouble in an area that had rising crime rates.

I played sports and wound up helping people as a team captain and being involved in community mentoring. My cousin was putting in for the police department, and he said, “You’ve already been doing things and helping people for a long time. This would expand your platform.” So I put in for it, with the idea of helping people.  I came on in 1988, and I’ve been able to do that.

On one of my first calls as a patrol officer, I went to a house in a housing development that had been burglarized a few days before Christmas. Every gift under the tree was taken, and the Christmas tree was knocked over. I remember the victim just being distraught while filing a report. So I went out and bought bikes, dolls, trains, and toys to replace her Christmas gifts. She went from tears of anger to tears of jubilation, because she couldn’t afford to replace all the items that were taken.

I wanted to do that my entire career – reach out and help people wherever I can. This has provided me that platform.

And I love my city. I grew up here and it’s where my roots are. I had the opportunity to leave several times, and I thought about pursuing opportunities with the federal government. But what kept me grounded was my love for this city.

Wexler: How are the city and the police department being impacted by COVID-19?

Chief Drake: COVID-19 has impacted us the entire year. Our officers haven’t been able to take time off. We had a tornado that ripped through the city in early March. Then COVID began, and it continues to impact us.

We had a stay-at-home order, where everyone was supposed to stay at home unless they were out for necessities. The police department was tasked with noting where violations were occurring and sending that information to the health department to issue citations. Once that order was ended, we opened up restaurants to just a small capacity.

We’ve had to assign officers to do mask enforcement. Each precinct takes calls for service to residences and businesses that may be violating the health order by exceeding capacity. We’ve had to write several citations and make arrests. The bar owners have struggled and lost a lot of money. It’s been very tough for everyone.

We’ve had over 190 people on the police department contract the virus, some very seriously. Some have been hospitalized. But all have recovered and are doing okay. We still have officers contracting it today, quarantining and receiving medical attention.

We’re not going out on some calls. If it’s a theft where there’s nothing to follow up on, they can handle that over the phone. If there’s a car crash where there’s no dispute who caused it, that can be filed over the phone or online. And there are some other calls where we’re not responding in person.

We’re not doing temperature checks, but anytime someone feels sick or has been around someone who may be infected, we ask them to get tested and to quarantine until they get the result. If there’s any chance they’ve been exposed, there’s no question that they should stay home and get tested.

Wexler: Do you know when your officers might be vaccinated?

Chief Drake: The frontline officers will be the first ones to be vaccinated, and they’ll be right up there with the healthcare workers in the first tier. I believe they’ll be starting those vaccinations at the end of December or the beginning of January.

We had discussions with the city about mandating the vaccine, but I had concerns about mandating anyone to put anything into their bodies. But we’re going to really ask officers to consider taking it, and we’re explaining that it’s an mRNA vaccine, not the actual virus. So hopefully we’re going to get a lot of officers who want to take it, so we can move forward.

Wexler: How are you addressing the issue of police reform as a new chief?

Chief Drake: The first thing is making sure we connect with the community even more. People, including officers, fear what they don’t know. So we want to get people out of cars and into the neighborhoods meeting people. We removed a lot of the proactive units and moved to community engagement. Officers are going into vulnerable neighborhoods where people traditionally distrust police to make connections. And it’s been paying dividends. We’ve seen crime in those areas decrease, and we’ve seen communication increase. And there’s been a good feeling and a good vibe around both the officers and the community.

Another priority is precision policing. We’re looking to address problem people and problem areas, either through arrest or other interventions. And we’re working with our federal, state, and local partners to identify the best remedies.

We want to make sure we increase the diversity of the department. We only have 24 African-American females, and only 211 minorities, so that’s an area where we greatly need to improve.

And then there’s de-escalation. We had an incident just last week where officers went to a call and a guy had a gun to a lady’s head. The officer was first yelling at the individual to drop the gun, then he de-escalated his tone to, “We’re here to help you.” They were actually able to get the guy to drop the gun.

I’ve asked people to lose that sense of urgency to resolve every situation quickly. Since we have time on our hands in some situations, let’s wait it out. If someone is inside a house and no one is potentially being injured, then we have time. We don’t have to kick the door in and escalate the situation ourselves.

Those have been the priorities, and officers are buying into them.

Wexler: What is driving the increase in homicides in Nashville?

Chief Drake: It’s hard to say. It seems like people have a much shorter temper these days. They’re having these social media beefs where they may meet in a mall or parking lot. Some of it is territorial gang activity.

A lot of it is around drugs. We’ve seen a lot of homicides involving marijuana drug rip-offs, where there’s marijuana and cash in the house.

Wexler: How do prosecutorial decisions impact violent crime?

Chief Drake: When we have someone arrested for a gun crime and they’re booked, released, and the case is dismissed, that person, who has a propensity for violence because they’re walking around with a gun, is back on the street. And, in some cases, they’re later involved in some kind of violent crime.

When you look at marijuana, the district attorney recently said he wouldn’t prosecute marijuana possession under half an ounce.  So people are not being prosecuted. In the age of COVID when people are struggling financially, more people are turning to those type of activities for some type of income. And someone ends up targeting those people.

In most of these homicides, the victim and perpetrator know each other.

We’ve had a couple kids arrested as juveniles at 15 or 16 years old who later pick up a homicide charge at 19 or 20.  So it plays a big role. We have to be able to have a hammer for some people, to say, “If you’re going to be a chronic offender and continue to commit violent crime, this is what we’re going to do.” We also have to look at interventions, and not just release people without any consequence.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chief Drake:  We’re looking at guns being stolen out of vehicles. We’ve had over 2,000 guns stolen here, and those end up in the hands of violent offenders. We punish those who steal them and we punish those who use them, but there has to be a way to hold people responsible for irresponsible gun ownership. This doesn’t include responsible gun owners who put them in safes. But people leave them in unlocked cars. We need to remedy this. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to have guns hit the streets and our violence is probably going to continue soaring.

In one week alone, we had a gun go off in a vehicle as an officer approached it. It turned out it was a 12- and a 14-year-old kid who had stolen a vehicle with a gun in it at one o’clock in the morning, and the gun went off. Then we had a homicide where four people were shot, two fatally. Those two were 12 and 14 years old. A 14-year-old girl was also shot. It was 3 a.m. and they had gotten access to guns left in cars.

So I think we need to discuss how we approach these irresponsible gun owners.


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.