Level L-3 in the bowels of the City County Building contains the coolest office in the place. Pac-Man and Galaga arcade upright machines are against a wall and both work. And with apologies to Elvis, when Capt. Aaron Yarnell is around it’s safe to say: “The Nerd is in the building.”
It is almost impossible to count the number of balls he has in the air at any given time. He is a 24-year veteran of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). He is one of a kind. A nerd’s nerd, so to speak, except he walks around with a cell phone and a Glock on his hip.
He didn’t outright say it, but his mother, Joy, gave birth in 1975 to a nerd when nerd wasn’t a well-known term in our vocabulary (that happened in the early 1980s). At the age of 5 his late father, James, bought him a Radio Shack Tandy Model 3 computer. Soon he had his own Commodore 64 and his life in Nerdville took off.
Fast forward to today. Capt. Yarnell leads KCSO’s 29-member Technology Division. He and his staff are responsible for all IT (Information Technology) needs of Sheriff Tom Spangler’s operation – all computers, laptops, iPads, cell phones, radios in the vehicles (the Radio Shop) and whatever else is needed. But that’s just one role Yarnell and his team fulfills.
He oversees these units in the Technology Division: Special Investigations, Organized Retail Crime, Digital Intelligence, Cyber Investigations, Digital Communications, Information & Tech Unit (Patrol) and Information & Tech Unit (Corrections). He’s also in charge of technology for the Detention Center.
In short, Yarnell’s team identifies bad guys and girls and works with detectives to arrest them. They handle the gathering of digital intelligence, do crime and forensic analysis, investigate computer crimes, assist with retail crimes, monitor social media in all forms in search of suspects and their associates, predict future crimes based on trends they discern, and make arrests. His team averages 10-15 career criminal felony arrests a month.
In the fall of 2018, days after being sworn in, Sheriff Spangler formed the new Technology Unit with Yarnell as its captain.
“The truth is that law enforcement and technology have collided and we’re now seeing what technology can do in helping solve and prevent crimes,” Yarnell said. “The sheriff is very progressive when it comes to using technology, and he saw my passion for it and we’re investing in it because of him.”
Yarnell came up through the ranks. With an associate degree in computer sciences from Walters State Community College, he began as an intern in the Support Services Division. After two years there he worked in Corrections at the jail for three years. Then it was off to the KCSO Police Academy, and from 2000 to 2005 he was a deputy on patrol. Next, he was a detective in property burglaries, then fraud investigations and in 2009 in major crimes.
In 2014 he was promoted to lieutenant over the Special Investigations Unit, the forerunner of the Technology Division he now leads. He was promoted to captain in 2016.
“Captain Yarnell is one of our finest. He’s not only a highly skilled officer, but his technological abilities help to put us ahead of the curve,” says Sheriff Spangler. “He has a genuine heart for people and we are certainly thankful to have him here!”
Yarnell’s desk is its own technology center with a bank of multiple computers, a hard drive he built and assorted other do-dads plus a big flat-screen TV mounted on the office wall (more about that later) and posters galore.
As our interview was well underway, his cell phone rang. “Gotta go. My guys have found a car and have a suspect in custody and chasing two others in a burglary investigation and I need to be there. Want to tag along?” he said. And off we went in his black Tahoe.
This burly 6-5, 42-year-old with short-cropped hair is not your typical nerd – no thick horn-rimmed glasses, no plastic pen holder in his pocket, no shirt buttoned to the neck.
On the way back to the City County Building after the arrest, he saw a car stopped in the middle of a downtown street. He turned around to partially block traffic. The two young men’s car had a battery issue. He held up traffic as they rolled the car to a safe parking spot and made sure they had help on the way. “All in a day’s work,” he said.
His passion for technology and its many uses is on display at home as well. The basement is his Man Nerd Cave. He and wife Amy have four daughters, 8 to 21. Amy, a retired KCSO sergeant he met when she worked with the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office, home schools their two younger girls as she did the two older ones, both now in college.
“Amy’s on a schedule for school and when she goes to bed at 9:30 or so I head downstairs most nights for three or so hours to game,” he said. “My favorite video game is ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ and Hillbilly Agenda is the name of the online gaming club (where) I play with about 50 other gamers.”
His gamer tag is “Yarnella Ice” and that came about when someone said: “Yarnell is cooler than the other side of the pillow.” And who said that, he was asked. “That would be me, I think.”
His comic book collection numbers more than 10,000. He’s also a collector of video game console systems. “I have 57 of them going back to 1976 when ‘Pong’ came out, and I have all of the U.S. and Japanese systems up to today,” he says.
Away from work, he’s heavily into something he created in March 2013 – the SMART Initiative. That is a continually growing social media and technology awareness presentation and website dedicated to helping parents and others understand social media and technology that our kids are using today.
“I understand that kids are growing up in a technology-driven world that some parents did not have the opportunity to explore. This website is designed to give parents, teachers and anyone interested the general knowledge of social media, popular sites and dangerous websites and applications they may want their children to avoid and to ask questions about,” Yarnell says. “If parents aren’t aware of what their kids are doing on the Internet and with some apps, they need to be.”
His time spent on the SMART Initiative is apart from his work. It’s all about keeping kids safe and out of trouble from things they become involved with online. The website is www.socialsafetypatrol.com
“You cannot stop kids from using social media today,” he says. “But parents must engage with their youngsters. Know their lock codes.” Yarnell urges parents to “be the detective,” saying a telephone is not a toy for kids but “a tool for you.”
Yarnell is available to speak for free at civic or church groups about the SMART Initiative, how to keep kids safe while using technology and which sites to avoid. He is continually updating the website with information and warnings. If you want him to speak, send him an email at Aaron.firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to Yarnell the KCSO captain.
Again this fall the KCSO will distribute to all Knox County first-graders the book known as “Safetyman,” that was created in 1979 by KCSO’s Special Services Division. The all-new activity and coloring book has been updated this year – by Yarnell’s art and word creative talents. “I just took him and made him an up-to-date superhero,” he said. Each page comes with new “limericks” as well – all written by Yarnell and his team.
Kimberly Glenn, KCSO’s communications director, is responsible for KCSO’s Facebook page and Yarnell contributes most of the computer graphics. “He is very gifted,” Glenn said.
Yarnell also created, produces and directs the KCSO monthly TV show known as “Today in Tech.” As the latest episode pops up on his big wall TV, he chimes in: “This is the No. 1 rated talk show at the KCSO.” It also appears on all screens simultaneously within the department and all deputies see it on their in-cruiser screens. His top assistants with the Digital Intelligence Unit are Sgt. Angie Daniels and Deputy Bo Cheatham.
As the adage says, “There is a kid within all of us.” That fits Yarnell as he talks about his favorite childhood comic books. “No. 1 is Batman of course, and he originally was a detective you know,” he says. “Then Marvel’s Iron Man and the Avengers. Getting the bad guys.”
“Technology and social media is not a temporary fad,” he says. “It has changed how we communicate in law enforcement forever, and we’re using it to assist our officers and detectives in getting the bad guys and to help keep (our officers) safe.”
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.