City’s new public safety Chief undaunted by task

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Newly appointed Director of Public Safety LaKenya Middlebrook. Source: City of Knoxville.

LaKenya Middlebrook is no stranger to bearing the weight of sky-high expectations on her shoulders.

That’s a good thing. 

When she officially takes on the role of Knoxville’s first-ever Public Safety director, she’ll be taking on the hopes and fears of a city that’s been shaken to its core by two straight years of unprecedented bloodshed on its streets. 

She knows that some may judge her by what happens in the short-term, but she realizes that she must work for the long-term. She understands the problems she’s been asked to tackle are terribly complex, but she has to hope that the solutions may turn out to be simple, if not necessarily easy. 

“I know we didn’t get here overnight, but there’s an urgency to this,” Middlebrook said in a Friday interview with Hard Knox Wire. “We don’t want to see any more lives lost. So many of us in our community know what that feels like on a personal level. We also understand the importance of building well and building in a way that’s sustainable. 

“We don’t expect things to be different overnight, but we hope to have an impact in a very meaningful way as quickly as possible.”

As the daughter of a local Civil Rights icon, the Rev. Harold Middlebrook, LaKenya grew up with an acute awareness of the sacrifices people make on behalf of others and the need for every member of a community to give back. To that end, she’s spent most of her life working to help others, both as an attorney practicing family law and as an energetic volunteer.

It was in the latter role that she was approached in 2016 by then-Mayor Madeline Rogero to serve on the Police Advisory and Review Committee, or PARC. Her father had been instrumental in convincing City leaders to form the civilian review board in 1998, and she says that it was a singular honor when she was appointed to head PARC last year.  

About that time, she began meeting with an “internal group” that included Community Engagement Director Kathy Mack that was directed to “reimagine public safety” by Mayor Indya Kincannon, she said. 

“When Mayor Kincannon started thinking about what her vision was …. she saw this as an opportunity to create something in our community that hadn’t existed,” she said. “I’m very passionate. I appreciate her confidence in me being able to do this new thing.”

The “new thing” Middlebrook was referring to is the creation of a violence interruption initiative of the type that’s been pioneered in large urban areas like Denver, Colo., and Louisville, Ky. But it also includes bringing together the many nonprofits, mental health groups, and life enrichment/development programs in Knoxville so they can support the violence interruption work — and vice-versa. 

Public safety agencies like KPD and the Knoxville Fire Department are also expected to play major roles, which hasn’t gone over well with everyone involved in discussions about how best to reduce violence.  Kincannon has enjoyed broad support for her actions thus far, but there has been criticism from some who argue that there is still too much of an emphasis on law enforcement in the city’s current budget. 

At this stage, however, Middlebrook doesn’t seem interested in anything that pits different groups or modalities against one another.

“It has to be a collaborative response,” she said. “There’s a role for law enforcement to play in violence reduction, and we need to equip them to do that. There are also community-based responses that we think can be impactful, and that’s a big part of what this office is built to do.”

The unprecedented rise in the homicide rate began in 2020, when the number of killings shot up 72 percent from the previous year. Prior to the 37 violent deaths seen in 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 32 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.  

What those numbers mean is that 2021 is on track to be the bloodiest year since Knoxville began keeping crime statistics. It also means that Knoxville is caught up in the same rising tide of violence that’s flooded the morgues of cities across the nation. 

When asked about the uptick in killings, Middlebrook said she doesn’t think there’s any one cause. 

“It’s not a single issue,” she said. “This isn’t something specific to Knoxville. I think that COVID has definitely had an impact…. It’s had a huge economic impact on communities, and a lot of communities that were already struggling are struggling even more. When you have all those multiple layers of impacts piled on top of each other, it can have a devastating impact.”

She added: “And also, if we’re to be completely honest, the availability and access to weapons has a significant impact.”

As one of her first actions in the new position, Middlebrook intends to travel to Louisville, Ky., in order to get some firsthand instruction in the specialized field of violence interruption. She’ll be learning from groups like Cities United, a nonprofit that’s been contracted to work with Knoxville officials, No More Red Dots, and a hospital-based initiative. 

Each of the Louisville groups has lots of experience with street-level interventions and dissuading bereaved survivors from retaliating. “We need to see how they build those systems so we can do it ourselves,” Middlebrook said. “We want to make sure our responses are tailored to Knoxville, but we can look to other cities and partners for support and resources.”

Middlebrook isn’t daunted by the challenge that lies before her. Instead, the 1998 graduate of Austin-East Magnet High School says that she’s grateful to be given the chance to tackle such an important problem.

“A lot was invested in me to help me get to the places I’ve been able to get to in my life, and it’s important for me to repay that same investment in my community,” she said.

She added: “To even begin to deal with the root causes of this issue, we have to meet individuals where they are. It becomes a challenging web to untangle, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

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

Published on September 7, 2021.