Knoxville City Council approves KPD climate assessment

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Knoxville Police Department

The Knoxville City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved a proposal for a third-party consulting company to conduct an internal “climate assessment” at the Knoxville Police Department. 

The $40,250 assessment, to be conducted by a company called 21CP Solutions, was requested by incoming Police Chief Paul Noel, who is set to take control of KPD on June 13.  

“This is something that Chief Noel and I spoke about,” said Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon. “It’s something that community members and council members have been talking about for some time … now that Chief Noel is going to be taking office in less than two weeks, we’ll hopefully get started on this cultural assessment before he starts, and finish up within the first few weeks of his time as our chief. Then he can take those results and have that as a baseline for working towards constant improvement.”

According to the proposal, the process will include allowing KPD employees to submit feedback anonymously so they can speak freely without fear of retaliation from supervisors or colleagues. The assessment will be paid for by a grant from the East Tennessee Foundation.

Noel, who was a deputy superintendent at the New Orleans Police Department when he was picked to lead KPD, is a nationally recognized authority on police ethics and reform.

Several council members had questions and concerns regarding the assessment’s implementation.

“I guess I just don’t understand how this is supposed to address the issues. I’m happy to see some effort. But as I read through the proposal, I do think it’s lacking,” said Council member Amelia Parker.

“Our employees are dealing with harassment and discrimination. So at a minimum, we need this contractor to understand when looking at policies and practices, anti-harassment has to be on the list,” she continued.

Parker also expressed concerns that the scope of the assessment may be too broad to provide a thorough understanding of any one aspect of the department.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon

“And I also see this project trying to kind of potentially address multiple issues,” she said. “I see a lot of focus on internal culture, then a step in the process for these focus groups, community-based focus groups. And so I’m trying to understand if the focus of this consultant will be on internal policies and practices. What will be the role of community-based organizations in this process?”

Mayor Kincannon stressed that the assessment is meant to focus on internal operations for now. 

“My understanding is this is a climate assessment for the internal department,” explained Kincannon. “Chief Noel is very committed to communicating and building trust and where needed restoring trust in the community, but this is internal. This is about the climate of KPD.” 

However, the proposal outlines a four-step process that could expand to include additional research into other parts of KPD operations. 

Step one involves a “climate assessment” to ultimately deliver recommendations for solutions moving forward. Step two would provide consultation to leadership at the department. Step three would include a review of department policy and community relations, and would then provide additional recommendations for changes. The final step would involve strategic planning sessions and an implementation guide. 

Each step in the process would require separate funding and approval. Only the first step was up for consideration Tuesday. 

As of now, Law Director Charles Swanson said there is no definitive plan for the rest of the steps. 

“With respect to the whole plan, we’re not entering into an agreement,” Swanson clarified. “This is just for that initial police department climate assessment, which is simply a tool that is to be used by the new leadership.”

Council member Janet Testerman, however, raised questions about whether Noel is getting ahead of himself with the request since he’s not been sworn in yet. She also expressed concerns about potential redundancy since KPD has plenty of its own seasoned experts on hand.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and incoming KPD Chief Paul Noel. Source: City of Knoxville

“I’m struggling a little bit on the fact that, you know, I guess I personally feel like it’s a little bit premature, just coming in as a new leader,” said Testerman. “Just looking through the proposal I see a lot of duplication of service … I mean, we have a director of HR with a doctorate. I think he is fully capable of that. We’ve got a community safety director, as well… You’ve a proposed strategic plan, focusing on building partnerships and addressing crime in Knoxville, and I guess my thought is that would be under the purview of (Community Safety) Director Middlebrook.”

Swanson said he believes the company has unique experience in the field of policing that could be valuable to KPD.

“We have folks who are experts in the area of human relations, we have experts in the area of general employment, but this type of particular study really requires the expertise not just of human relations, but of policing,” said Swanson. 

“We cannot effectively do a study of the climate of the police department without using persons who are very cognizant of and have educated themselves about the expertise of policing itself. And this company has that expertise. If you look at the qualifications of the folks who will be doing the work, you will find that they are very, very qualified folks who have developed this over a significant period of time. They have done it for a number of other police organizations across the country,” he said.

Mayor Kincannon took the discussion as an opportunity to show her support for the incoming chief. 

“This in no way supplants the chief’s intention to get to know the department as best as he can as fast as he can,” she explained. “This is just another tool for him to do so in an effective way, in an objective way, with the help of outside consultants who have done this in a very effective manner for departments across the country … It’s going to help him do his job even better.”

As for the additional three steps of the assessment plan, officials said they expect to see the results of the first step before making any decisions about how to move forward. 

The proposal in its entirety is available to view on the City Council Website. 

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

Published on June 2, 2022.