When Chris Medina joined the Knoxville Police Department four years ago, he never envisioned walking a beat, shoe leather on the pavement. That’s part of his job now, as he and other officers are working to make the neighborhoods of East Knoxville safer and more secure.
He and his unit are part of KPD Chief Eve Thomas’s plan to reduce and stop the murders and shootings. He’s one of 13 officers on the CERT unit – the Community Engagement Response Team. Walking beats ensures face-to-face engagement with community members – long-time residents, families, kids and the young people, and maybe some gang members.
Six months into 2021 the city has experienced 22 homicides, the majority happening in East Knoxville. In 2020 there were 37 homicides. Thomas and the CERT team are working to avoid 2021 becoming another record year for murders. That translates into 16 fewer homicides in the next 5½ months. That would be a significant accomplishment.
“Walking a beat is a different side of policing I didn’t think I’d be doing,” Medina, 34, says. “But I absolutely love it. We can focus on specific problems and we get to interact with the people in the neighborhoods. Getting to know them as individuals is a big thing. We let them know we’re there to help.
“And I can tell you that the community is being very receptive to our presence. From my perspective we’ve gotten a very warm welcome that you would not have anticipated. They are happy to see us out there and they all know why we’re here.”
The 37 homicides in 2020 was a 60% increase over 2019. This year five Austin-East Magnet High School students have died from shootings, the fifth one at the hands of a KPD officer in a school restroom. District Attorney General Charme Allen ruled it as a justified use of deadly force.
That case and four murders in May is what made the community, residents, organizations and KPD stop and collectively think: How can we stop this – now? CERT is part of the KPD strategy, and this unit will work citywide when the need arises, not just in East Knoxville.
Medina is a perfect fit for the unit. He is on the department’s Crisis Intervention Team, is certified in crisis intervention and teaches it to others at KPD. He also is a member of KPD’s SWAT team.
“This assignment and being an officer cover a lot of my interests. It’s fulfilling work every day and I’m touching people’s lives,” says this Colorado native who earned a bachelor’s in finance and accounting at the University of Tennessee before joining KPD.
“Not long ago we were watching a house in a neighborhood after a funeral because we’d heard there could be some retaliation going on. I was standing next to a house and an elderly lady was sitting on her porch and she told me how much safer she felt with us being there now.”
Medina has a real knack or skillset for defusing tense situations before they escalate. In December 2020 he was honored as KPD’s Officer of the Month for two incidents that easily could have ended tragically. Both happened in a 10-day period. Both involved men with mental health issues, guns and alcohol.
The first incident occurred on Dec. 2, when officers responded to an apartment at The Woodlands. An armed man was threatening suicide inside an apartment with three other people inside. Medina obtained the man’s cell phone number, called him and convinced him to meet him at the door. Medina rode in the ambulance for the safety of the crew. Good thing. The man attempted to grab Medina’s handgun. “I pinned his arm down and we talked some more,” Medina says now.
The second incident on Dec. 12 was at a motel. A man with a gun sent texts to his family about harming himself. The man was a former police officer and military veteran. Both were red flags.
Medina took the lead and met first with the man’s sister to gain information about him. Medina made contact with him, sat down across from him and they talked for several minutes. Medina talked him into going to a hospital. “I told him he could go voluntarily or in cuffs,” he says. “And he agreed to go and it all worked itself out then.”
In its report, KPD’s Awards and Commendations Committee said it selected Medina “for his calm, caring and intentional approach to two separate incidents involving individuals experiencing crises, which ultimately led to peaceful outcomes and created a pathway for those individuals to get the assistance they needed.”
As a boy growing up in Colorado, Medina lived off and on with his father in a low-income trailer park. He saw a lot. He learned a lot. “Mostly I was around good people then who were stuck in difficult circumstances,” he remembers. “I see that here, too. Good people. We’re trying to help and I hope we are.”
Tom King writes Our Town Heroes each Monday. Suggest future stories for him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 865-659-3562.