Push for “zero tolerance” of racism at KPD

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Amelia Parker at a recent City Council meeting. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

The last few months have been rough for the Knoxville Police Department and Mayor Indya Kincannon.

It seems like every week brings another allegation of wrongdoing or mismanagement at KPD. Black officers have claimed that their concerns have been ignored, there have been instances of violence with alleged racial overtones, and at this point nearly a half-dozen cops are the subjects of internal affairs probes. 

The controversies have even led Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, normally a staunch Kincannon ally, to declare publicly that she’s lost confidence in the ability of Police Chief Eve Thomas to successfully handle allegations of racism in the agency. 

A new solution, however, is being floated by one member of City Council — Amelia Parker.

She wants to craft a “zero tolerance” policy toward displays of racism or sexism by City employees.

“Racist and sexist practices, behaviors and actions by government officials threaten the health, safety and well being of City employees and residents and therefore should not be tolerated,” Parker said in an email.

“It is disappointing that the mayor and chief of police have not adequately addressed the need for a zero tolerance policy through our administrative rules and general orders. In response, I am introducing a resolution to direct the various city departments to develop a zero tolerance policy for racist and sexist practices, behaviors, and actions for all city departments, agencies, and divisions and to report back to Council within 60 days with a proposed policy. Once a policy is developed, I will propose the policy for adoption to our city code,” she said. 

Parker said she was in the process of drafting the resolution and would make it public when she was finished. She didn’t predict when that might be.

Although City offices and races are officially nonpartisan, Parker, McKenzie and Kincannon all identify as Democrats. They’ve generally advanced the same type of progressive policies, but in recent months a widening crack seems to have appeared over the issue of alleged racism in the ranks of KPD. 

Mayor Indya Kincannon. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

Kincannon, for her part, has implemented wide-ranging reforms at KPD while simultaneously voicing her support and gratitude for the officers. Under the watch of Kincannon and Thomas, the department has revamped its use-of-force policies and given its officers bodycams to record all citizen interactions. 

But many in Knoxville’s Black community, which has one of the worst poverty rates in the nation, have become fed up with what they perceive as a persistent unwillingness on the part of KPD to address systemic racism. The latest round of scandals, along with the shooting death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. at Austin-East Magnet High School in April, seem to have pushed the community to a breaking point where returning to the status quo may no longer be possible. 

As the only two Black members of City Council, McKenzie and Parker haven’t hesitated to express their dismay at the perceived culture at KPD. Parker, especially,  has been unsparing in her criticism of the department, at times finding herself the target of ridicule or hostility from rank-and-file police officers.

Officials in Kincannon’s administration said Monday they are waiting for Parker to unveil her proposal before commenting on it. 

“As you likely know, many discussions have continued within the City and in communities all across the country about public safety—and reimagining what that looks like,” said Kristin Farley, Kincannon’s director of communications, in an email Monday. “Mayor Kincannon and other City leaders are continually having conversations about ways we can improve — and that includes reexamining KPD policies and practices.”

She continued: “It is the policy of the Knoxville Police Department to practice bias-free policing and respect the rights and dignity of all citizens…. The resulting disciplinary action for an employee found in violation of these policies can range up to and include termination.”

Farley pointed to specific sections of the department’s Code of Conduct, as did KPD spokesperson Scott Erland.

“In particular, I’ll point you in the direction of 1.19 Unbecoming Conduct, which requires that ‘employees shall conduct themselves at all times, both on and off duty, in such a manner as to reflect most favorably on the department,’”  Erland said in a written statement. 

Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

“I’ll also point you in the direction of 2.04 Conduct General, which states that ‘Employees shall not conduct themselves in an immoral, indecent, lewd, or disorderly manner or in a manner that might be construed by an observer as immoral, indecent, lewd, or disorderly,’” he continued. 

“Violations of either of those policies, which are broadly interpreted, are considered class A offenses, and the subsequent disciplinary action can range up to and include termination as determined appropriate by the Chief of Police when considering the totality of the circumstances,” he said.

Erland said the City’s administrative policies, which cover harassment and discrimination, also apply to all employees including KPD officers.  

“With that, we are always evaluating and fine-tuning our policies and practices to ensure that they meet the highest possible standard,” he said. 

It’s obvious, however, that the current policies aren’t enough to satisfy Parker or other critics of the department. It’s unclear what her proposal will include, but the use of terms like “zero tolerance” implies a desire to kick officers off the force whenever they exhibit “racist and sexist practices, behaviors, and actions.”

While such a policy might be welcomed by some, it may turn out to be a waste of effort or even backfire if care isn’t taken to preserve the due process of KPD employees. For instance, a zero tolerance policy may be fraught with legally complicated definitions and could be seen as a direct challenge to the Civil Service protections that officers enjoy. 

There are also potential conflicts with the First Amendment whenever a government agency contemplates taking action against citizens or employees based on their personal beliefs. While employers can restrict what their workers say in many circumstances, it may be unwise to test a zero tolerance policy in a federal court system stacked with conservative judges who have an innate hostility toward anything that smacks of “political correctness.”

In the meantime — at least until Parker’s proposal is made public — there seems to be little that City officials can or will do other than to wait for the next scandal to take yet another bite out of KPD’s moral credibility.

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

Published on July 20, 2021