Council approves money to stop violence

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The city of Knoxville hopes to put $2 million toward fighting gun violence after a recent string of deadly shootings.

City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve two separate measures, one of which immediately freed up $1 million to be spent fighting violent crime. The other will hopefully end up bringing $1 million in federal dollars to the city.

“It’s all weighing heavily on us, the violence in our community,”  Mayor Indya Kincannon said. “We have people brandishing guns, shooting with impunity and killing people, including children.”

Most of the meeting revolved around ways to address the surging violence, but Council also gave a cold reception to a bid to make it legal for homeless persons to camp.

Councilwoman Amelia Parker, who has been a vocal critic of strategies traditionally used to cope with the homeless population, introduced a resolution that would have opened the door for zoning rules to be changed to allow for legal campsites. 

The proposal drew no speakers or debate, and Parker’s motion failed for lack of a second.

Council authorized the Knoxville Police Department to apply for a $1 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, over a three-year period. If awarded the grant through the Edward Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, the city won’t have to put up any matching funds.

The council members also amended the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget to include $1 million for violence interruption efforts.  

Local activist Constance Every told Council that she supported the grant but also said the city needs to make sure the money is used for its stated purpose in East Knoxville where much of the violence is taking place. 

“I don’t want to see no 10-year old, 8-year-old in a box,” she said. “This money needs to go to the community.” 

Violence in some East Knoxville neighborhoods, especially the area derisively referred to by locals as “the Gun Zone,” has been an endemic problem for decades. Over the past year, however, the entire city has been shaken by a record number of killings that’s included 13 homicides — all committed by firearms— since Jan. 1. 

Not all of those killings have taken place in East Knoxville, but the deaths of three children who attended Austin-East Magnet High School have triggered citywide outrage and self-reflection. 

Justin Q. Taylor, 15, was shot and killed Jan. 27 and another teen was charged with criminally negligent homicide for his death. 

Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was struck by a bullet and killed on Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus. 

Just days later, on Feb. 16, Janaira Muhammed, a 15-year-old freshman, was apparently shot and killed outside of her house.

Chief Eve Thomas of the Knoxville Police Department said the federal grant her agency was seeking would have specific targets and goals, such as gang prevention programs in schools.

Parker wanted to know more details about data collection by the police department.

“What data is KPD required to track and share?” she asked.

Thomas said she didn’t have a “good handle” on the answer but expects to learn more details as the application process continues.

Kincannon said her $1 million budget amendment wasn’t new but the timing of its introduction was. She had planned to come to Council with the proposal before the July 1 end of the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

“I don’t want to wait until July 1 to stop the bleeding,” she said.

The money, she said, would not be used for one specific program but would instead be spread across several different initiatives.

Erin Gill, deputy mayor and chief policy officer, went over a list of strategies the city could take to disrupt gun violence such as group violence reduction, street outreach and hospital-based intervention.

Group violence reduction tries to target groups committing violence and negotiate a ceasefire by explaining the risks and consequences of their actions. Street outreach workers are those who go to the front lines of gang conflicts to speak directly with those involved in the fighting.

“Sometimes they are called the peacemakers,” Gill said.

Hospital-based intervention often takes place in emergency rooms. When a shooting victim is brought to E.R. to get help, the goal of the intervention could be to calm family or friends who wish to seek retribution.

“It’s a three-legged stool when you talk about community violence interruption,” Gill said.

Another key aspect of the money would be to bring in Cities United, a network of mayors dedicated to reducing homicides and shootings of young Black men from the age of 14 to 24.

Kincannon said she wanted to bring a contract with the group to Council in time for its next meeting. She also stressed the importance of getting the group on board as soon as possible.

Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, spoke by phone to the council and told them that having a comprehensive plan with long-term goals was essential to success. He said he has seen as much as a 30 percent decrease in gun violence over a five-year period through the program, but that was only when all stakeholders were involved.

It’s just not political will, it’s community will, he said.

“This has got to be community driven, community led and community engaged,” he said.

Councilwoman Lauren Rider agreed. “That is the challenge,” she said. “To stay the course.”

Some council members asked if $1 million was enough. Kincannon and other city officials said more funds could me made available in future budgets.

“This is just the beginning of the work,” said Councilwoman Seemah Sing.

Published on February 24, 2021