The Knoxville Police Department’s new chief got a chance to explain how he plans to make the agency more accountable while attending his first meeting of the city’s civilian review board.
Chief Paul Noel also found himself answering several questions about KPD’s bodycam policy and got an earful of sometimes virulent criticism from a succession of Knoxville residents who signed up to speak during Thursday’s meeting of the Police Advisory & Review Committee (PARC).
Noel, who officially took over the post from Eve Thomas in June, talked about the importance of building relationships and pointed out that one of the first calls he made when he became chief was to PARC’s executive director, Tiffany Davidson.
“It’s important that we build upon a culture of accountability, and that starts with me,” Noel told the assembled PARC members.
PARC was created in 1998 after 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 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 meets quarterly to provide an independent review of police activity and make recommendations to the Chief of Police. It is comprised of seven volunteers served by a full-time executive director hired by the mayor.
Noel, who served in a variety of positions during his 25-year career with the New Orleans (La.) Police Department, explained that his vision for KPD is focused on four elements: crime reduction, community, culture, and professional development.
“We’ve had too many homicides and shootings in the city,” he said, referring to the fact that last year was the bloodiest in Knoxville’s history.
He pointed out, however, that it was vital to avoid using tactics that could alienate the community. “How we police is just as important as the reduction in crime,” he said.
Noel has a national reputation as a law enforcement visionary who believes in creating a departmental culture that rewards ethical policing and discourages wrongdoing. He pointed to several steps he’s already taken to instill such a culture at KPD, such as partnering with the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) project and creating a new Use of Force Review Board.
Noel told PARC members that he’s also added an investigator to the Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) and moved the section under the day-to-day supervision of Assistant Chief Mark Fortner.
One of PARC’s primary responsibilities is to review all IAU investigations. Board members went over several recents cases at Thursday’s meeting, including the Oct. 12, 2021 shooting death of 43-year-old Bryan Calvin Lee, who was killed while a task force of law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at a house on Sevier Avenue in South Knoxville.
It was later revealed the four members of KPD’s elite Special Operations Squad (popularly known as the SWAT team) involved in the raid weren’t wearing bodycams and the unit wasn’t required to wear them although department officials had previously indicated that all encounters with the public would be captured by the surveillance devices.
PARC members asked Noel about the policy that had allowed the SOS unit to dodge the requirement and was assured that it had been changed.
“Generally speaking, malfunctions tend to happen right before very key information could be gleaned from what happened,” commented PARC member Jered Croom during the discussion.
“SOS officers do wear cameras now,” the chief replied. “They wear cameras on all those calls.”
One case that hasn’t officially been reviewed by PARC as of yet but nonetheless loomed large over the proceedings was that of Anthony Thompson Jr., a 17-year-old Austin-East Magnet High School student who died during a confrontation with four KPD officers in a school restroom on April 12, 2021.
As the teen struggled with the officers, a handgun in his hoodie discharged once, striking a trash can. Officer Jonathon Clabough then fired his sidearm twice, killing Thompson and wounding Officer Adam Willson.
Noel announced recently that the IAU investigation into Thompson’s death had largely exonerated the officers. Only Willson was found to have committed an infraction: failure to turn on his bodycam, for which he received a letter of reprimand.
The full incident was captured by only one of the four cameras carried by the officers, two of which fell off during the struggle. Willson didn’t turn his camera on until after the shooting had occurred.
Several Knoxville residents who had signed up to speak during the public forum segment of Thursday’s meeting spent most or all of their allotted time chastising Noel over a number of issues, including the exoneration of the officers involved in the confrontation with Thompson.
Tyler Givens, an outspoken police critic who speaks regularly at public meetings, told Noel that he was disappointed in the chief’s performance so far.
“It’s not that no one is being punished or that no one is admitting fault,” Givens said. “It’s that you didn’t say one thing the department is going to do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. When another scared teenager makes a dumb mistake, how are you making sure they won’t have to die?”
He continued: “I see how you are protecting the department, but how are you protecting our kids? If KPD policies say it was okay to kill Anthony and to seriously injure another officer in the process, the policies need to be changed before tragedy happens again.”
Constance Every, a prominent activist and independent gubernatorial candidate, criticized the agency’s handling of the recent death of a homeless woman whose body was found in the 4th and Gill neighborhood.
Rick Roach said the only way for personal surveillance equipment like bodycams and in-car cameras to provide accountability is for a civilian monitor to be present whenever footage is downloaded.
“It’s odd the way you guys leave out race on certain cases where it’s ‘not relevant’,” Roach added. “It’s always relevant, 24-7. It’s always relevant, Ok? That’s the only way you’re going to get good statistics to show how messed up policing is and can be toward a particular population.”
The most dramatic moments of the meeting came when the final speaker, Tina Sparks, broke down repeatedly while angrily labeling Thompson’s death a murder. She disagreed vehemently with the assertion publicly made by Noel that the officers didn’t have enough time to try de-escalation tactics with the teen.
“Do you really want to stand by that statement that they couldn’t have done anything else but kill that young man?” she asked.
Sparks also referenced bodycam footage from the shooting that showed one of the officers washing his hands while standing over Thompson’s body in the restroom.
“There was a baby lying on the ground dying — dead — and he’s washing his hands because he’s afraid of catching something?” she demanded. “And he doesn’t get a reprimand? The guy who doesn’t turn on his camera, that’s the reprimand? This is not okay … It’s not okay.”
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on August 29, 2022.