Mayor appoints new anti-violence director

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(Left to right) LaKenya Middlebrook, Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knoxville Fire Department Chief Stan Sharp. Source: City of Knoxville.

City officials took their boldest step forward Tuesday in their efforts to quash the rising tide of lethal violence on Knoxville’s streets.

LaKenya Middlebrook took up the newly created title of Director of Community Safety, a cabinet-level position created by Mayor Indya Kincannon to oversee the City’s response to its skyrocketing homicide rate. 

“Our entire community is impacted by increases in violence, our neighbors are hurting, and we will do everything we can to prevent and reduce violence here,” Middlebrook said Tuesday. 

The creation of the new position is arguably the most aggressive step taken in the fight against violent crime, at least in the sense that it’s a break with how things are traditionally done in Knoxville.

The rising death toll has put tremendous pressure on Kincannon’s administration to somehow stop — or at least slow — the bloodshed. Frustrated by the slower-than-expected progress of Cities United, a Kentucky-based nonprofit hired in April to help develop a “violence interruption” strategy, Kincannon made a surprise announcement last month to the effect that her administration was taking direct control of street-level efforts to combat the violence. 

Instead of calling the shots, Cities United will take on an advisory role while Middlebrook oversees the many agencies and groups — mostly civilian and nonprofit — who are expected to form the front line of Knoxville’s anti-violence efforts.

Although Middlebrook’s precise responsibilities and powers weren’t specified on Tuesday, officials said in a written statement that “this new cabinet-level position will oversee and coordinate all aspects of community safety.” She will collaborate with Kincannon, the Knoxville Police Department, the Knoxville Fire Department and “other community partners.”

Middlebrook is expected to have bi-weekly meetings with Kincannon and KPD Chief Eve Thomas, to schedule regular meetings with the full cabinet, to work with the Community Empowerment Department and to “coordinate resources with others on the front lines working to keep our neighborhoods safe,” official said.  

“I am honored and humbled to be chosen for such a critical role in our City,” she said. “As part of the internal task force working on violence prevention and interruption, I have learned a lot about evidence-based strategies in cities throughout the country and methods we can successfully implement here in Knoxville.” 

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, 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. 

The numbers mean that 2021 is on track to be the bloodiest year since Knoxville began keeping crime statistics.

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

Although Middebrook doesn’t necessarily have much in the way of experience in combating crime, she does have at least some background in mediating between civilians and law enforcement.

She was appointed by Kincannon to head Knoxville’s Police Advisory & Review Committee in June 2020. 

Her new title also comes with a hefty pay raise. She was already making a salary of $84,064.76 at PARC, but as Director of Community Safety she’ll earn $105,000 per year, according to City spokesperson Eric Vreeland. 

 Middlebrook earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Kentucky in 2002 and a law degree from the University of Tennessee in 2006. She worked primarily as a private attorney from 2008 to 2020, except for a brief tenure as director of the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center from 2010 to 2012.

Middlebrook volunteers to serve on the Knox County Foster Care Review Board, the Executive Committee of the Knoxville Branch NAACP and the United Way of Greater Knoxville Board of Directors. She is also Kincannon’s representative on the boards of the Knoxville Family Justice Center and East Tennessee History Center. 

“LaKenya Middlebrook is an effective and passionate leader who works tirelessly for justice in all situations,” Kincannon said while announcing her appointment Tuesday. “She has established relationships with key partners that will help us build-out sustainable violence interruption programs and other solutions that will work best in our city.”

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

Published on September 1, 2021