Knoxville Police chief reflects on turbulent term

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Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas prepares for an interview with Hard Knox Wire. Photos by J.J. Stambaugh

When Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas steps down on May 1, she’ll be leaving behind a career as a cop that’s spanned nearly three decades.

As someone who first began patrolling the streets of K-town in 1993, Thomas had already seen the profession of law enforcement go through some serious ups and downs before she took over the reins of the Knoxville Police Department in 2018. 

Arguably nothing, however, could have prepared her for the last few years, when crisis after crisis hit in rapid succession: the COVID-19 pandemic, persistent allegations of racism in the agency’s ranks, and a record-breaking number of homicides. Add to that the day-to-day struggle of managing an agency that’s been chronically understaffed and losing officers as fast as they can be replaced, and you can easily imagine why Thomas might be feeling a little beaten down.

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that Thomas, 58, remains an optimist in the classic sense — someone who believes there’s a force called “Good” in the world, and that cops ultimately serve that force. 

“There’s just something about being able to put on a uniform, to wear a badge, and to know I’m going to be able to help people,” Thomas says. “Yes, there are bad days and horrible things, and I’m sure I’ve made mistakes and horrible decisions along the way. But for the most part, it’s an awesome feeling knowing that you’re doing something where you can make a difference.”

In a recent meeting with Hard Knox Wire, Thomas engaged in a wide-ranging discussion that included everything from KPD’s troubled relationship with the Black community to some of the hardest personal lessons she’s learned as a cop. Along the way she also touched upon some of the biggest challenges facing the department in the near future, and provided some insight into last year’s abortive decision to pull KPD officers from the public schools. 

What came through at all times during the conversation was her enthusiasm for the badge, what it stands for, and the men and women who wear it. 

“A period like I’ve never seen”

In many ways, Thomas began her career as an atypical recruit. 

She didn’t grow up in a cop family. In fact, she explains, she didn’t even know any police officers while growing up. 

After graduating from Farragut High School, Thomas attended the University of Tennessee and graduated with a degree in psychology in 1987. She wound up on the management track in the field of retail, but she ended up putting in an application at KPD along with a younger brother and was accepted into the agency’s academy.

“Now I use my psychology degree every day,” Thomas says. “It’s interesting how things work out.”

She still remembers what it was like the first time she hit the streets as a newly minted academy graduate. “I’d never known anyone who was a police officer,” she recalls. “It was all brand new to me, and once you’re sitting in that car and you realize the awesome responsibility you have for the safety of the people on your beat….”

Although female officers were still something of a novelty in many departments in the early 1990s, Thomas said that she and the three other women in her academy class weren’t made to feel as though they didn’t belong. 

“There was not a lot of overt discrimination… We wanted to prove we could do the job,” she said. “The only difference was that when I asked for help in, say, a traffic stop, then everybody would come. But I liked that, knowing that everybody was coming to help you. Was it because I was a female? Either way, it was still good. It’s kind of like the opening the door thing — I like it. I can do it for myself, but hey that’s kind of good!’”

Thomas laughs as she evokes the image of her basking in an outmoded symbol of deference once granted to women as a matter of basic etiquette. In point of fact, Thomas doesn’t tell many jokes but she laughs frequently. It’s the easy, knowing laughter of someone who genuinely likes what they do and still finds plenty of cause for joy in it. 

She’s also quick to admit, however, that many law enforcement officers haven’t found a lot of joy in their profession in recent years. 

“Right now we’re in a period like I’ve never seen,” Thomas says. “I think most people support the police, but we have some loud detractors who get a lot of attention. But those are few and far between.  I think most people accept us and support us. I really liked President Biden saying we need to fund the police, not defund the police.”

“We’re working to get better”

In recent years, KPD has drawn not just protests from the community but also plenty of negative media attention due to a series of racially charged scandals, many of them brought to the public’s attention by a series of investigative stories published by The News Sentinel. 

When asked if KPD has a problem with racism, Thomas replies that she believes the agency is a microcosm of Knoxville. “We’re just like our community, we have the same problems, but at KPD we work to get better every day,” she says. “Yes, we have problems. Do we have issues? I’m sure we do. But we’re working to get better.”

Thomas believes that recent training initiatives meant to tackle racism have been “well received” by the department. “We’re not trying to change anybody, we just want everybody to treat each other well. I can’t change the way you think or the way you were brought up, but I can change the way you treat each other. We understand we’re a team, we need to work together, we don’t need to offend each other.”

