When Knoxville’s next mayor takes office, a major concern will be presiding over a police department under siege.
What sort of workplace culture exists when a police sergeant can draw a penis and a woman performing oral sex on a whiteboard during roll call seemingly unconcerned about the presence of men and women officers and seemingly without any fear of repercussions for his actions? Why did he feel free to demonstrate what he called “a choke job?”
A Knox County Sheriff’s Office investigation is looking at an officer-involved shooting amid massive protests over the death of Channara Tom “Philly” Pheap, 33. The investigation continues as people in the community are marching on city council amid calls for body cameras.
It’s hard to clean house when it’s been reported the department is down over 30 positions due to a problem recruiting new officers, a problem that plagues police departments across the country. But how much of a priority has it been in recent years, to adjust pay and benefits and step up recruitment, to try and solve the problem?
Is it time to put the department under civilian control by naming a public safety director? Yes, it’s true that the police chief and fire chief report directly to the mayor, but the mayor has a lot of other responsibilities. Knoxville’s police chiefs come up through the ranks and are hardly objective. They are concerned with fighting crime and representing the department. Is it time for a civilian to focus exclusively on improving staffing and pay, training and changing the culture? Being the advocate for body cams?
There is an “internal” investigation of the whiteboard incident which may or may not finish before Mayor Madeline Rogero is out of office. Police Chief Eve Thomas said she does not believe there is a problem with the culture of the department. Part of the investigation also includes whether there was a cover-up of the incident.
About 20 years ago officer-involved shootings led to near-riot conditions in Knoxville and it led to the Bernstein Commission, led by Knoxville attorney Bernard Bernstein, which recommended a civilian review board which led to the creation of the Police Advisory Review Committee. PARC is still around and what role, if any, does it have or should it have, with current department problems?
(One of the officer-involved shootings back then involved Sgt. Bobby Maxwell, the whiteboard artist of today.)
But is there a need for a full-time civilian administrator as well? Knoxville had such a position back in the 1980s. Ironically, one of the public safety directors was Travis Brasfield. He is the father of Lt. Travis Brasfield, the department whistleblower who has resigned citing harassment since he reported sexism in the department. The elder Brasfield was a patronage politician, but the younger Brasfield has been described as Knoxville’s Serpico. (Google it.)
Another consideration in having a public safety director is that police headquarters is moving to the old St. Mary’s hospital site, even further away from the mayor’s office in the City County Building. Site of shift changes, roll calls … and whiteboard art?
More civilian supervision seems in order.
Not petty or vindictive: How have things changed with the new speaker of the House? One example. Former Speaker Glen Casada refused to put state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, on the Education Committee, despite her experience as an educator. New Speaker Cameron Sexton put Johnson on the Education Committee. As a minority member Johnson may not have much influence on a majority Republican committee. But Casada refused her request to be on the committee in a petty and vindictive effort to make her shut up and sit down. Not likely. With Sexton, it’s a matter of professional courtesy.
It’s on: WATE Channel Six is back on for DIRECTV customers just in time for football season. Speaking of football season, is there something in the water at UT that, going back to Derek Dooley, makes Vol football players not care about being embarrassed and humiliated on national television? The Vol offensive line has been described as the “Matador Line” as three hundred-pound linemen step to the side and wave at opposition defenders as they breeze through the line like bulls to wreak havoc in the UT backfield.
Some of you may get this reference: Perhaps UT needs to curtain off whole sections of Neyland Stadium to make the fan experience more intimate. Maybe it’s a good thing UT will start selling beer at this week’s game against BYU. Vol fans may need to get sloshed to sit through the season.
Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman and the former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.