Their expertise is in reducing and even preventing the kinds of deadly shootings that have rocked Knoxville over the past year.
So, the city government is bringing them in to help quell the violence, the call for help given urgency by the number of Black children killed in recent weeks.
“You want to go to the experts when there’s an issue as high level as this,” said Kathy Mack, community engagement manager for the city’s Office of Community Empowerment.
The city plans to lean heavily on the expertise of Cities United, a program connecting a national network of mayors together devoted to reducing inner city gun violence.
Mayor Indya Kincannon told City Council members about her plans last week during their regularly scheduled meeting and said she would be bringing a contract to them within a matter of weeks.
The official activity comes after three Austin-East Magnet High School students were shot and killed, two of them just days apart. Authorities are still looking for the shooters in two of the incidents and East Knoxville residents have staged several memorials and protests.
The community is still mourning last month’s loss of 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr., who was killed while leaving school, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, shot outside her home. Justin Taylor, 15, was allegedly shot by a friend in January.
Last year, there were 37 homicides within the city limits, which was the highest annual number on record, according to police.
Since January 1 of this year, there have been at least 13 homicides in the city, all of them involving firearms.
While this wasn’t the first time that Knoxville children have fallen victim to gun violence, it is the first time that so many have died in so short a time.
Once Kincannon brings the contract with Cities United before Council and the body approves it, events are expected to move quickly, officials said.
“That can happen very quickly,” said Erin Gill, deputy to the mayor and chief policy officer for the city. “It can begin instantly.”
There’s already a relationship between the organization and Knoxville. In 2018, while former Mayor Madeline Rogero was in office, the organization held its Save Our Sons Summit in Knoxville, which brought hundreds of mayors to town to talk about reducing violence.
Anthony Smith, executive director for Cities United, said the group’s role will be to conduct an inventory of existing organizations throughout Knoxville who have already been addressing the problem and may be able to help.
He said they may be able to look at some groups the city hasn’t even considered as partners because Cities United staff will bring new perspectives.
“It’s outside eyes,” he said.
The group also provides training for people who work on the front lines of neighborhoods torn apart by inner city warfare, such as how to negotiate with street gangs or other instigators of violence.
Cities United has helped more than 130 cities. Some recent initiatives the group has helped with include the Mayor’s Village Initiative in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Houston Peace in Houston, Texas, he said.
The Mayor’s Village strategic plan focused on black men ages 25 and younger from targeted neighborhoods in order to give them better socioeconomic advantages.
The Houston Department Health led the Houston Peace initiative, which looked at a growing problem of gun violence in that city for males between the ages of 10 and 24.
“We believe Knoxville has the right structure to get this right,” Smith said.
There is bound to be a financial cost, he said. While in Philadelphia, Pa., the organization conclude the amount the municipality needed to spend to deter deadly violence was an estimated $30,000 per homicide.
Taking into account Knoxville’s cost of living, the City may have to pay out around $27,500 per homicide to deter gun violence.
Council members approved an emergency $1 million expenditure on anti-violence initiatives last week.
“The $1 million is right on it,” he said.
As far as the cost of Cities United’s services, he said they would charge around $75,000 if the city decides to go with the full package of services offered.
“It would be at least a 12 to 18 month engagement,” he said. “We just don’t leave. We have a partnership.”
Knoxville City Councilwoman Seema Singh agrees with bringing in Cities United to help advise the city and said she has “faith in them.”
What she has questions about, though, are who will be the players involved. She said the effort’s focus needs to extend beyond the city limits.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Knox County District Attorney’s Office, and local judges who hear criminal cases should be involved, she said.
“I’d like the city to be a spoke on the wheel and not the hub of the wheel,” she said.
There’s a clear reason to bring in more entities, she said.
“It’s community, but it’s also resources and it’s the power structure,” she said.
Erin Gill said the plan is still early in the process. External relationships and resources may come into play later, but as of now the City is looking to its own to solve the problems.
“We’ve centered around what as a city we can do,” Gill said.
LaKenya Middlebrook, executive director of the city’s Police Advisory & Review Committee, has been working with Gill and Kathy Mack for almost a year on the mayor’s violence interruption task force.
The task force came together after last year’s death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minn. The incident shocked people across America and prompted many communities to review how they conduct policing.
The three women said they had to wrap their minds around two ideas: violence interruption and the prevention of violence between police officers and citizens.
With the deaths of three teenagers, the scope of the task force might have grown but the mission remains the same.
They said it may lead to better community understanding as Knoxville starts its violence interruption efforts.
Gill explained last week those efforts could include peacemakers on the streets and trained interventionists on both the streets and in hospitals.
The process now is one of discovery, Middlebrook said.
She said they have already learned of some local organizations that have been conducting violence interruption work.
“We are learning of folks maybe we didn’t know who are doing some innovative things,” she said.
“It’s a continually growing community.”