City to take lead in anti-violence efforts

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Scenes such as this have become all-too familiar on Knoxville’s streets this year as violent crime has reached an all-time high. City officials signed an agreement with a nonprofit group that specializes in combating inner city violence, Cities United, in April. But frustration over the fact the process was taking longer than expected prompted Mayor Indya Kincannon to announce last week that CU will serve only in an advisory capacity while City officials now take the lead. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

City officials have decided speed is of the essence when it comes to fighting the record-high level of deadly violence on Knoxville’s streets and are changing their plans accordingly.

In fact, Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration intends to take direct control of efforts to combat inner city violence, a big change from the original plan that called for the Louisville, Ky.-based nonprofit agency, Cities United, to call the shots.

Instead, Cities United will play an advisory role while Kincannon creates a new, high-level position to oversee the many agencies and groups who are expected to form the front line of Knoxville’s anti-violence efforts.

In the meantime, KPD investigators are checking out numerous leads in the August 8 shooting death of Johnkelian Mathis, 17.  Mathis was the 30th homicide victim in Knoxville so far this year. He we also the sixth student from Austin-East Magnet High School to die from gunfire since Jan. 27.

City Council approved a $75,000 contract with Cities United in April after the agency’s executive director, Anthony Smith, agreed that for the first 12-18 months Cities United would consult and advise City officials on how best to utilize the community’s many resources. The organization also offered violence intervention training that has, in other cities, helped prevent violence from escalating in the midst of crises.

Since then, however, the number of homicides has doubled and Kincannon decided last week that Cities United was taking too long to reach the implementation stage.

“In an effort to avoid further delay in implementing strategies to address violence in our city, the City of Knoxville has decided to invest more directly in City staff capacity to lead this conversation in our community,” spokesperson Kristin Farley said in a written statement.

“Cities United is and will continue to be a valued partner, but we are revamping and scaling back our contract.  We will be adding a top-level leadership position at the City to coordinate this critical work here in Knoxville,” she said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the $75,000 promised to the agency would be adjusted along with its responsibilities.

“I don’t think this is necessarily the result of an acceleration of the violence on the street as much as it’s us recognizing the pace of work has not gone as quickly as we’d like it to,” said Erin Gill, chief policy officer and deputy to the mayor.

“We know this is an urgent issue and we want to move forward,” Gill said. “As of August, we wanted to be closer to implementation than we are, and we want to not further delay anything.”

Gill said there is widespread agreement among City officials that reducing the homicide rate is the most important issue they face right now.

“Crime — especially violent crime — is the number one priority, and all the departments have a role to play,” she said “Mayor Kincannon has said from out of the gate that public safety is local government’s most basic responsibility, and if we’re not living up to the most basic responsibilities of government then what are we doing?”

This screenshot from a video shows the gathering of people in Lonsdale Homes early Sunday morning before bullets started to fly, killing 17-year-old Johnkelian Mathis. Source: KPD

Tragically, Knoxville has plenty of company right now.  Most cities in the United States have been struggling with record levels of violent crime over the past two years, and experts are struggling to understand why. 

Locally, the Kincannon administration has already begun channeling money into the coffers of community organizations that try to keep young people away from the violence. Also, the Knoxville Police Department has responded in numerous ways, from increasing the number of investigators trained to work homicides to creating a new unit that deploys where crime rates are the highest. 

None of these tactics, however, seem to have impacted the homicide rate, which has actually accelerated over the summer.

There are several ways to look at the numbers, but they all paint a grim picture. 

The unprecedented rise in the homicide rate began when the number of killings shot up from 22 in 2019 to 37 in 2020, a 72 percent increase. Prior to 2020, the bloodiest year on record had been when 35 people were killed in 1998.

Since Jan. 1, there have been at least 30 slayings in the city, plus at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office. That’s a 37 percent increase from this time in 2020, when 22 people had been killed as of August 12.

The city has recently averaged about one homicide a week, which is nearly two-and-one-half times more than the 22 slayings per year that’s been the average over the past decade.

The numbers mean that 2021 is on track to be the bloodiest year since Knoxville began keeping crime statistics. It’s been especially brutal, however, for the approximately 642 students enrolled at Austin-East Magnet High School, as six of this year’s homicide victims have been Black teenagers who were enrolled at the school.

The first Austin-East student to die was Justin Taylor, 15, who was accidentally shot and killed by a friend on Jan. 27.  Next came Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, who was shot Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus. Two other teens have been accused of his murder and are awaiting trial. 

Janaria Muhammad, 15, was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died at a local hospital March 11, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville. 

Anthony Thompson Jr., 17, was killed during an armed confrontation with four KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East on April 12. The officers involved in the shooting were cleared of wrongdoing by the TBI and District Attorney General Charme Allen, but Thompson’s death nevertheless sparked weeks of angry protests by activists who wished to see the cops punished.

On August 8, Johnkelian “John John” Mathis, a popular Austin-East football player, was attending a late night continuation of the Lonsdale Homecoming celebration in North Knoxville that drew hundreds of people. Suddenly gunshots rang out and Mathis was one of three people in the crowd hit by gunfire. Two of them would recover from their injuries, but Mathis didn’t. 

Officials have expressed frustration over the last few months due to a lack of cooperation from the community as investigators have sought leads in numerous open murder cases. 

KPD spokesperson Scott Erland said, however, that no less than 15 tips in the Mathis case had been received as of late Friday through East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers. 

“It’s certainly a cause for celebration that people are using Crime Stoppers and we’ve seen tips slowly trickling in,” Erland said. “As people get to know and trust that it’s a truly anonymous system, hopefully we will get even more information.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on August 16, 2021.