KPD Chief Thomas at center of storm

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Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas

Knoxville Police Department Chief Eve Thomas found herself at the center of a growing political firestorm Thursday as allegations of racism in the ranks of the agency continued to mount.

The day started with yet more allegations that KPD leaders have failed to address the concerns of Black officers who claimed to have encountered racial harassment. 

It ended with a political rupture in the highest levels of City government when Vice-Mayor Gwen McKenzie said she no longer had confidence that Thomas could deal with the issue, prompting Mayor Indya Kincannon to rush to the chief’s defense.

Thomas didn’t issue any comment Thursday.

“There are issues that need to be addressed, and I’ve lost confidence that Chief Thomas will be able to address those and move the department forward,” McKenzie said Thursday evening. “The culture is driven from the top. When we have officers who feel their voices are not heard, that their concerns about racism are not being taken seriously or addressed seriously, that is an issue and an issue of leadership.”

For several years, racism in law enforcement has been one of the most divisive issues in the United States. 

Rather than grappling with a single incident that focused outrage (such as the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police in Louisville, Ky., and Minneapolis, Minn.), Knoxville has been shaken by a series of controversies that have gradually eroded the already strained relationship between KPD and the Black community.

The shootings deaths of four Black teenagers from Austin-East Magnet High School in the first four months of 2021 (two of which remain unsolved) brought the Black community’s latent distrust of the department to the fore. 

But it was the death of a fifth Austin-East student, 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr., that truly galvanized segments of the Black community to begin loudly demanding police reform. Thompson was shot and killed in a confrontation with KPD officers in a school restroom on April 12.

There’s also been a series of articles published by The  News Sentinel detailing the experiences of Black officers whose concerns about racism were ignored or swept under the rug. Then, early this week, the public learned about an off-duty KPD officer who’d drunkenly harassed a Black wedding guest until the man knocked him unconscious.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also the case of Desheena Kyle, a missing Black woman, which has drawn criticism from those who feel KPD hasn’t tried hard enough to find her and cited her skin color as a possible reason.

That’s a lot of controversy in a very short period of time, and McKenzie said that KPD doesn’t need a police chief right now who wasn’t even willing to admit the department had a problem with race until the last few days.

Vice-Mayor Gwen McKenzie
Mayor Indya Kincannon

“You need a leader who takes racism seriously,” she said. “You start addressing the issue by looking to identify some of the root causes and where this is is coming from. You have to send a message that it will not be tolerated in any form.”

She added: “And when I say ‘racism’ I’m not just talking about Black people, I’m also talking about Asian people or Hispanic people.”

McKenzie, one of two Black members of City Council, said she can’t help but feel the deepest sympathy for the few minority officers at KPD.

“Those jobs are stressful enough without adding on the kind of attitudes that are, by all accounts, alive and well at KPD. It really is sad when they have to come to work every day and there’s an environment that makes them uncomfortable. It’s such a hurtful feeling,” she said.

When asked if she believes Thomas should be dismissed from her position, McKenzie said the police chief’s future at the department was strictly for Mayor Kincannon to decide.

Kincannon and her staff —who were reportedly surprised by McKenzie’s comments — wasted no time in preparing a statement expressing the mayor’s support of Thomas.

“Chief Thomas and I are united in our commitment to tackling tough issues together and with urgency,” Kincannon said. “Do we have challenges? Yes. We have to tackle crime head on and ensure the safety of neighborhoods. We have to address culture issues — including racism. And — we have to support our officers and address their concerns about recruitment, retention, wellness and morale.”

Both Kincannon and McKenzie are liberals and align with the Democratic Party, although City elections are technically nonpartisan. Kincannon came into office vowing that she would insist on accountability from the police department, and she has maintained consistently that Thomas is an essential part of that effort.

“My expectations are clear — we do not and cannot tolerate racism and must strive for excellence each day and in each interaction as we seek to keep our city safe,” she said. “Just in the last 18 months since I took office, we’ve taken huge steps to accelerate innovation and best practices within our Police Department.”

She added: “I need and trust Chief Thomas to move KPD forward amidst these challenges that we and communities across the country face. We have to tackle these issues together — not tear each other down.”

McKenzie said it “hurt a little” to learn that the mayor felt she was being inappropriately divisive. 

“I pray that maybe a change will occur,” she said. “She said we shouldn’t be tearing each other down. I’m not tearing anybody down. … I’ve stood behind Chief Thomas since the beginning. My comment was not personal. I think Chief Thomas is a nice person. 

“But we have a chief that has said we don’t have an issue with racism. If you don’t believe you have an issue, you can’t fix it.”

Hard Knox Wire reached out to members of City Council but none responded to requests for comment.

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

Published on July 9, 2021