It’s a good start, but nowhere near enough.
So says Knoxville City Councilperson Seema Singh when it comes to the City’s current plans to address an unprecedented surge in street violence that has included the shooting deaths of five Austin-East Magnet High School students in five separate incidents this semester.
“This is something that we’ve all been watching unfold,” Singh said Wednesday. “Every time something happens we act stunned and surprised, but these aren’t aberrations. This is a regular pattern that will keep happening it we don’t do something right now.”
The most recent incident was the death of a 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police Monday in a school restroom, putting further strain on an already tense relationship between the Knoxville Police Department and many East Knoxville residents.
“I just can’t find words for the events on Monday,” Singh said. “Just the feelings of grief. Grief and sorrow and fear and loss and anger…. People are saturated in grief now.”
She believes there may be a simple (if not necessarily easy) solution — it’s time for the City to finally put its money where its mouth is and buckle down to address the root causes of violence.
Singh said she applauds the decision of Mayor Indya Kincannon to immediately channel $1 million towards violence prevention efforts as well as promising another $1 million in next year’s budget. She also supports the recent $75,000 contract with Cities United, a Kentucky-based nonprofit organization that specializes in helping cities curtail inner city violence.
But those efforts don’t go far enough to make the kinds of deep, lasting changes that are needed, she said.
“It’s a good beginning,” she said. “But we need to do so much more.”
At least $4 million more, according to a resolution she plans to introduce at the April 20 City Council meeting. That would bring the amount of money being dedicated to violence prevention to $6 million, or only about one-tenth of KPD’s budget, she said.
KPD has been called upon to respond daily to chronic societal issues such as generational violence, neglect, poverty, and mental illness, she said.
“They have a job and they are being asked to do things they were never trained to do,” she explained. “They need to focus on stopping crime. They aren’t social workers. They are also getting burned out and frustrated. They are also struggling.”
Singh said it’s important that the City invest in proven anti-violence initiatives that aren’t managed by or staffed by law enforcement. Instead, what Knoxville needs are well-funded, evidence-based, non-law enforcement programs that could better address many of those chronic social issues without criminalization, she said.
This is not an attempt to “defund the police,” she added, as there are no plans calling for KPD’s budget to be cut by $4 million. “This isn’t an either/or situation, we just want to make sure there are additional tools,” she said.
Specifically, the City should begin seeding a Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund, to support the establishment of a multi-agency, multi-government, community-driven Public Safety Resource Center — potentially based upon the collaborative model of the Family Justice Center — to implement data-driven, evidence-based best practices to address the root causes of violence, she said.
“Groups are already working on these issues but they are scattered everywhere all over the city, and we need to get everyone at the same table,” she said.
Singh is a professional anti-violence expert herself. She currently operates an intensive program for domestic violence offenders who are court-ordered to seek help. Because of this, she won’t be eligible to apply for any of the funds herself if the proposal passes.
“That would be a conflict of interest, so there’s no way I can even apply for any of this money,” she said.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on April 15, 2021