Officials vow SOS team will wear bodycams

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KPD’s bodycam system.

The Special Operations Squad (SOS) of the Knoxville Police Department has only killed two people in 44 years.

One of those two people — a career criminal named Bryan Calvin Lee — died less than a month ago when the SOS team executed a search warrant at a house in South Knoxville.

Unlike some killings by police, Lee’s death hasn’t caused a public outcry. There have been no angry denunciations of KPD and Mayor Indya Kincannon, no protests, no social media campaigns. 

Lee was white, as were the four officers, which means that race hasn’t entered into the discussion. Also, no witnesses have stepped forward to dispute KPD’s version of events. 

If recent history has shown anything, however, it’s that anytime a person dies at the hands of police, there is the possibility of controversy. 

It’s also shown that the use of so-called “police bodycams” can go a long way toward dispelling controversies and defusing tensions, if the resulting audio and video recordings show that officers acted appropriately when they used deadly force.

When Mayor Kincannon and KPD officials announced on April 1 that they’d finished equipping each uniformed officer with a bodycam, they stressed their goal was to increase transparency and accountability. 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.

Thanks to the combination of uniform-mounted cameras and the interlinked, upgraded in-car systems, every second of virtually every encounter between KPD officers and the public is supposed to be recorded.

It therefore came as something of a shock to learn that — had there been an outcry over Lee’s death — there would have been no footage of the encounter because SOS members weren’t wearing bodycams. 

In fact, it turned out that SOS (known popularly as the agency’s SWAT team) members hadn’t been wearing bodycams at all since they were introduced in April.

Since the shooting, however, KPD officials have promised the elite unit will don the costly outfits in the future. 

“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,” said KPD spokesperson Scott Erland.

Shooting still under investigation 

Authorities have released few details about what led to Lee’s death on October 12. 

According to official accounts, the shooting took place about 11:40 a.m. while agents from the TBI and Fifth Judicial District Drug Task Force were executing a search warrant at a house on Sevier Avenue related to an ongoing drug trafficking probe. The officers attached from the SOS team were on the scene strictly in a support role.

The body of Byran Lee, who was killed in a police shooting in South Knoxville, is taken to a waiting ambulance on Oct 12. Photo by Megan Sadler.

“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 just after the shooting. “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 about the shooting. They’ve also remained silent about the probe that led police to the door of the modest home in the first place.

They’ve refused, for instance, to say if Lee fired any shots or even if he 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, 43, had racked up arrests for more than 70 charges since he turned 18 years old 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 had served several terms in county jails as well as in the state prison system. In 2009, while he 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. In that incident, he stole a car and fled to familiar neighborhoods in South Knoxville but was recaptured within an hour.

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

The four officers identified as being involved in the shooting — Lt. Shane Watson, Sgt. Chris Hutton, Officer James Hunley and Officer Carl Kennedy — have been placed on administrative leave with pay, which is standard procedure.  

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

A curious ambiguity?

The SOS team is arguably KPD’s most elite unit. It currently has a strength of 26 officers, all of them trained and equipped to the high standards expected of an urban SWAT team. 

They are generally deployed to handle unique or high-risk situations such as barricaded suspects, hostage situations, suicidal individuals, the execution of high-risk warrants or drug seizures, and instances of civil disorder. 

“Officers who join the Special Operations Squad are required to complete the basic SOS school. Additionally, all SOS members are required to train as a squad for at least eight hours per month, but monthly training often well exceeds that,” explained Erland.

Last year, the team executed 30 high-risk search warrants, provided overwatch protection for 61 special events and responded to eight calls of barricaded suspects, he said.

The unit is commanded by Lt. Keith DeBow, a veteran officer who first joined KPD in 1995. Debow is the special teams coordinator as well as lieutenant over patrol support services, which includes the Field Training Officer program, the K-9 unit, Animal Control and Cadets. 

DeBow is one of KPD’s most respected veterans. Fellow officers describe him as having a keen mind and a deep reservoir of courage. He was promoted to Sergeant in 2002, he made Lieutenant in 2010, and in 2019 he was presented with the department’s Mike Waggoner Leadership Award.

Given the unit’s elite nature and high visibility, it’s a bit of a mystery how the SOS team managed to operate for nearly six months with no one at the administrative level catching on to the fact they weren’t wearing their bodycams. 

Officials have repeatedly sidestepped questions asking precisely how such an oversight occurred, but sources within KPD have described it as an innocent misinterpretation of the rules.

KPD spokesperson Erland insists that any ambiguity in the agency’s regulations has since been clarified and future SOS operations will be recorded. 

“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. However, the policy does not necessarily exempt SOS team members from wearing body cameras,” said Erland. 

“Around 90 percent of current KPD officers have been issued body cameras,” he continued. “Per KPD policy, body worn cameras have been assigned to all officers who are assigned to Patrol and engage in routine patrol or call response assignments, as well as additional officers whose operational assignment would benefit from the use of a body worn camera.”

KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

Ultimately, it’s hoped that having an independent record when bad things happen will protect both the public and officers.

“Our intention is that video equipment monitors all contacts with a person in the community in all situations possible,” Erland explained. 

“That is why we are reviewing our policy and internal communications to make sure that it is explicitly clear that all officers who have been issued body cameras are required to wear them while acting in those capacities, including special operations.”

“What are you going to see?”

For the sake of fairness, it should be pointed out that not everyone involved in law enforcement agrees that compelling the SOS team to don bodycams makes much sense. 

In fact, forcing SOS members to wear the devices is likely a waste of time, according to Keith Lyon, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“That’s a typical mayor’s reaction without thinking about what all is involved,” Lyon said Friday. “If they say to wear them, then the officers are going to wear them. But I don’t think they’re going to help much.”

According to Lyon, the nature of SOS assignments and tactics don’t mix easily with bodycams. 

“How effective can they be?” he asked. “When you’re stacking six or seven officers on top of each other, and usually the guy up front is carrying a ballistic shield. Then you go into a house, single file, what are you going to see?”

He added: “The cameras are great out in the open such as in a street or in a field. It’s an efficiency issue to put those cameras on officers, it’s just not going to show as much as people think. The camera doesn’t matter much if you go into a house and you’re falling on top of each other.”

When asked about the issue, Mayor Kincannon responded with a statement that both lavished praise on the unit’s performance and reiterated that the cameras will henceforth be worn by team members.

“I’d like express my appreciation to the members of KPD’s Special Operations Squad and acknowledge the extreme difficulty of what they do. (This) incident reminds us that our officers face the potential for danger every day, and that policing is demanding physically, mentally and emotionally,” Kincannon said. 

“The SOS unit is one of the most closely supervised and heavily trained within KPD, and that is reflected in their track record. Despite the dangerous assignments that SOS performs, last week’s deadly encounter was only the second fatal shooting in the 44-year history of the SOS unit,” she said.

“My expectation is that if they have one, all KPD officers will be wearing their body-worn cameras while engaging with the public,” Kincannon added. “Chief (Eve) Thomas has already updated her directives to the department. I’m glad that this clarification has been made and the requirement to wear the cameras is crystal clear.”

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

Published on November 5, 2021.