Lt. Josh Shaffer called to his career at KPD

Tom KingOur Town Heroes, West Knox

Destiny, maybe. Perhaps fate. Or both.

  • Destiny: “The hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future.” New Oxford American Dictionary
  • Fate: “The course of someone’s life, or the outcome of a particular situation, seen as beyond their control.” New Oxford American Dictionary

Lt. Josh Shaffer, 40, of the Knoxville Police Department, tried to explain why he has spent 20 years with the KPD.

“Not too sure what to call it actually … I think it truly is a calling and you feel like you are supposed to be doing this work … tough to describe. I know now it’s where I am supposed to be and when you have that there’s nothing you can say against it,” Lt. Shaffer says. “You have to have your heart in it. It is rough work and we see things others don’t want to see or be around. It’s very difficult, trying and stressful.”

You might conclude that this Knoxville native, who grew up in Cumberland Estates and graduated from West High School, was a shoo-in for police work. Older brother Sammy and Josh watched their father, Gary, go to work at the KPD day in and day out for 31 years. Gary retired in 2002 as a sergeant and has the word “legend” associated with his KPD career.

Josh Shaffer

Sammy is a KPD veteran of 19 years and also a lieutenant who heads up the KPD Training Division. All in the family, you might say.

“Not so fast,” as Lee Corso would say on ESPN’s College GameDay.

Josh looked into the medical field with thoughts of becoming a paramedic while he was involved in the KPD Explorer and Cadet programs. He earned EMT and First Responder certifications from Roane State Community College. In the summers of his junior and senior years in high school he was an intern at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. His heart and mind had not settled on a future – yet.

Meanwhile, Sammy became a firefighter with the Knoxville Fire Department and spent five years there before moving to the KPD.

Did their dad pressure them about police work? “No,” Josh says. “There was no pressure from him either way. Dad said to make your own way. He said here’s what I know and anything I can do to help you I will.”

Twice – in 2010 and again in 2018 – Josh has been named the KPD Officer of the Year. Ditto for Sammy, in 2005 and 2017. They are, safe to say, making their own way.

When Josh was honored in 2018, KPD wrote this about him:

“… He is best known for establishing the Drug-Related Death Task Force here at KPD, which was started to more fully investigate overdose deaths that has resulted in substantially more prosecution of drug distributors … He is a wealth of knowledge and an exceptional officer.”

During those task force days, he was a sergeant. Less than two months ago he was promoted to lieutenant and now supervises the West Knoxville Patrol Squad.

Here are some fast facts about him:

  • Joined the KPD Explorer Post at age 14. Became its chief at age 16.
  • First real job: Cashier and worked in produce at the old Kroger on Western Avenue.
  • Started and developed the first Training Academy for the Explorer Post.
  • Became a full-time Cadet in 1998 at the age of 18.
  • Graduated from the Police Academy in 2000 at 20.
  • Earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from King University in 2015.

He’s done a lot in 20 years. Patrol, plainclothes street drug crime unit, member of the SWAT team, a narcotics investigator, a member of the Repeat Offenders squad, supervisor of the Violent Crimes Unit and for the past three years headed up the multi-agency HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) Task Force. Its members are from the KPD, FBI, DEA, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Knox County District Attorney and Medical Examiner’s offices.

Knox County is a designated high intensity drug area for opioids and heroin, among others. Josh was one of the architects of the task force that began paying close attention to the overdose deaths and tracking down the sources of the drugs that killed each victim.

But, Josh says, “It can be pretty difficult and frustrating work. Your desire is to do something to stop this, to get some answers and more times than not you do not get the results you want.”

The task force works a lot in motels, apartments and commercial parking lots (high traffic areas) to stop drug deals and arrest the dealers and suppliers.

“I do miss it. It’s been a good mental break for me,” he says. “I never stopped working while running the task force. Seven days a week at home or on vacations. It was three years of continual work. But, I’m still not out of it completely.”

He has pending cases he’s involved in. He helps out when needed and also teaches courses around the country on how the HIDTA task force operates and conducts investigations. He has spoken twice in Washington and has sessions upcoming in Kentucky and Georgia.

And what’s next for Lt. Shaffer as he exits the drug business full-time. “I’m focused on learning this job I’m in now and doing good at it, helping take care of the department and taking care of the guys who work for me,” he said.

Destiny? Fate?

Editor’s Note: Our Town Heroes is a weekly series highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. If you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional to feature, please email Tom King or call him at 865-659-3562.

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