He loves his God and his family, his country and his community. He loves his work and the professionals he works with side-by-side. He loves life, loves serving those in our town, no matter the situation, and his passion for his work runs deep.
For 21 years Knoxville Police Department Sgt. Don Zerillo was part of “The few, the proud, the Marines.” It was “Semper Fi” and “Oo-rah.” That life ended in 2009 when he retired as a master sergeant, E-8. He served in Japan, Kuwait, Iraq, Jamaica and Honduras. A few months after retirement, his second career began with the KPD.
After he served 11 years on patrol, KPD Chief Eve Thomas promoted him to sergeant two months ago.
Zerillo, 50, was a Marine military policeman, and he has now followed his father into civilian law enforcement. Retired and living in Collierville, Tennessee, his father, Donald, was a 31-year member of the Los Angeles Police Department. His parents moved to West Tennessee in 1997, and that drew Sgt. Zerillo to Tennessee and the KPD as well.
“I read a lot of great reviews about the KPD and its officers, and I love East Tennessee and the mountains and lakes, so I took the test and was hired,” he says. “It’s a great department.”
He is one of two supervising sergeants on the evening shift for the large West District, which stretches from the University of Tennessee and Fort Sanders to Turkey Creek, and north to Pleasant Ridge Road and Ball Camp Pike.
Residents in the West Hills and Lyons View community associations know him. He is their KPD liaison. He’s also a member of KPD’s Honor Guard. “That really takes me back to my military roots,” he says. “I love our Honor Guard. First-class.”
His military connection bore fruit on Christmas Eve 2018, around 10 p.m. A man in his car near Target on Ray Mears Boulevard was threatening suicide. KPD dispatchers had been talking with him. He was an ex-Marine, angry at the VA for what he called poor treatment and improper care. He had a shotgun positioned up through the steering wheel, pointed at his head.
“They called me since I was an ex-Marine and maybe knew how to talk to him,” Zerillo says. It also helped that Zerillo had served a three-year term on the board of directors of the Tennessee State Veterans Homes Association.
“I told him that taking his life would not change the VA,” Zerillo said. “I convinced him there are better ways to do that. He finally got out and gave up his shotgun. I tried to be realistic and sympathetic at the same time.”
And for that, in 2019 he was presented the James H. Quillen Certificate of Honor award by the VA Medical Center in Johnson City for his “compassion and swift action” in helping a veteran in crisis.
Zerillo is seriously concerned about how the public views law enforcement. He has a story that speaks to that issue.
He remembers a call in 2015 to a Sequoyah Hills home. “A woman was on the floor in cardiac arrest and her husband didn’t know what to do,” he says. “The ambulance got there, and they worked to revive her and took her to UT Hospital. Her husband needed a ride to the hospital, so I drove him. I got the chaplain at the hospital for him and they prayed together. His wife died and I took him home. There was medical stuff all over his floor, so I helped him clean it all up and told him he needed to call his family.”
He added this: “As I was getting ready to leave, he told me – ‘You guys are nothing like people portray you to be on the Internet and in the news media.’ His family sent me a very personal card (to his home address) and I still have it. Very special. I think many people view us like we are against them. It’s not that way. We try hard to make whatever the situation is better and resolve issues and problems. But people judge us so quickly. It’s a tough job and maybe the only job where you can be shot and killed on any day.”
How does this officer wind down? “It’s simple. Spend time with my family, hunting and fishing and riding my Harley and practicing my faith (they attend Park West Church of God),” he said. He’s a father of four, ages 23 to 2½.
KPD Capt. David Powell was the West District Commander and supervised Zerillo. Here are his comments about Zerillo: “He exemplifies a passion to make the department more efficient and ensuring we offer the best service to the citizens of Knoxville.”
And this from KPD Chief Thomas: “Sgt. Zerillo is a shining star and a great leader! I am proud to work with him.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. If you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, email Tom King or call him at 865-659-3562.