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Data Show Racially Disproportionate and Increasing Use of Force by KPD, Kincannon Pledges Reform

Screen Capture Facebook Live

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon vowed Thursday to reform Knoxville’s use of force policy, following a nationwide push by the Obama Foundation calling on mayors to pledge police reform.

“My cursory review of [the policy] just earlier today shows that it does contain some of the best policies that have been proposed in other venues,” Kincannon said during a Facebook live video. “But I haven’t scrutinized it as closely as it needs to be scrutinized.”

The Knoxville Police Department’s reported use of force has increased since 2015. And data show the city's police officers used force disproportionately against Black people. In 2018, the most recent available data, KPD used force in 1.6 percent of arrests of white men and in 2.6 percent of arrests of Black men. Forty percent of the deparment's total uses of force were against Black people, but only 17 percent of Knoxville’s population is Black.

KPD’s current use of force policy governs when and how officers can use physical force when making an arrest. Permitted actions include punching, tackling and neck restraints. The most recent version of the directive, adopted in April of this year, requires officers to exhaust all other methods before using lethal force. But the policy does not explicitly ban the use of chokeholds, nor does it require officers to intervene if they witness another officer subjecting someone to excessive use of force.

In contrast, 28 percent of the nation’s 100 largest police departments ban the use of chokeholds and 48 percent of the departments require officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force, according to a database of police use of force policies independently compiled by activists.

Almost six years ago, there were nationwide protests against police brutality after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death led to the creation of Knoxville’s Black Lives Matter chapter, and the city faced multiple lawsuits over police brutality in 2015. That year, reported incidents by the Knoxville Police Department dropped down to fewer than a hundred. But in 2018, there were 171 incidents.

In the most recently documented use of force by KPD last Saturday, police in riot gear shot pepper balls at demonstrators in Market Square. The previous day, an estimated 800 people gathered at the Knoxville Police Department parking lot for a justice rally organized by Black Coffee Justice and Black Lives Matter Knoxville.

The community organizers at Friday’s gathering made specific demands from the city, including more investment in hiring mental health professionals, increased oversight over the Knoxville Police Department and purchasing body cameras for the local police. 

Protestors have been calling for police reform and defunding police departments nationwide, following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. Earlier this week, Nashville residents advocating for changes to police policy gave comments at a city council meeting that stretched until 4:30 a.m. Dozens asked the city council to defund the police and increase investment in social services. Nashville’s proposed budget this year includes a $2.6 million increase for the police department.

The history of law enforcement’s role in patrolling enslaved people and upholding white supremacy has been a key point in recent discussions about the future of policing. Some city council members in Minneapolis announced they are considering disbanding the city's police entirely. "Several of us on the council are working on finding out what it would take to disband the MPD and start fresh with a community-oriented, non-violent public safety and outreach capacity," a council member posted on Twitter.

In response to a question about redirecting police department funding in Knoxville, Mayor Kincannon said during a Facebook Live video Thursday that the city’s budget has already been approved and will go into effect on July 1st as is. 

The new budget was approved by city council in mid-May. However, the formal deadline for finalizing the city's spending plan is still ten days away. The Knoxville Police Department is set to get its largest budget on record, at more than $58 million.

A small part of KPD’s allocation is going toward police body cameras; $746,400 will fund the deployment of body-worn and in-car cameras for all patrol offices. Mayor Kincannon said she will bring a contract for the cameras to the city council in July and plans to begin use of the cameras later this year.  

Details about the implementation of Kincannon’s pledge to review and reform the city’s use of force policies are forthcoming, the mayor said. But she encouraged residents to reach out to her with comments. The current policy can be viewed or downloaded below.