No bodycam footage in police shooting

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(Clockwise from top left) James Hunley, Chris Hutton, Shane Watson, and Carl Kennedy. (Center) Bryan Calvin Lee. Photos from Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office.

None of the Knoxville Police Department officers involved in a deadly drug raid were wearing their department-issued bodycams when a 43-year-old man was killed this week, officials said Thursday.

The revelation came as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) continued its investigation into the death of Bryan Calvin Lee, who was shot and killed while an ad hoc task force of law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at a house on Sevier Avenue in South Knoxville.

The four officers — Lt. Shane Watson, Sgt. Chris Hutton, Officer James Hunley and Officer Carl Kennedy — are patrol officers assigned to the West District. They also belong to KPD’s elite Special Operations Squad (popularly known as the SWAT team), which was their assignment at the time of the shooting.

“That is accurate that the officers involved in Tuesday’s incident were not wearing body cameras. Our current policy does not explicitly state that Special Operations Squad members are required to wear body cameras and, up to this point, SOS members involved in tactical operations have not worn body cameras,” KPD spokesperson Scott Erland said Thursday night.

“However, the policy does not necessarily exempt SOS team members from wearing body cameras,” he continued. “With that and in light of yesterday’s events, we are ensuring that SOS officers, the members of other specialized units and their supervisors understand that officers who have been issued body cameras are required to wear them while acting in those capacities. We are also actively reviewing our policy to make certain that expectation is clear and there is no room for interpretation.”

On April 1, KPD and City officials announced that they’d finished the process of equipping each uniformed officer with a bodycam to increase transparency and accountability. Thanks to the combination of uniform-mounted cameras and the interlinked, upgraded in-car systems that were part of the project, every second of virtually every encounter between KPD officers and the public was supposed to be recorded. 

Since the project was approved in 2020, Arizona-based Axon Enterprise Inc. has provided 297 body-worn cameras and installed 333 in-car systems at a cost of $4.9 million. 

All four KPD officers are on administrative leave with pay, which is standard procedure after a fatal encounter, according to Erland. 

 The shooting took place about 11:40 a.m. Tuesday while agents from the TBI and Fifth Judicial District Drug Task Force were executing a search warrant at the house related to an ongoing drug trafficking probe. 

The officers attached from KPD’s Special Operations Squad (popularly known as the agency’s SWAT team) were on the scene strictly in a support role.

“Preliminarily information indicates that upon arriving at the home, KPD’s Special Operations Squad encountered a man armed with a gun,” a TBI spokesperson said. “For reasons still under investigation, the situation escalated and resulted in officers firing shots, striking the man. He was pronounced dead at the scene. No officers were injured during the incident.”

Authorities have refused to release further details of the shooting or the probe that led police to the door of the modest Sevier Avenue home.

They’ve refused, for instance, to say if Lee was living in the house. His last known address was about three miles away on Taylor Road, but that address was pulled from records nearly six months old. 

Court records show that Lee was a career criminal who racked up arrests for more than 70 charges since he turned 18 in 1996.  

Those charges included numerous felonies such as aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, arson, and methamphetamine trafficking along with a slew of misdemeanors, many of them alcohol-related, according to arrest records from Knox and Blount counties.

Lee served several terms in county jails as well as in the state prison system. 

In 2009, while Lee was an inmate at Morgan County Correctional Complex, he made headlines across the state for escaping from a work detail at a church in Anderson County. He stole a car and fled to the familiar neighborhoods of South Knoxville but was recaptured within an hour.

None of Lee’s relatives or friends could be reached for comment.

When the shooting investigation is completed, the TBI will turn the results over to Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

Prior to Tuesday, the last officer-involved shooting in Knoxville was the April 12 death of Anthony Thompson Jr. at Austin-East Magnet High School.

Thompson was killed during an armed confrontation with four KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East that was triggered by an earlier domestic dispute involving Thompson and another student. The officers involved in the shooting were cleared of wrongdoing by the TBI and Allen, but Thompson’s death nevertheless sparked weeks of angry protests by activists who wished to see the cops punished.

Depending on how slayings are counted, Tuesday’s shooting marked either the 34th or 36th homicide in the Knoxville city limits this year.

According to KPD’s statistics — which don’t include officer-involved shootings — the number of homicides is 34. 

Hard Knox Wire, however, includes officer-involved shootings in the tally of homicides as well as all other instances of lethal violence, even when they are determined to be justifiable killings. Under that criteria, Tuesday’s shooting was the City’s 36th homicide of 2021.

Regardless of which count is used, if the violence continues at its current pace, then 2021 will be the city’s deadliest year on record by far.  

The unprecedented rise in the homicide rate began when the number of killings shot up from 22 in 2019 to 37 in 2020 (not counting slayings that were later ruled as justified), which is a 72 percent increase. 

Prior to 2020, the bloodiest year on record was 1998, when 35 people were killed.

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

Published October 15, 2021.