When asked about how KPD’s relationship with the Black community has changed over the years, Thomas expresses disappointment over how the lack of trust between them has deepened.  

“It’s a hard thing to quantify, but yes it’s changed,” she says. “It’s become difficult because of so many narratives out there, national narratives and even local narratives….Our homicides were up the last two years, that’s horrible. That’s a horrible thing to have as my legacy. We haven’t had the relationship building we’d like, although as I’ve said it takes both sides coming to the table.”

Thomas has clearly pinned a lot of hopes on LaKenya Middlebrook, Knoxville’s first-ever Public Safety Director, and the department’s focus on building relationships in Black neighborhoods. 

“I think we’ll turn a corner,” she says. “I know we’ll turn a corner…How do you get people to trust you? That’s not something you can just say, ‘Trust me.’ There’s got to be action behind it to show that you mean what you say. It’s got to be those individual relationships.”

“A business decision”

Other than race, one of the most bitter controversies to erupt during Thomas’ term as chief came last year when she and Mayor Indya Kincannon announced that KPD wanted to pull its 14 or so Student Resource Officers (SROs) from the Knox County school system. 

The decision was viewed by many people in the community as a knee-jerk response to liberal criticisms of police, especially in the wake of the shooting death of a 17-year-old Austin East Magnet High School student in a school restroom during an armed struggle with KPD officers. Many school board members, in fact, treated the issue as a referendum on the value of law enforcement. After weeks of political Sturm und Drang, the City again agreed to keep its SROs in the schools — at least for now. 

According to Thomas, however, the critics couldn’t have been more wrong about the motivations behind the decision. 

“It was a business decision,” Thomas explains. “These were positions we could use elsewhere in the police department because of our numbers… We said let’s pull these officers out, put them on the CERT team, and make a difference in violent crime.”

Knox County Schools has its own large, armed security force that can handle the system’s security needs without officers from KPD being stationed permanently on school campuses, Thomas continues. 

“I would still like to be able to say the schools can handle their own security, because that’s a different world,” she says. “That what they (school security officers) are there for. They’re employed by the schools to do this and they do a great job. They’re armed in case something happens. I still maintain we could work really well with school security and not actually be in the schools.”

She adds, “Your next Chief might have a different philosophy.”

“We see things that people shouldn’t see”

Thomas’ replacement has yet to be chosen by Mayor Kincannon. 

When asked if she has any messages she’d like to impart to her successor, whoever they may be, Thomas again laughed before saying, “I’ve got a list. I’m trying to leave the department in a good spot.”

Thomas hopes her legacy will reflect lower crime rates, better pay for KPD employees, a new building, and an employee wellness program that will allow cops to care for their psychological health as much as their physical well-being. 

“With mental health, we’re trying to get that stigma away from asking for help,” she relates. “We see things that people shouldn’t see, we deal with meanness that people shouldn’t deal with, but it’s what happens and it’s what we’re here to do. But it has to be dealt with….

“How do we help somebody without saying, ‘You can’t be a police officer because you’re screwed up?’ That’s not good. These things can be fixed if we’re just open to treatment.”

In the future, Thomas says, the most obvious challenge facing KPD will be recruitment and retention.

Although KPD has an authorized strength of 416, as of two weeks ago the agency had only 374 men and women on its rolls. According to Thomas, over a hundred of those officers are eligible to retire in the next couple of years while the number of recruits in the foreseeable future is far too low to make up the difference. 

Knoxville is far from alone in facing this demographic challenge, she adds, and is in many ways in better shape than other cities. 

“How can I ask for more when I can’t even get us to where we need to be?” she asks. “Young people don’t want this as a career … I think things are cyclical. They’ll come back around. It’s just that this is a really tough time.” 

When asked what the hardest part of being Knoxville’s police chief has been, Thomas replies: “You know, if I had time to think about how to address crime, I would love that. But I think any executive will tell you it’s the people problems, the personnel issues. That’s the thing — making sure our people are taken care of.

“And you also have to deal with the ones who have done something wrong. How do you address that? Those are hard, but you’ve got to be consistent and fair. Sometimes I torture myself over that. You know, it’s a hard thing, especially at the point where you have to end somebody’s career. But some mistakes are recoverable and others aren’t.”

Thomas, who describes herself as a “lapsed Catholic,” relates something that was once said to her by her predecessor, David Rausch (who now heads the TBI). 

“David used to say, ‘You can’t do this job and not believe in God.’ I’ve thought about that, and I think there’s some truth to that,” she says, “I think you’ve got to have that faith that the Good is always out there.”

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

Published on March 28, 2022.