This cop eats, lives and breathes East Knoxville. It has been Officer G’s beat for 20 of his 25 years at the Knoxville Police Department. In 1999 this short, white cop with a crew cut was the first-ever school resource officer at Austin-East High School. He was 32.
Lt. Gordon Edward Gwathney says kids started calling him “Officer G” because of his unfamiliar last name.
He still drives and walks his old beat at the Walter P. Taylor Homes, maybe a mile from what is now the Austin East Magnet High School. In the last two years the area has been a magnet for violence and murders. KPD has greatly expanded its presence in East Knoxville to try and counter the gang-led shootings.
“This is all so sad because of the violence and because it has affected many families I am friends with,” Gwathney says. “The residents of East Knoxville have supported me my whole career. I feel I owe them my hardest work.”
Never, he says, has he felt threatened or in danger when walking and policing his beat. He knows, he says, probably 75% of the 600 to 700 residents living in Walter P. in Five Points and around half of East Knoxville residents.
Even in his off time, Walter P. and other KCDC housing is his beat. Two days a week and one night a week he patrols Walter P. and the agency’s other communities as his second job.
In fact, a week ago today 19-year-old Cholly Harris was shot in the 1700 block of Hazen Street. He was taken to UT Medical Center and died there. Gwathney knew the young man. “I talked with him for about five minutes the day before he got shot. He was outside hanging around where drugs are sold and I told him to get indoors,” he said.
How does he explain this increased violence and the shootings?
“With the younger generation, those around 13 to 15, there’s nothing much for them to do around here so they lean towards the gang mentality and (sometimes) join the gangs. It’s also a change in society. It’s going on all over the country,” he says. “Guns have always been around and available. Drugs play a big role but we also have shooting over girls and domestic violence issues.”
In years past, Walter P. was considered a gang headquarters. He says the gangs now are all over Knoxville and many have moved into houses in neighborhoods and “away from the projects.”
Gwathney is a Sevier County native, reared in Seymour, a graduate of what was Harrison Chilhowee Baptist Academy – now The King’s Academy. His life is full of interesting twists and turns. He says he’s always loved learning about other cultures. When he was 11, he spent a month in Haifa, Israel, with the Children’s International Summer Villages program, and at age 13, he spent a month in Sweden and maintains contact with friends he made there.
After high school it was off to the U.S. Army in 1988 for three years, including 15 months in Korea. From Army friends he heard about a small college in Minnesota that sounded right down his alley – Mankato State. He left there after four years with degrees in history and anthropology and a minor in Scandinavian studies.
Then it was back to Knoxville and six years in the Tennessee National Guard with the 278th Armored Cavalry and a little time at UT to see if wanted to be a teacher. He didn’t. “Our National Guard unit had several KPD officers in it and they talked me into joining the department,” he recalls. “I’m glad they did. Every day is not a good day but most of them are.”
After four years as the school officer at A-E, he was promoted to sergeant in 2003 and worked primarily in east and west Knoxville. In 2010 he became a lieutenant and today he supervises a pair of sergeants and 15 officers who cover east, south and north Knoxville.
He was nominated for the department’s Officer of the Year Award in 2019 and 2013. He didn’t win the award in 2019, but he was selected as the Officer of the Year in 2013. He’s also the current commander of the KPD Search and Rescue Team.
Gwathney’s ties to East Knoxville and Walter P. Taylor remain tightly tied. He works many Sundays and, on those days, always has lunch with an old friend – Gilbert. “We met when he worked at the Knoxville Coliseum and have been friends for many years and he lives at Walter P. too. It’s special being with him and being his friend.”
This man also loves to learn. Five years ago, at age 49, he earned his master’s degree in criminal justice from Bethel University.
From 1990 to 2006 Dewey Roberts was president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP. Gwathney and Roberts have been friends for many years. In a 2020 interview with WATE, Roberts said, “He’s always been a friend to all the people here at Walter P. Officer G personifies what we look for in police/community relationships.”
Officer G still eats, lives and breathes East Knoxville and Walter P. and he’s the same today as he was when he walked the halls of Austin-East!
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 865-659-3562.