NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A cookie wrapper nearly put Nashville’s police chief in prison for a long time.
Well, a cookie wrapper, Chief John Drake said, and racism.
When he was a kid growing up in East Nashville, Drake always visited the local market to buy the $1 cookies.
“I used to eat them like crazy,” he said.
Months before he graduated from high school, Drake got called into his guidance counselor’s office. Two white Metro Police officers in plain clothes were waiting for him.
They told the teenager about a rape and beating of an 89-year-old woman in the neighborhood, Drake said. They told him they’d found a cookie wrapper at the scene. A wrapper from the same cookies he loved.
“I was scared to death,” Drake said.
Then the officers showed him a picture of the suspect, a Black man who appeared to be at least 10 years older than Drake, he said.
His fear turned to anger.
“They asked me, ‘Doesn’t that look like you?’ And I said, ‘No, that looks nothing like me. All Black people don’t look alike.'”
The officers left with an ominous warning for the teenager: We have enough to build a circumstantial case against you.
Later, police processed a fingerprint the attacker left at the scene, and it didn’t match Drake’s, so the graduating senior was ruled out as a suspect.
Still, the incident left Drake upset andfeeling violated.
“I didn’t like the police after that,” he said. “I grew up not having a lot of trust.”
It wasn’t his family’s first traumatic experience with white officers.
The taillight was out
In 1974, when Drake was 9 years old, an older cousin died when his motorcycle collided with a patrol car.
In a story about the crash, Metro Police said Drake’s cousin, Little Page Drake Jr., smashed his motorcycle into the police cruiser going the opposite way during a high-speed chase through East Nashville.
The three-vehicle chase started when a police officer turned on his cruiser’s blue lights after noticing the motorcycle’s tail light was out, Metro Police said.
During the chase, the motorcycle collided with an on-coming police sergeant’s cruiser, police said. The sergeant told the newspaper he tried to avoid hitting the motorcycle.
But one witness told the reporter the police sergeant suddenly pulled his cruiser in front of Drake’s motorcycle.
Chief Drake said he grew up being told — and believing — white police officers may have intentionally killed his cousin.
Still, Drake was close with another cousin who idolized the kind, honorable Black police officers living in his neighborhood. That cousin, Paul Flournoy, convinced Drake to apply to the police academy with him.
“Of course there were bad stories [about police], but there were good stories, too,” Flournoy told the Tennessean, which like USA TODAY is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
“Why can’t we become policemen and change things?” Flournoy urged Drake. “Why can’t we be police that people can look up to?”
That resonated with Drake, who, smiling, added, “Paul always talked me into stuff.”
After a 32-year climb through the ranks, Drake, 56, was named police chief last year.
“I believe in change, and in fact, I embrace change,” Drake said that day. “I am here to tell you change is coming.”
In 2019, Nashville’s population was 63 percent white and 28 percent Black, U.S. Census figures show.
The gulf is wider here than in Memphis, Knoxville, Atlanta, Austin, Denver and other comparable cities.
Drake wants Nashvillians to know his first-hand experience with racism in policing. In Nashville.
“We can’t keep ignoring it exists, first and foremost. We have to be able to talk about it; we have to be able to share our experiences the way I do,” he said.
“When it comes to this profession, the way I’m trying to build trust is by being transparent, being honest and open.”
And that includes sharing his story of being falsely accused of raping and beating an elderly woman when he was a teenager, a story he sometimes tells his officers and trainees.
“When people see my uniform, they don’t see what I’ve gone through. I want to make sure while I’m here, I can make it better.”
Follow Brad Schmitt on Twitter: @bradschmitt.