Activists criticize lack of police transparency at PARC meeting

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“Try being Black for 24 hours.”

That was the opening salvo of a verbal skirmish between a prominent activist and a Knoxville Police Department sergeant at Thursday’s meeting of the Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC).

“For this officer right here: You said your job is dangerous? Be in the position of being Black and talk about being dangerous,” said Constance Every, directly addressing KPD Sgt. Amanda Bunch, who is white. “Be homeless and talk about being dangerous. Be disabled, and be single and live at home alone by yourself and talk about being dangerous. That’s the reality.”

Every was just one of the community members and activists who delivered passionate speeches at PARC’s quarterly meeting at the Knoxville Family Justice Center on Harriet Tubman Street.

PARC was created in 1998 to provide an independent review of police activity and make recommendations to the Chief of Police. The committee was formed as a response to the deaths of four men, three of them Black, in confrontations with KPD officers over a seven-month period. Although all of the officers were eventually cleared of wrongdoing, the Black community lashed out at what they perceived to be a culture of brutality and indifference. 

City leaders responded by forming PARC, which provides an independent review of police activity and makes recommendations to the Chief of Police. It is comprised of seven volunteers served by a full-time executive director hired by the mayor.

Every described a recent confrontation with KPD in which she says she feared for her life. Every was arrested on October 6 during a dispute over a takeout order at Nama Sushi Bar in downtown Knoxville and charged with disorderly conduct. According to Every, the officers falsely suspected she had a gun during the encounter and ultimately placed her under arrest simply for the way she spoke.

“I’m like, you don’t have a reason to stop me, I don’t have a gun, and you’re still unlawfully detaining me? I was walking back by myself, and he says it’s disorderly conduct because of how loud I’ve been and how I’ve spoken to him,” Every said following the incident. “Where in the law does it say that I have to speak to a police officer nicely or respectfully?”

Related: Activist calls arrest by KPD “illegal”

Every is well-known in Knoxville as a human rights and Black Lives Matter activist. Her comments came on the heels of a discussion between PARC member Heidi Barcus and KPD Sgt. Bunch. 

Barcus posed a question to Bunch about a KPD internal affairs investigation into a complaint about prisoner transportation. The allegation had been sustained by IA investigators, along with an added infraction of a publicly undisclosed nature that was reportedly unrelated to the initial complaint. 

PARC’s quarterly meeting held on October 28, 2021. Photo by Megan Sadler.

According to Barcus, records showed that a prisoner managed to conceal a weapon while being transported that had been somehow missed during pat-down search of the suspect.

“My question is, is that true? And if it is true, should officers be putting suspects into vehicles without conducting a full search?” asked Barcus. 

“Our job is dangerous just in itself,” Bunch replied. “We can’t mitigate all risk.” 

Bunch was interrupted by Theresa Sexton, a citizen who attended the meeting.  

“You say your job is dangerous?” Sexton demanded. She then went on to describe the many fears and struggles she’s faced while experiencing homelessness.

Her comments served as a springboard for Every to draw attention to what she described as a power imbalance between law enforcement and everyday citizens. 

“Too many officers that serve in the police force across America, including KPD, talk about the dangers of their job, but here’s a reality check: If you are scared, you should not work this job,” said Every. 

“This ain’t the job for the scared, it’s for the fearless. It’s not for the weak-hearted, it’s for the brave-hearted. So, my concern is that we have a police officer talking about ‘dangerous’ when a homeless woman came here to express her fears of literally being homeless. To compare yourself to that, it’s actually hilarious,” Every continued. 

“Let’s be real, ya’ll got guns, y’all got tasers, y’all got mace, y’all got batons, y’all got dogs, y’all got backup, y’all got special security officers. That’s a lot for you to start talking about your job being dangerous,” she said.

Every also pushed PARC members to fight for more transparency at the police department.

“Where is the transparency? Where is the accountability?” Every asked the committee. “PARC is for the public. This is for the public to have complaints about our police officers and their misconduct and criminal activity and behavior.”

Another public forum speaker, Tyler Givens, brought up KPD’s annual report. Givens indicated that Black people were disproportionately named as “suspects” in police investigations compared to white individuals, and referred to a series of stories published by the Knoxville News Sentinel that detailed officer complaints about a culture of racism at the department.  

Givens also criticized the agency for a lack of transparency and the amount of money spent on KPD programs.

“I see lots of news about increasing crime rates used to justify the ever-increasing police budget, but I do not see the transparency promised by the creation of PARC,” said Givens.

In all, the committee addressed five cases under review by KPD’s Internal Investigations Unit, including the aforementioned transportation case. In the remaining four cases, KPD officers who were accused of “rudeness” and “failure to investigate” were exonerated. 

Thursday’s meeting was the last before the committee’s new executive director, Tiffany Davidson, is set to assume her new role. She will be taking the place of LaKenya Middlebrook, who was recently appointed to be the City’s first director of community safety. Davidson will begin her job at PARC on November 1.

“I have spent a large sum of my career learning what it takes to build and sustain relationships between multiple groups of individuals and entities within our city,” Davidson said in a statement issued early this week. “Serving as an advocate and a convener of people, I plan to utilize strategic and intentional efforts to create a sense of listening, understanding, accountability and respect.”

Davidson’s comments immediately drew criticism from City Council member Amelia Parker, who said in a social media post that Davidson appeared to not understand PARC’s traditional role.

”This should not be the role of the PARC director. We need an investigator and we need PARC to investigate and proactively take steps to suggest new policies and protocols that will better hold police accountable. That should be the purpose of a police accountability and review committee,” Parker said.

PARC meets quarterly at various locations around the city. The next meeting’s time and location have not been announced. 

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 29, 2021.