Cop punched, investigated for racial comments

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Officer Tanner Holt

An off-duty Knoxville Police Department officer who allegedly got drunk and taunted a Black man at a wedding reception is learning the hard way that bigoted speech has all kinds of consequences.

For one, Officer Tanner Holt was knocked unconscious by the 5’7”, 200-pound Black man who was the target of his rant.  The punch led to Holt being hospitalized. 

Now,  Holt is also the subject of an internal affairs investigation ordered by KPD Chief Eve Thomas, who learned of the incident when the responding officers told their supervisors about the racially charged nature of the confrontation.

KPD officials didn’t have much to say about the incident on Wednesday. 

“I can confirm that Chief Thomas requested that the Internal Affairs Unit open an investigation into the incident on June 28. That investigation remains ongoing,” KPD spokesperson Scott Erland said when asked about the confrontation. 

The incident occurred as the department has been wrestling with a number of racially charged controversies, ranging from the death of a 17-year-old boy in a confrontation with officers in a school restroom to a series of reports in The News Sentinel alleging the agency has struggled unsuccessfully with racism in its ranks.

“This is yet another clear sign and indicator that there is a problem with racism and white supremacy at KPD,” said David Hayes, a Black activist and longtime police critic who is running for City Council.

“We know that many of the officers have racist views in addition to perpetrating racist policies,” Hayes said. “Unfortunately, many low income residents and people of color have had unfortunate interactions with officers.” 

The incident involving Holt, a patrolman assigned to the West District, took place June 26 in a parking lot at 400 West Jackson Avenue, according to a report filed by KPD Officer J. Allgood.

Holt was part of a group comprised of a half-dozen people who had just attended a wedding reception. Everyone in the party was white except for a Black man, 33-year-old Jonathan Toney of Rineyville, Ky.

Holt, who was “very intoxicated,” allegedly confronted Toney over his ethnicity and made the comment that Holt “didn’t know they let Black people in the reception hall.” Toney asked Holt repeatedly to drop the subject and stop talking to him about race, but the off-duty officer wouldn’t quit. 

“(Toney) stated that he couldn’t take it anymore, and punched Holt in the face one time. Holt fell to the ground,” the report says.

Jonathan Toney, shown here in a picture taken by KPD officers soon after he allegedly punched out off-duty KPD Officer Tanner Holt.

When Officer Allgood arrived at the scene just before 9 p.m., Holt was unconscious and being treated by first responders from the Knoxville Fire Department and an AMR ambulance. He was taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center for treatment. 

“Officers could not speak to Holt at the time of this report because of his unconscious state,” Allgood wrote. Three of the four witnesses confirmed Toney’s account of events, but one of them said she was unable to hear the verbal back-and-forth that preceded the punch, he wrote.

In the report, the incident was classified as a simple assault, a misdemeanor. Holt was listed as the victim and Toney as the suspect, but it wasn’t clear from the report whether criminal charges were pending against anyone in connection with the confrontation.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday if Holt had been interviewed by his fellow officers or by Internal Affairs investigators. 

Hard Knox Wire contacted Toney on Wednesday but he declined to discuss the incident. Holt’s contact information wasn’t included in the report so he couldn’t be reached for comment.

Although KPD spokesperson Erland didn’t say what specific violations of KPD’s rules were being looked at, instances of public intoxication and using racist or vulgar language can be considered violations of KPD rules, which say officers can face a number of punishments up to and including termination if they behave in an “immoral, indecent, lewd or disorderly manner” on- or off-duty. 

The spokesperson didn’t say whether Holt had been allowed to return to work pending the outcome of the probe.

According to Hayes, it’s going to be difficult to change attitudes about race at the department. In fact, he predicted that a fundamental change in the department’s willingness to accept meaningful civilian oversight is necessary but such a change is unlikely to occur. 

“The first thing is that the Black person in this case shouldn’t have to face any dire legal consequences. They should be safe,” Hayes said.

“Ideally, officers with racist views like this should be dismissed from the police department and not just have their wrists slapped,” he continued. “Until the community is involved in the disciplinary process, we have little faith that any systemic changes will be made.” 

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

Published on July 8, 2021.