Today she is Lt. Tammy K. DeBow of the Knoxville Police Department (KPD). Her 20-year career began in 1999 when she joined the 27-member KPD 99A Training Academy class. The career could have ended then – but it didn’t.
In March 2000 she was Tammy Kelley, a recruit about halfway through the 27 weeks of the KPD Police Training Academy. One of the classes involved riot control, and the KPD SWAT played the rioters. The recruits and the rioters came together, and that’s when a freak accident happened. One of the SWAT team members hit Tammy in the head, and her head snapped back.
The result: It blew out her C-5 and C-6 discs. She was paralyzed from the neck down and suffered a traumatic brain injury. “I remember one of the nurses who was working on me, and she kept apologizing for her cold hands, and I finally told her not to worry, that I could not feel them,” she says. She was in the intensive care unit and then the trauma unit at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
The SWAT team member who hit her is now Lt. Doug Stiles of the Violent Crimes Unit and a former SWAT commander. “He’s one of my best friends in this department and in life,” she said. “It was a really freak accident.”
She had to learn how to use her arms and hands again and how to walk again, get dressed and transfer to a chair. From the hospital she was transferred to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center. The physical-therapy progression went from not walking, to sitting in a chair, to using a walker and then walking with a cane. Upper-body mobility came first. It was hard work. Then she had to deal with the paralyzed legs. And no, she didn’t drop out of the academy. Capt. Don Jones, then a sergeant, brought her the homework, videos of the daily training sessions and the materials she needed to study. They even came to her for the final exam, which she passed with flying colors.
When it came time for graduation, the other recruits voted her as their class president.
Now 51, she is a lieutenant in the Patrol Division, supervising the school resource officers, the department’s Teleserve Unit and the Safety Education Unit. Prior to that she supervised all support services, and here’s the kicker: From December 2011 to September 2018, for seven years, she was the director of the KPD Training Academy, a job she always wanted.
She has progressed through the ranks and done it all – patrol supervisor in the West and downtown; sergeant over Support Services; developed a high school internship program in Knox County schools; oversaw school crisis emergency response plans for Knox County schools; and was a patrol officer from 2000 to 2005.
She’s a Maryville native, a graduate of Heritage High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society, and to this day her best-friend buddies are a group of women she met in the ninth grade. DeBow has an AA degree in criminal justice from Walters State Community College and a bachelor’s in business/organizational management from Tusculum College (now University). She’s also a graduate of the FBI National Academy and was one of six Distinguished Graduates out of 224 class members.
Just to be clear, she is one of two officers at KPD known as “Lt. DeBow.” Her husband is Lt. Keith DeBow. They’re grandparents as well. Emersyn Rose, who was 1 on May 18, calls her “Gammy” and Keith is “Pappy.” And Pappy made all of the birthday cupcakes. Emersyn’s mother is daughter Kayla.
DeBow traces her interest in law enforcement to her grandfather, the late Paul Patterson, who was a deputy sheriff in Blount County. She has a picture of him in her office, along with many others. “I hope he’s proud of me,” she says, thinking back to her grandmother, Frances Patterson, who always had deputies over for food and even brought food to Tammy and her training-academy trainees.
Her office reflects her personality – she’s organized, always. Three books adorn her desk. Two of them she carries everywhere. One is her planner and the second one is what she calls her “bullet journal” where she takes notes in all meetings, keeps a detailed to-do list; the notebook even has a long table of contents. The other book has a simple title – “Devotions.”
Several nights a week she works in the evenings in the East district on patrol from around 4 to 10 p.m., mostly around Isabella Towers, Montgomery Village, Austin Homes and the Walter P. Taylor Homes. It’s part of a contract program the KPD has with Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation (KCDC). “It keeps me sharp being on patrol and being in touch with the other officers on the street, and I enjoy it,” she says.
And every other Sunday the Seymour resident works security at Sevier Heights Baptist Church. “I have a lot of good friends at church,” she says. “I like being there. Good people.”
DeBow is also recently back from the 2019 Police Unity Tour, a 300-mile, four-day ride from Florham Park, N.J., to Washington, D.C. The ride was held May 9-13. The annual bicycle ride has two purposes: to raise awareness of law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty and to raise funds for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial & Museum.
She was one of approximately 2,500 riders. Each rider had to raise $1,950 to ride. This year the tour donated $2.8 million to the memorial and museum.
She rides to honor and remember Maryville Police Officer Kenny R. Moats, who was shot and killed in the line of duty on Aug. 25, 2016. Moats was married to DeBow’s niece, Brittany, when he was killed. “I ride to honor him and his memory,” she said, “and all of our fallen officers around the country.” On her right arm is a Kenny Moats bracelet she always wears.
When you ask her about this impressive career, her thoughtful side kicks in. “There is so much I have learned in every position I’ve had and in this job I have now. It’s been very rewarding, having the opportunities and freedom to have an impact on people, the teenagers, and to realize the connections you make.”
She has a reputation as a very talented practitioner of pulling practical jokes. “It’s been known to happen,” she said, but she declined to share with us any of those jokes. “Nope, I can’t give away my secrets.”
Has being a female police officer been a hard road to travel? “No, not at all. I’ve used it to my advantage actually. I’ve never seen it as a negative, and I have never had a negative experience with anyone because I’m a female cop.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.