About a week ago, the day after a hornet’s nest erupted at the Knoxville Police Department, first-year Chief Eve Thomas’ reaction was succinct and amazingly candid: “I was stunned. I was horrified. I was deeply embarrassed, and I was hurt. A slap in the face.”
Yesterday, while speaking to the Rotary Club of Farragut, she added: “This is an egregious incident that has happened. I have seen the video. It is very disturbing, disgusting and embarrassing. This is not what our department is.”
These days, Knoxville’s first-ever female chief is trying to manage this scandal that began at a roll-call meeting in June when a now-retired veteran sergeant of 25 years, Bobby Maxwell, was recorded as he used a whiteboard to instruct fellow officers on how to have women perform oral sex on them while on the job. His behavior was called “crude and sexist.”
From that, it seems to be morphing into an alleged cover-up by two senior officers. Now, the police lieutenant who recorded the incident and reported it, Travis Brasfield, has resigned from the KPD alleging retribution and retaliation by members of the department. This has lawsuit written all over it. Brasfield is an attorney.
Chief Thomas said she is currently having informal meetings with squads of 10 to 12 officers at a time to discuss the department’s harassment policy and anything else the officers want to discuss about the department. “I am telling them that we all have to take care of each other, and I’m working some long hours. Yesterday (Tuesday) I was in at 6:30 and got home at midnight. It’s part of my job.
“There’s really nothing else I can say about (the scandal) because it’s all being investigated by our Internal Affairs Department,” she added. “We still have our jobs to do day by day and I’m working to lead us through this crisis.”
Thomas climbed through the KPD ranks to become chief.
She was on patrol for three years, was a field-training officer and then promoted to sergeant in 1998. Seven years later, in 2005, she became a lieutenant, and in 2011 was promoted to captain. She became the East District Commander in 2013 in the Patrol Division.
Thomas headed Internal Affairs from 2015 to 2018, followed by some time in the Criminal Investigative Division prior to being promoted to deputy chief in February 2018. Five months later Mayor Madeline Rogero appointed her chief.
“I am happy that I grew up in this department and (the officers) all know me and know how I react to things and what to expect, especially right now,” she said. “I didn’t have much experience with budgets and planning but I’m catching on.”
Her family came to East Tennessee when she was 12. She graduated from Farragut High School in 1982 and then earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee.
Here are a few other things on her desk she’s working on:
- Hiring and recruiting new officers is an issue. The department has 376 officers and is authorized 416. “The economy is good right now and that’s bad when your jobs are low paying. In a bad economy, our jobs are good and steady. Our starting pay was $36,000 a year and thanks to the mayor it’s now $40,000 and that allows us to compete,” she said. She now has two officers who are working on recruiting and plans to do more marketing in this area. A new Police Academy class began two weeks ago with 19 in the class selected from 124 applications. Those numbers used to be significantly higher.
- Increasing the amount of what she calls “Community Engagement” – explaining that the officers who do this are volunteers. “We also have the same officers meeting with the same groups and that ensures consistency on a number of levels,” she said. “We attend dozens of community meetings, and if their meetings conflict with an officer’s day off, we pay him overtime to go.”
- Another priority is working on the possible move of the KPD to the old St. Mary’s hospital location off Broadway, along with the headquarters of the Knoxville Fire Department, the Knoxville Pension Board and City Court. “Nothing has been signed, but it would consolidate our department from seven locations to one and I hope we can make it work,” she said. The latest price tag for this is $46.5 million.
- Working on the state and nation’s opioid crisis is a priority. Sgt. Josh Shafer is part of the Drug Death Task Force that includes representatives from the DEA, TBI, District Attorney’s Office, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Medical Examiner’ office. This group looks at each opioid overdose death as a piece of the puzzle, she said.
She told a family story about this. “My son Kody had his wisdom teeth out not long ago and he came home with a bottle of 30 opioid painkillers; I took them away from him and put them in our safe,” Thomas said. “I told him to take Advil and he did just fine.”
Thomas also said that KPD is issuing citations for the new ban on cell phone use while driving law that went into effect on July 1. “We need to get a local ordinance written to comply with what the state passed,” she said. “But yes, we are enforcing this.”
If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email. We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club. You also can call me at 865-659-3562.
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California. He started writing for KnoxTNToday in 2017.