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Police Reform Needed

An overwhelming majority of Knox County community leaders say peaceful protests over excessive force are justified.

Knoxville, TN  |  June 19, 2020 10:00am  |  By Scott Barker

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Protests — most of them peaceful, others destructive — erupted across the country after last month’s death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. 

Knoxville has been no exception. The protests here have been peaceful, and the Knoxville Police Department has been nonconfrontational at organized rallies. Police have only responded to a few acts of vandalism that occurred away from the formal protests.

In the latest Knoxville Power Poll of local community leaders, 92.5 percent of respondents said that the peaceful protests over the use of excessive force were justified. Nearly 7 in 10 responses called for reforming the way law enforcement organizations go about policing.

The Power Poll is not a scientific poll. It is, instead, an email survey taken of the leading citizens and decision-makers in a variety of fields. It includes elected officials, business CEOs and other influential individuals, nonprofit leaders, media figures, university presidents, and entertainment and sports figures active in their communities.

A total of 301 people in the Knoxville area were asked their views on the social unrest of the past few weeks and the calls to rethink how police conduct their business. Eighty people submitted their opinions, a response rate of 26.58 percent.

The results are similar to scientific polling conducted nationwide. A Washington Post-Schar School poll taken June 2-7 found that 74 percent of those surveyed supported the protests and 69 percent believed Floyd’s death points to broader problems in law enforcement.

While Power Poll respondents solidly backed the need for reform, they were split on one of the most common suggested solutions — emphasizing social services more and law enforcement less.

A plurality of 43.75 percent said the community should rely more on social services, but 32.5 percent disagreed. Nearly one-fourth of respondents said they were unsure.

Two questions about civilian oversight of local law enforcement resulted in nuanced findings. 

In the City of Knoxville, the Police Advisory and Review Committee investigates citizen complaints about KPD and monitors internal affairs investigations. For a plurality of respondents, 37.5 percent, PARC’s authority is sufficient. Thirty percent said PARC’s powers should be expanded, while 32.5 percent said they were unsure.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have a civilian review board, but seven of 10 respondents said one should be established. Only 13.75 percent of the respondents opposed such a move.

The two agencies have reacted differently to calls for reform.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Police Chief Eve Thomas said they would review KPD’s use-of-force policy. The policy is a 14-page document that details when officers should use force and the level of force allowed.

Kincannon also said she would initiate a longer-term discussion about “reimagining” public safety in the city. She said law enforcement should be one aspect of a broad public safety policy that includes social services, housing and economic opportunity.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, is not reviewing its policies. Agency spokeswoman Kimberly Glenn has said Sheriff Tom Spangler reviewed all KCSO policies when he took office and has no plans to make changes to the department’s use of force general order.

Unlike KPD’s detailed policy, KCSO’s general order on the use of force consists of a single sentence. KCSO employees also must sign a form attesting they understand the rules on use of force deriving from state law, including a provision that deadly force can be used only as a last resort when arresting suspected felons believed to be dangerous.

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