Anti-violence plan unveiled

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Andre Canty

For public safety in the city of Knoxville, particularly for the Knoxville Police Department (KPD), 2020 was the best of times in at least one way.  It was also the worst of them in another.

The numbers tell the tale. KPD, which along with the Fire Department falls under the Public Safety category in the city budget, was funded at approximately $60 million in Fiscal Year 2020 – 21.  That is more money than has ever been allocated to the police department in any previous year.  In fact, KPD’s budget has broken previous records on a yearly basis since 2017 due to consistent annual increases for the department.

Another record-breaking number to consider is 37: the number of homicides within the city limits last year, overtaking the previous record, which was 35 in 1998. The pace of the bloodshed has been even worse this year, with 20 people having been killed as of this writing, compared to 13 as of this time last year.

As sobering as those figures are, looking closer gives a sense of Knoxville’s particular tribulation, as a quarter of this year’s victims were under the age of 18.  The loss of five young people to violence in a community the size of Knox County is shocking enough, but the tragedy here is made even worse by the fact that all of the dead children attended the same school, Austin-East Magnet High School. 

By the end of February the administration of Mayor Indya Kincannon was rocked back on its heels.

Not only did  Kincannon resist last year’s loud demands to “defund the police” in the wake of burgeoning George Floyd protests, she chose to  increase KPD’s funding to record levels. But with the steady drip of Knoxville teen deaths, the mayor apparently began to recognize that continuing to beef up law enforcement – which traditionally takes the lion’s share of any city budget – had maybe reached a point of diminishing returns. 

At least for a moment, Mayor Kincannon was ready to pivot to the somewhat less police-centric public safety strategies that she had embraced in her 2019 election campaign. In fairly short order after the third student was killed, the mayor announced her intent to have City Council vote to amend this year’s budget to allocate an extra $1M for a “Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund.”

Without saying outright whether any of this new money would supplement the KPD budget, city staff emphasized that resources would be spread across several different community-based initiatives, many of which will be developed under contract with Cities United, the nonprofit organization that has successfully worked across the nation to reduce urban gun violence, primarily among young black men and boys.

City Council unanimously passed the measure in February, and a $75K contract with Cities United was unanimously approved a month later.

In a May 13 webinar, City staff and Cities United officials rolled out their first public presentation of how they expect the process of “reimagining public safety” to begin playing out through “community-based” resources.   

Community Engagement Manager Kathy Mack and LaKenya Middlebrook, head of the Police Advisory and Review Commission (PARC), began with an overview of the new initiatives the city has so far committed to funding. One of those – the Crimestoppers reporting and reward program – will directly support KPD operations.  Mack also announced that the new funding will provide small grants to community organizations for a Summer Youth Violence Prevention Pilot Program.  

Also, as a local violence intervention and prevention plan begins to take shape, the city plans to hire a project coordinator to oversee its implementation.

PARC Director Middlebrook sidestepped a question about whether KPD will be a beneficiary of any more of this new money but emphasized the increased support for community-based programs.  “The intention is to build out newer programs as well as existing programs that need more resources,” summed up  Middlebrook. “We will be very intentional about working with the community on this.”

Former Knoxville resident Andre Canty, who worked at the Highlander Center and the Beck Cultural Exchange Center before moving to Louisville, Ky., is the Cities United point person for its work in Knoxville.

In last week’s presentation Canty gave an overview to about twenty grassroots leaders, from community organizers to after school program coordinators to life skills coaches to trauma and grief counselors, of what the process of reimagining public safety will look like in Knoxville.

 Canty invoked Knoxville’s favorite pastime —UT football — when he gave an overview to about 20 grassroots leaders, from community organizers and after-school program coordinators to life skills coaches and trauma counselors

“The first thing to understand about my role: I’m Chris Rumph, not Phil Fulmer,” he said, referring to the former Vols defensive coordinator ( Canty’s cousin) and the former Vols head coach.  

“I will be spending a lot more time getting the big picture up in the Skybox than being down on the field calling every play,” said Canty. “You all are the players. You call your own plays as a team. My work informs your plays and progress on the field.”  

According to Canty, the next steps are to identify existing and potential members of a grassroots, frontline violence intervention and prevention team. He then wants to pull them all into a huddle to agree on their next plays as they hopefully make their way downfield to defeat their opponent, street violence.

In the Cities United playbook, reimagining public safety means employing a public health approach that starts with the premise that gun violence is a contagious disease and its spread can be interrupted. 

He went over three key strategies for immediate crisis intervention: violence interruption, street outreach, and hospital-based violence intervention. He suggested these are the priority tactics in the early stages to contain the infection’s spread.

According to Canty, street outreach workers and violence interrupters have the common goal of interrupting the cycle of violence but each have different roles.

Violence interrupters are well-connected at the street level and have the situational awareness to detect violent or potentially violent situations, such as acts of retaliation.  They are trained in mediation and engage in conflict resolution to prevent violence before it occurs.  

Street outreach workers, on the other hand, are a hybrid of mentors and case managers who connect the most at-risk offenders to immediate resources and wraparound services while also providing ongoing life coaching.

Hospital-based violence intervention engages young people impacted by violence as soon as possible after a shooting-related hospitalization. This has been shown to be a critical opportunity to redirect retaliatory impulses and stop the cycle of violence.  The goal of the people given this task is to connect the survivor, friends and family to trauma-informed services, mentoring and home visits.

While those three groups develop their respective ground games, Canty said Cities United will develop a coordinated partnership between those community-based programs and other key public safety players including emergency medical services, the school system, faith community, elected officials, media and police.  

“This coordinated crisis response team will deploy resources focused on the individual, family and community trauma of each incident of violence,” Canty said. “This is where we get out of our silos and start a whole systems approach to curing violence.”

Cities United is clear in its published reports that community-led and community-driven approaches to treating violence will not be an easy, cheap, or comfortable process. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon

The group is also clear that success depends largely on political and financial support.

Some of the most successful programs in other cities where Cities United has worked (from the standpoint of community buy-in and a measurable reduction in violence) use collaborative public safety funding models where community members most impacted by violence can make decisions on how public funds are allocated.  

In San Jose and Minneapolis, for example, extensive community engagement through surveys, door-to-door canvassing and community listening sessions helped cities identify priorities for available funds.

“Getting feedback, representation, transparency, and equity throughout the funding process — working side-by-side to evaluate and prioritize and deploy financial resources for public safety — that’s that team effort and I think it’s a winning strategy for Knoxville,” Canty concluded.

His presentation left the impression that, if this process is truly driven by the people living and working in the communities most infected by the disease of violence, the best days for public safety may lie ahead of us.

Rick Held can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

Published on May 21, 2021.