KPD makes changes to fight violence

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KPD officers raid the home of John Bassett in Lonsdale. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

It’s no secret that Knoxville’s streets are bloodier than ever.

City officials have been scrambling for months to come up with a solution to the record-breaking level of deadly violence on Knoxville’s streets, but nothing seems to have worked so far.

That’s hardly surprising. After all, any criminologist worth their salt will explain that homicide rates are the result of long-term demographic and sociological trends that aren’t easily unraveled, much less reversed.

Officials from the Knoxville Police Department, however, are betting they can make at least some difference on the streets through internal restructuring and a laser-like focus on gun- and drug-related crimes.

Last week, for instance, KPD officers arrested 58 people, ages 21 to 64, on drug or weapons charges and confiscated at least nine illegal firearms, according to department spokesperson Scott Erland. 

“This is the result of the KPD’s continued focus on addressing and preventing both violent crime and overdose deaths, which are on track to surpass last year’s total here in Knox County,” Erland said. 

Officers also seized more than 52 grams each of suspected heroin and cocaine as well as more than 16 grams of suspected methamphetamine. They also confiscated more than 140 pills, 237 grams of marijuana, and over $5,300 in cash. 

The charges filed included possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, unlawful possession of a weapon, being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, drug trafficking, and auto theft, he said. 

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 Knoxville began keeping statistics.

At least 322 people have died from drug overdoses in Knox County so far this year. Most of them have died from ingesting lethal levels of opiate painkillers, mainly heroin and fentanyl, although methamphetamine has seen a resurgence in popularity.

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 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.

On Sunday, KPD’s patrol officers began getting used to a new scheduling system designed to maximize how many officers are available per shift and compensate for staffing shortages. 

KPD Chief Eve Thomas said that she’s “incredibly grateful” for the willingness of officers to adapt to the changes.

“With the concerning rise in violent crime and homicides along with our staffing shortages, it became apparent that something needed to change to get more officers on the street,” she said. 

“That being said, we did not take this decision lightly and understood the added burden it could place on our officers,” she said. “It’s never easy to have your schedule and routine altered, but I appreciate our officers for their continued sacrifice for the greater good of our city.” 

According to KPD officials, the new scheme has a number of advantages for both the community and officers.

“Since early 2015, patrol officers have operated on a 4-3 fixed shift. On that schedule, patrol officers worked four consecutive 10-hour shifts every week on either day, evening or night shift,” Erland explained. “Patrol officers will work 12-hour shifts, rotating between day shift and night shift every 28 days. Additionally, instead of working four days consecutively each week, patrol officers will work four days total one week and three days total the next week.”

The 12-hour rotating shift puts more cops on the street even as it requires a smaller number of them, he said. It also adds personnel to each squad, including more supervisors.

The new schedule also allows officers to work an equal number of night and day shifts, and they’ll have more days off. 

Under the previous system, they worked an average of 19 days per month, but they’ll now only be required to work approximately 14 days per month. No officers will be required to work more than three consecutive days, and they will have Fridays through Sundays off every other week.

The Community Engagement Response Team, a special unit formed several months ago to proactively address areas where crime seemed to be peaking, will keep working “during hours of peak call volume to supplement the efforts of patrol officers,” according to Erland.

“In putting together this new patrol schedule, we wanted something that was fair and equitable for our officers, better spread out our expertise and special teams personnel, put more officers on the street, and focused on the overall well-being of our officers,” said Thomas. “I appreciate the thoughtful and considerate work of my Command Staff to develop a schedule that we feel best accomplishes those goals.”  

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

Published on September 15, 2021.