Zero patience for zero tolerance

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(clockwise from top left) City Council members Lauren Rider, Gwen McKenzie, Seema Singh and KPD Chief Eve Thomas at Tuesday’s meeting of City Council. Photos from CTV.

What’s in a name?

A lot, apparently. 

That, at least, was the upshot of Tuesday night’s Knoxville City Council vote on a proposal by Amelia Parker to study ways to strengthen City policies against racism and sexism. 

Specifically, Council members balked at Parker’s desire for a “zero tolerance” policy and instead approved a substitute proposal drafted by Lynne Fugate that dropped the controversial term.

The proposals were triggered by several recent controversies at the Knoxville Police Department, including a series of articles by The News Sentinel and instances of violence with alleged racial overtones. The controversies have even led Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, normally a staunch ally of Mayor Indya Kincannon and her administration, to declare publicly that she’s lost confidence in the ability of KPD Chief Eve Thomas to successfully handle allegations of racism in the department. 

Fugate’s proposal — like Parker’s — committed City officials to studying the current rules and trying to formulate better policies. It also gave officials 120 days before reporting back to Council instead of the 90 days sought by Parker.

Fugate cited the experience of school systems with zero tolerance policies as an example of what can go wrong. She told of students being suspended for having plastic knives in their lunchboxes after it was determined that a zero tolerance policy against knives removed discretion from the hands of educators.

“I assure you that I take racism and sexism very seriously,” Fugate said. “One of those I have not experienced, one of those I have. It’s real and I appreciate the severity of that.”

Janet Testerman echoed Fugate’s discomfort. “It (zero tolerance) hasn’t proven to be effective because in effect you’re leading by fear, which leads to toxic cultures, it leads to mediocre performance and anxiety is the enemy of logic,” she said. 

“We need to have this discussion, but I am not in favor of a zero tolerance policy. I have seen that do too much harm,” said Seema Singh.

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie said that she shared Parker’s dissatisfaction with the status quo.

“There has to be some type of mechanism in place that is going to be very clear, other than words written on a piece of paper, that we don’t tolerate certain behaviors and cultures,” she said.

Lynne Fugate at a recent City Council meeting. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

McKenzie and Parker are the only two Black members of City Council, and they both used their personal experiences to explain why action was needed.

“People know when you go to work and you get those looks and the atmosphere is different,” she said. “Most of us sitting around this table, people of color, we understand that. We get that because we’ve experienced that…. I absolutely feel like we need to do something.… What we have in place currently doesn’t seem to be hitting the mark.”

McKenzie asked Parker if there was some way to combine the best parts of the two proposals. 

“I’m honestly not married to the words ‘zero tolerance,’” Parker replied. “I’m married to the culture of zero tolerance.”

She then asked Human Resources Director Kelly Drummond if there weren’t already offenses that would result in an employee’s automatic termination, such as murder.

Drummond explained that supervisors could immediately fire employees in the case of an “egregious situation” but didn’t specify an example. Drummond also pointed out that even employees accused of the most horrific misdeeds are entitled to due process. 

Human Resources Director Kelly Drummond answers questions about employee policies concerning racism and sexism at Tuesday’s meeting of City Council. Photo from CTV.

“I need to make sure you understand that, even in that situation, we have a Civil Service policy that allows for that employee to appeal that decision,” she told Parker.

Alluding to recent news stories about KPD supervisors not taking complaints of racist behavior seriously, Parker said that allowing supervisors leeway in how they punish employees has apparently been a large part of the problem she wanted to solve.

“We need a policy that removes that discretion from supervisors…. I want to see if supervisors are using their discretion too often in instances of racism and sexism,” she said.

Parker repeatedly expressed her displeasure with her fellow Council members’ reluctance to embrace a zero tolerance policy.

“It makes sense within a school setting but we are not talking about a school setting,” she said. “We are talking about, for the most part, individuals who are armed and have the authority to take our lives. When there’s someone with that much power in our society, we absolutely have to have zero tolerance policies.”

Parker then shocked the room by claiming she knew of an instance where City officials had ignored an alleged rape, causing great concern among employees who had to work alongside the alleged perpetrator.  

“We’re not talking about folks just saying rude comments, we’re talking about folks feeling threatened in their work, unsafe in their body, unable to report offenses to their superiors or even to the Mayor of the City of Knoxville. That is seriously concerning, and it should concern us all,” she said. 

Parker’s allegations were met with dismay. 

“What I heard described was a crime,” said Lauren Rider. “Councilwoman Parker, are you saying you have knowledge of City employees who are having to work with people who know their colleague is a rapist and that information is ignored and unacknowledged?”

“Yes,” Parker replied.

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

Under questioning by Rider, Drummond and KPD Chief Eve Thomas explained that a rape would be investigated and prosecuted as a crime.

“That’s not sexism or racism, I think that needs to be real clear,” Rider said.

“It’s a sexist culture when it’s not investigated,” Parker said.

“I’m confused as to the information that you have and why you haven’t come forward, Councilwoman Parker, because I think this is serious,” said Chief Thomas.

Parker shot back: “I have. I have come forward.”

The discussion then drifted away from Parker’s allegation, promoting Rider to say that it shouldn’t be ignored.

“I think there needs to be further discussion about that,” Rider said. “That’s incredibly disturbing because that is not sexism and that is not racism, it’s a crime.”

Singh asked Chief Thomas why the administration seemed to have trouble getting rid of problem officers. 

“I guess I’m wanting more clarification on your question,” Thomas said. “As far as what’s reported in the paper, we’ve not had anyone come forward. I don’t know if that’s a former officer or those are former officers or they’re current officers. The current officers I’ve spoken to have not told me of any problems. Somebody’s got to come forward for me to investigate it. I try and get on a very personal level with all of my officers, especially my minority officers, because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. I really don’t have an answer for you because I wish I knew who came forward or what they said.”

Singh said, “I’m finding this conversion really frustrating. I think we all know there have been general complaints, and a lot of them…If there are officers that need not to be officers, where is the process getting stuck?”

“So, your first question was, ‘If there are officers.’ We have to find those officers. I don’t know,” Thomas countered.

Mayor Indya Kincannon then interrupted the exchange, telling Singh that the answers to her questions weren’t known. But, she said, if Fugate’s proposal was passed, she would report back to Council in the required 120 days with answers.

“These allegations we’ve heard about and investigated raise some serious issues,” Kincannon said. “I can understand your frustration and we don’t have all the answers tonight.”

Singh replied: “What I don’t want to happen is for us to go through the process and then we find out there’s still no teeth in anything that we can do, any changes we can make, and the status quo remains.”

Council members then voted unanimously to approve Fugate’s substitute proposal. 

Parker couldn’t be reached for comment after the meeting.

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

Published on July 28, 2021