Man shot, killed near park — KPD targets drugs, guns

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Another young life was claimed by street violence Monday in Knoxville, bringing the city one step closer to having its deadliest year ever, authorities said.

A 19-year-old man was mortally wounded in a shooting near Morningside Park in East Knoxville, raising the number of homicides in the city this year to at least 33. 

No one was else was believed to have been struck by gunfire, and several people were reportedly taken into custody by police immediately following the shooting.

The incident was reported to the E-911 Center at 6:09 p.m. and Knoxville Police Department officers were dispatched to the 1700 block of Hazen Street, officials said.

“Officers arrived on scene and located an unresponsive male victim who had been shot at least one time,” said KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. “Responding officers and Knoxville Fire Department personnel rendered extensive medical aid on the victim until AMR arrived and transported the victim to the UT Medical Center, where he was pronounced deceased.”

He added, “Several individuals, including witnesses, were detained for questioning. The shooting is under active investigation by the KPD Violent Crimes Unit.”

The victim’s identity wasn’t immediately released. Erland didn’t say whether any weapons were recovered or discuss possible motives for the slaying.

Like most cities in the United States, Knoxville has been struggling with both rising overdose and violent crime rates over the past two years. There are several ways to look at the numbers, but they all paint the same grim picture: 2021 is on track to be the deadliest year since the City began keeping statistics.

The unprecedented rise in the homicide rate began when the number of killings shot up from 22 in 2019 to 37 in 2020, a 72 percent increase. Prior to 2020, the bloodiest year on record had been when 35 people were killed in 1998.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been at least 33 slayings in the city, plus at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office.

Although police and prosecutors are loathe to discuss ongoing homicide cases, numerous sources say that many — perhaps even most — of this year’s killings have been driven by the illegal drug trade and the gang warfare that accompanies it. 

The local drug trade has grown more and more lucrative as the opiate epidemic continues unabated despite years of effort that’s seen thousands of arrests, millions of dollars spent on treatment, and the gradual demise of opiate-based pain management treatment.

Some of the drugs seized by KPD officers last week. Source: KPD

Unable to obtain prescription painkillers like oxycodone or morphine, both addicts and pain management patients have increasingly turned to the black market to buy fentanyl and heroin. Fentanyl is a highly potent narcotic painkiller used for decades in hospitals and for outpatient chronic pain treatment. Because of its cost and strength, organized crime groups began cutting heroin with it several years ago, leading to tens of thousands of overdose deaths across the country.

As costly as the violence has been in terms of lives lost, the death toll caused by overdoses is exponentially worse. In 2020, Knox County experienced its worst year on record for overdose deaths — 413 people lost, a 59% increase from 2019’s total. 

The toll has been equally horrific this year, with 323 people having perished from overdoses since January 1.

“There is an obvious nexus between the distribution of illegal narcotics and violent crime,” Erland said. “Additionally, these same narcotics are responsible for an unprecedented surge in overdose deaths. So it is of paramount importance that we work to take these drugs off the street, recover firearms from the hands of those who wish to do harm and hold those accountable who distribute deadly narcotics in the community.” 

KPD has recently been prioritizing drug and weapons offenses. Not only have patrol officers been encouraged to pay special attention to those crimes, but KPD officials have been carefully monitoring incident reports and making their statistics public each week. 

For instance, a social media post published by KPD early Monday said that, between Sept. 13 and 19, officers arrested 74 people — ages 17 to 60 years old — on drug- or weapons-related charges.

“Those arrests resulted in a total of 47 felony charges and 132 misdemeanor charges,” the post said. “That includes 27 charges for manufacture, sale or delivery of a controlled substance, four for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, two for unlawful possession of a weapon, two for convicted felon in possession of a handgun and 37 for outstanding warrants. In total, officers confiscated at least 12 firearms that were possessed in violation of Tennessee state law, 173 grams of suspected heroin, 139 grams of suspected meth, 156 grams of suspected cocaine, 258 grams of marijuana and over $1,300 in U.S. currency.”

Erland said that KPD’s leadership recognizes the problem confronting the community is daunting. While it might seem that such numbers are too small to make a difference, the reality is their cumulative impact is certain to disrupt the illegal markets that continue driving up the death toll.

“We hope people recognize that our officers care about these issues and want to make the community better and safe,” Erland said. “In the singular, one drug or weapon arrest might not seem like much. But when viewed in its totality over a weekly basis, it gives a better sense of the positive impact that officers are making.”

He added: “I think it also shows the magnitude of the issue since we are averaging roughly 8-10 people per day who are arrested for drug or weapon charges, or some combination of those charges.”

Erland, however, stressed that law enforcement can’t do it alone. 

“Towards that end, everyone has role to play in keeping Knoxville safe, and we want residents to play an active role in helping to accomplish that goal,” he said. 

KPD is asking anyone with information regarding the distribution of illegal drugs to contact East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477, online at www.easttnvalleycrimestoppers.org, or via the free mobile app, P3 Tips. 

Tipsters will remain completely anonymous and be eligible to receive a cash reward if that information leads to an arrest or the confiscation of narcotics. 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com. 

Published on September 21, 2021.