Shootings unconnected; crime plans unveiled

KPD Chief Eve Thomas
KPD Chief Eve Thomas discusses plans to fight a surge in violent crime during an online press conference in March.

There appears to be no connection between the recent shooting deaths of two Austin-East Magnet High School students, authorities said today.

“There is not any evidence to suggest there is any correlation between those two cases,”  Chief Eve Thomas of the Knoxville Police Department said during a press conference today with Mayor Indya Kincannon to address a historically unprecedented surge of street violence.

When asked if it appeared that either of the two shootings was gang-related, Thomas said the possibility was being explored but it was too early to draw conclusions about possible gang involvement. 

She added that investigators “continue to make significant progress” into the two homicide probes but no further information was available for release.

Last year, there were 37 homicides within the city limits, which was the highest annual number on record, according to police.

Since January 1, 2000, there have been 12 homicides in the city, all of them involving firearms. 

In particular, the deaths of several Austin-East students over the last three weeks have triggered a forceful response and much soul-searching from city leaders. 

On Jan. 27, 15-year-old Justin Q. Taylor was shot and killed. A 17-year-old boy was charged with criminally negligent homicide for his death. 

On Feb. 12, Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was shot and killed while he was driving away from the school, according to KPD. Shots were fired in the area of Tarleton Avenue and he was struck by at least one round before fleeing the scene and crashing on Wilson Avenue.

Police don’t believe that Freeman was the intended target.

On Tuesday evening, 15-year-old  Jamaira Muhammad, a freshman at Austin-East Magnet High School, was shot near the intersection of Cherry Street and Selma Avenue. Despite efforts to treat her wounds at the scene by KPD officers she was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Both Kincannon and Thomas discussed some of the proposed solutions they are working on, including increased funding for anti-crime programs and increasingly aggressive patrols in East Knoxville focused on detaining suspicious persons.

“We are a community in crisis,” Kincannon said. “This has to stop.”

Kincannon is hoping for City Council’s authorization to pursue a $1 million grant to fight violent crime. Although she didn’t go into detail on the programs to be funded by the grant, she said the initiative would use strategies proven in other cities.

“They work, they’re effective, they help stop the violence,” she said. 

Kincannon also said that she had met with Freeman’s family and discussed what they felt should be done to address the crime problem.

After describing Freeman as “a young man who doing everything right,” she said that she agreed with his family that it was adults and not children who need to take responsibility for public safety.

“This is a problem that the adults in our community have to solve,” she said. 

Thomas described how aggressive traffic enforcement on East Knoxville streets might help bring the violence under control by putting pressure on anyone driving in the area who was breaking the law.

For instance, the crackdown on traffic offenses of all kinds led to a pair of felony arrests on Wednesday when a driver failed to use his turn signal while on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. 

It turned out the driver was wanted in Blount County and illegally had a handgun in his possession while the passenger had cash, narcotic pain pills and marijuana that led to drug trafficking charges. 

Additional school resource officers have already been deployed to Austin-East and were familiarizing themselves with the campus Thursday, she said.

None of the violent incidents have taken place on the Austin-East campus, and several students said during a Wednesday night community meeting that they actually considered the school to be a safe place.

The problems, they said, are in the surroundings neighborhoods where students return home after school lets out. 

“Even though those events haven’t happened on school property, you did have one that happened when a student was leaving school,” KPD spokesman Scott Erland said. “And I would venture to say that students, staff and administrators have been unsettled and are fearful, to say the least, because of the recent events. The additional SROs are ultimately there to ensure that it is a safe and secure learning environment. The hope is that provides not only a sense of physical safety, but psychological comfort as well.”

A bigger impact, however, may ultimately come from the measures that are being implemented by KPD in the communities served by the school. 

“We have added more patrol officers on the streets surrounding Austin-East,” Erland said. “Those officers will be in vehicles, on bikes and on foot. The primary role of those officers is to ensure the safety of that community, but the expectation is that those officers will be both visible and approachable.”

A violent crime prevention team that’s made up of both uniformed and undercover officers has been formed to focus on the community. 

“That team is focusing its efforts in hot spots where violent crime is occurring or likely to occur;” Erland said. “As part of that, the team is walking neighborhoods and interacting with residents.”

He added: “That’s a long way of saying that our enhanced response is not only intended to decrease violent crime, but to give our officers and citizens opportunities to interact and communicate concerns.”