Knoxville’s new top cop aims to break the ‘blue wall of silence’

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Knoxville Police Chief Paul Noel. (Photo courtesy Knoxville Police Department)

This article was written by Jamie Satterfield of Tennessee Lookout

When Knoxville’s new police chief watched for the first time the now infamous video of the police killing of George Floyd, his eyes immediately went from the officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck to the three officers who stood idly by.

“The biggest thing that came to my mind when I saw the George Floyd video was … not so much what (Minneapolis Police Officer Derek) Chauvin did — and it was terrible what he did — but to see what the other officers on scene did not do,” Knoxville Police Department Chief Paul Noel told the Tennessee Lookout.

Back then, in May 2020, Noel was deputy superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, an agency with its own dark policing past. As deputy superintendent, Noel had helped shepherd the agency through a then-novel police training program — Ethical Policing is Courageous, or EPIC — specifically designed to break down the blue wall of silence that keeps good officers from confronting or reporting the bad.

“That day I was sitting at my desk watching the (Floyd) video like everybody else, and my phone started ringing off the hook from police departments and national media across the country, wanting to know about this program,” Noel recalled.

That video and those calls would spur Noel to work with Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Program and the Sheppard Mullin law firm to develop a nationwide training program, known as Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE.

“That was the catalyst to help us create ABLE across the country,” Noel said in an interview. “That really helped birth the ABLE project because we knew we could facilitate the spread of this all over the country.”

Since then, more than 180 law enforcement agencies across the country have signed onto the program, which not only teaches officers when and how to intervene to stop police misconduct but also protects them from retaliation for doing so.

Now, Noel, who was installed as Knoxville’s police chief in June, is taking steps to bring the ABLE program to the Knoxville Police Department. If selected, KPD would be the first law enforcement agency in Tennessee to participate.

Dark past

KPD’s history is littered with incidents of brutality and misconduct kept hidden by its own blue wall of silence — often revealed only through investigative journalism and litigation and rarely resulting in any action against offending officers — as well as instances of retaliatory actions against officers who spoke up against wrongdoing.

When, for instance, two KPD officers, a father and son, sought to expose a string of abuses by a fellow officer, including beating a handcuffed suspect and lying about the circumstances in which he broke a teenager’s leg, in 1998, they were fired. The duo fought back and were reinstated but remained targets for retaliatory discipline for years, court records show.

When three KPD officers brutally beat a handcuffed and hog-tied homeless man in 2013 — an incident captured on police video footage — police commanders who arrived on the scene did nothing to stop it or report it, an investigation later revealed. The beating was exposed only after residents who witnessed it filed complaints and alerted the media. City taxpayers wound up footing the bill for a $200,000 settlement in that case.

Taxpayers found themselves on the financial hook again when, in 2019, a KPD officer broke the arm of a handcuffed suspect and lied about it in a report. Video footage captured the officer’s supervisor mocking the injured man as he cried out for help. No action was ever taken against the officer or his supervisor, although the city shelled out $150,000 in damages after the man filed a lawsuit.

A review by the Tennessee Lookout of hundreds of KPD use of force reports filed in the past five years revealed dozens of instances in which officers either minimized or lied about the nature of the injuries sustained by suspects and the circumstances in which those injuries occurred.

KPD supervisors, the Tennessee Lookout investigation shows, often signed off on those reports without any investigation or review of police video footage. The city’s Police Advisory and Review Committee, established in 1998 after outrage over a string of killings of suspects by KPD officers, does not independently investigate claims of police brutality or misconduct, does not review use of force reports and corresponding video footage and does not have authority to take independent action against officers.

Bright future?

Noel told the Tennessee Lookout he is currently reviewing KPD’s use of force policies and procedures, including whether supervisors are consistently reviewing officers’ body camera footage.

“One of the things I’m actually going to be looking at is the policies and procedures on use of force and the whole process from end to end,” Noel said. “I’ve asked the team to take a hard look at our use of force policies now and see if at what times we have to mandate where we go back and review the body camera video, how much of that body camera video we review and what we do with that information. So that’s something we’re looking at right now.”

Noel said he is also instituting a policy forbidding retaliation against any officer who seeks to report brutality or misconduct as a precursor to KPD’s application to the ABLE program.

“The first thing we’re doing is aligning the agency with the 10 ABLE standards,” Noel said. “One of the biggest alignments that we have to do is we have to have a policy that specifically prohibits retaliation so we’re in the process right now of doing that.”

If KPD is accepted into the ABLE program, Noel said, “we’ll have to send probably about six to eight officers to an ABLE ‘train the trainer’ (session), and then we’ll implement this into our 2023 training schedule.”

“This is a long process,” Noel said. “We have to train in small groups … and our training schedules are made about a year out, so this is something we’re going to start training for in 2023.”

So far, Noel said, he’s received positive feedback from KPD officers and supervisors about instituting the ABLE training program and related policies and procedures.

“The overwhelming majority of people I’ve spoken to are very positive about,” Noel said. “Some of the feedback I’ve gotten especially from some of the older officers is that they wished they had a program like this 20 years ago when they started. Just like any good program we’re going to have some hurdles to (overcome) but that’s why it’s important for leadership to really embrace this and that’s going to be my role and the senior leaders here to make sure we have a smooth implementation.”

Noel said he’s convinced, based on his experience with the EPIC program in New Orleans, that the blue wall of silence at KPD will crumble as the tenets of ABLE are introduced and enforced.

“In New Orleans there were a lot of instances where the word ‘EPIC’ became a verb in New Orleans,” Noel said. “Officers on traffic stops would kind of lose their cool (and other) officers would walk behind them, going ‘EPIC, EPIC’ and switch out. We had a lot of those instances.

“There was an incident in New Orleans where there was a sheriff’s deputy from another agency (who) kicked a handcuffed prisoner, and a (New Orleans) officer immediately intervened and stopped it from occurring and actually reported it to his supervisor immediately, so there’s a lot of examples in New Orleans and across the country on this.”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on July 14, 2022.