Not many people in this day and age spend 48 years working in the same building at the same location and for the same employer. The address is 800 Howard Baker Jr. Ave., Knoxville, TN 37915. The employer is the Knoxville Police Dept. (KPD).
Today, we celebrate a very special Our Town Hero who has given all but 17 years of her life to serving our community and her fellow citizens – Cynthia Ann “Cindy” Gass. This past Tuesday was her final day at KPD, a day when fellow officers, friends, family and city officials gathered for their thanks and good-byes, hugs and a few tears. Video here.
Cindy Gass left an incredible legacy of service behind along with a chunk of her heart. She was the first sworn female deputy chief in the history of the KPD.
As one person who knows her well, KPD Chaplain the Rev. Pam Neal said: “… While there is none more dedicated or anyone who has contributed more to law enforcement in Knoxville, the most important thing to know about Cindy is her genuine love and caring for people. You know when you talk to her that she is the ‘real deal’ and that she genuinely cares. Her retirement, while well deserved, leaves a gaping hole at KPD.”
Gass, 66, worked for eight police chiefs – new Chief Paul Noel and his predecessors: Eve Thomas, David Rausch, Sterling Owen, Phil Keith, Robert Marshal, Bill Fox and Joe Fowler. Her KPD career began in 1974 when she was hired as a civilian clerk in finance working in the parking ticket office at KPD headquarters.
In 1979, she decided she wanted to be a cop. “I was working in the environment here and I saw and talked with the officers about how they helped people in so many ways. I didn’t want to be stuck where I was. I wanted purpose to my life and I found it. I have been very blessed,” she said. “Some people tried to talk me out of it and that just made me want to do it even more.”
And, she’s done it all. She retired as the commander of the KPD’s field operations bureau, which used to be known as the patrol division, and is called “the backbone of the KPD.” She supervised the entire patrol operations citywide. As commander of the management services division, she supervised budgeting, personnel, payroll and training.
Beginning in 1979, here is her work history:
- Patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant
- Criminal investigator
- Juvenile investigator
- Property crimes investigator
- Teleserve supervisor
- Negotiations unit commander
- West district commander, promoted to captain
- Deputy chief and management services division commander
- Commander, field operations bureau
A major part of her legacy is being the driving force, the leader who 11 years ago created KPD’s peer support team. She says the team today has between 20 and 30 members. It includes current and retired officers and chaplains.
“I saw what these officers go through and deal with and I knew we had a need there. We had to find a way to help them deal with everything, with the effects of the job on their lives and for their mental and emotional health,” Gass said.
The success and impact of her creation is borne true because they have helped and are helping other agencies develop their own support teams – at sheriff’s offices in Loudon, Sevier and Union counties and Gatlinburg police, among others.
She is rightly proud of the peer support team and its impact on the department and its officers and families. “When I was running patrol and working, I always told our officers: ‘Stay safe. Take care of yourself and take care of each other.’”
Gass is Fountain City right down to the ground. Born and reared there. Lives there still with her husband, Bob, a 30-year KPD veteran who retired as a sergeant. She is a Central High School graduate, class of 1974. While working, she earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration from Bellevue University. Fairview Baptist is their church.
She never had to fire her weapon. But she was fired upon on Dec. 4, 1989. A man had robbed a bank nearby and fled to a home on Inskip Drive. Gass and other officers surrounded the home. Gunfire was exchanged. Her partner was hit – Richard Giammarino. Gass wasn’t. “I heard the bullets zinging past and it was scary, not knowing if you’d get hit or make it.”
Retirement will include spending more time with another retired officer and close friend, Donna Kelley, in their small antiques booth at the Clinton Antique Mall. “Refurnishing furniture – that’s my stress reliever,” she says.
The Rev. Neal had some closing thoughts about Gass. “Having known her since she first became an officer, I have watched the positive impact she has had. She is always that calm, steady voice that listens to the problem and goes about helping solve it,” she says.
It was a privilege to be part of the team that Cindy put together to develop and implement the peer support team, Neal said. “Her genuine concern for the officers and the effects of the many types of critical incidents they deal with was the driving force behind its development. Prior to the peer support team, there are many officers haunted by the effects of those sometimes-horrendous incidents.”
After the retirement party, Gass sent a group email to all members of the KPD with a parting message: “See you around.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia