Amid Rising Gang Violence, Can KPD Overcome the Doubts of Knoxville’s Black Community?

In Cover Stories by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Late on a Friday night, Officer J.D. Hopkins is walking through a cluster of black men huddled against the cold in a courtyard at the Walter P. Taylor Homes. Scattered along the walkway are empty Taaka vodka bottles, cigarette butts, and a child’s pink-and-purple striped sock.

When the white officer approaches, the men go silent. The harsh streetlight above casts their faces in shadow.

“What are we doing?” Hopkins asks.

“Hangin’ out,” one responds. “Waiting on my daddy,” another says quickly.

“You gotta be careful,” Hopkins warns them, knowing they aren’t residents. When you are hanging out at this public housing project at 11:30 p.m., and you don’t live there, questions come to mind. (Also, legally you are trespassing.)

One of the men separates from the group and asks to speak to the officer. They step aside. Hopkins, who works this beat five days a week, is used to this. But the conversation that follows is not what he’s expecting. In fact, it is a microcosm of a larger debate about the relationship between police and the community.

It starts with two men who are frustrated because they feel stereotyped.

The stocky black man wearing a Stanford University sweatshirt starts berating Hopkins for arresting penny-ante drug dealers in East Knoxville instead of going for the big dealers he says are in Sequoyah Hills. Hopkins explains that the west side is not his patch. He’s been patrolling “Short East” (the part of East Knoxville closest to downtown) for most of 16 years with the Knoxville Police Department. But he tells the man he can put him in touch with the right person in the police department.

The would-be informer thinks Hopkins just doesn’t want to go after the big fish. “You all come over here and mess with these people in the ’hood, and they ain’t got nothin’,” he says “You could warn people, but you don’t do that. You take ’em straight to jail.”

“You don’t know me,” says Hopkins, who the night before tried to let a man off with a citation for drug possession until realizing it was the guy’s third drug arrest. Those require a felony charge. “You don’t know how I do business.”

“You don’t got to bust everybody all the time,” the man says.

“I don’t,” says Hopkins. “But lemme ask you, is it okay for someone to come here to sell dope?”

The man shrugs and shuffles his feet. “If they’re not messing with kids or with old people,” he says.

“Do you know how many times I’ve been in this parking lot picking up shell casings?” Hopkins asks. “If these dealers weren’t here, there wouldn’t be innocent people getting hit.”

“All the time, they just mess with folk on my side of town,” the man says.

“‘They?’”

“The police.”

***

Knoxville police officer J.D. Hopkins talks with a group of people blasting music from a car stereo around midnight in Walter P. Taylor Homes in East Knoxville.Clay Duda

Knoxville police officer J.D. Hopkins talks with a group of people blasting music from a car stereo around midnight in Walter P. Taylor Homes in East Knoxville.

When you talk about police, the community, and race, there are a lot of “theys.” Since a 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., raised questions nationwide about police brutality toward blacks, local tensions between Knoxville’s black community and police have been discussed publicly by hundreds of people who attended forums held by Knoxville Community Step Up, the FBI, and a local Black Lives Matter group.

Many blacks in Knoxville say they are targeted by police for minor traffic violations as an excuse to search them for drugs or check for warrants. In 2015, several court cases appeared to show a few white officers who patrol East Knoxville doing this repeatedly. Residents of poor black neighborhoods, especially on the East Side, say they live “in a police state,” surrounded by cops who assume everyone on the street is a criminal.

“In our community, when we see law enforcement, we don’t see protection,” says the Rev. John Butler, president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP and pastor at Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church in Mechanicsville, a historically black neighborhood in Northwest Knoxville. “We see being stopped, arrested, and charged, even if we were not doing anything wrong.”

André Canty, president of 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville and an organizer of the Knoxville Black Lives Matter chapter, says, “As a black man, I have to walk out every day and think, ‘Is this going to be my last day?’ [Unlike a cop], I didn’t sign up for that. I didn’t sign up for a difficult job.”

However, the Knoxville Police Department’s arrest and citation records don’t show that blacks are arrested or ticketed more often than whites. Whites are also more often on the receiving end when police use force—although KPD uses force against black suspects at a rate far exceeding their proportion in the city’s population. Because only 17 percent of Knoxville’s residents are black, some activists suggest that poverty is a factor more than race.

And during the last few months, some Knoxvillians have set aside distrust as both the black community and Knoxville police grapple and grieve over a spate of gang-related shootings. In particular, the death of Zaevion Dobson has galvanized a new series of public marches and meetings. The 15-year-old Fulton High School student, whose memory has been praised twice by President Barack Obama, died shielding two girls from random gang-related gunfire last month, police say. Days after Dobson’s funeral brought thousands of mourners to Overcoming Believers Church in East Knoxville, a public forum was held there on how to stop the violence. Gang members were invited to attend, and to support that effort, Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch told his officers not to arrest any wanted suspects near the meeting during a five-hour period.

KPD policies do not allow profiling. Rausch says biased policing isn’t tolerated. (A handful of states, although not Tennessee, have outlawed bias-based policing, in some cases classifying it as a felony.)

Rausch attended many of last year’s community forums related to police and race, and says he investigated claims made there against the department, finding none true. He questions why more residents of high-crime neighborhoods don’t work as partners with police to stop crime, and some older black residents at the public meetings agreed with him.

But many young people aren’t buying it. “They try to play it off like, ‘We’re KPD, we can be nice. You should love us,’” says Darius J. Hunt, a 27-year-old who grew up in East Knoxville, including several stints in Walter P. Taylor Homes. “They have this delusional view of themselves. But when they’re really in these neighborhoods, that’s not what they’re doing, and that’s not how they act.”

The gap between the police experience and that of some vocal black residents is wide.

Flashbacks

Most agree the worst moment in the relationship between Knoxville’s police and the black community came in 1998, after four men, three of them black, died in seven months after altercations with police. (Two of the black men were unarmed, and one was suicidal.)

In the face of public outrage, then-Mayor Victor Ashe agreed to create the Police Advisory Review Committee (PARC), a group of community members who evaluate police policy and complaints against the Knoxville Police Department.

At the time of the shootings, Ron Davis was an organizer of Citizens for Police Review, a nonprofit that helped establish PARC to provide oversight of police.

“The tension is still there,” he says. “The corner hasn’t been turned in terms of getting to the place where all people feel comfortable when they are confronted with police officers.”

For a generation of blacks in Knoxville, the shootings define their perception of police.

“Before I got in the streets, before I ever went to jail, it was just like—being able to see the things [the police] did to people—it was like they were the real gangsters,” says Hunt, who has had several drug convictions and admits to dealing drugs in the past. “There were instances where I know they’ve killed people and gotten away with it, especially on the East Side. … But if I go and kill somebody in my own community, they’re going to fry me.”

Joe Tolbert Jr., a black professional who grew up in Mechanicsville and East Knoxville, says he thinks blacks like himself in their 20s and 30s feel less comfortable calling the police for help than those in their parents’ generation.

“If I call cops on this person, what’s actually going to happen, and what are the repercussions?” Tolbert says he’d wonder. “Could they get hurt or killed because I made this call? Because you just never know.”

Knoxville Police Department. Photo by Clay Duda. Clay Duda
Black or Poor

Often people clarify that things aren’t so bad between police and Knoxville residents because “we’re not like Ferguson.”

“Right, but that’s because white and black people here are related,” says Elandria Williams. She is an organizer and educator on Southern economic issues for the Highlander Research and Education Center, a nonprofit that supports community organizing around issues related to social justice, equality, and sustainability in Appalachia. She says police profiling in Knoxville may have more to do with poverty than race, with poor blacks and poor whites disproportionately affected.

“The work I do nationally is around policing,” she says. “It’s a very nuanced line … in this particular region, how race and class fall in that policing conversation. So it’s not as cut and dry as in other cities with a major black population.”

Butler, with the NAACP, says he thinks race and economic status are factors in who becomes a crime suspect and how they are treated. “If you can afford an attorney, it’s more likely the investigation will go at a considered pace,” he says.

Williams argues that police exist primarily to protect property—which means that historically they were not working for blacks, many of whose ancestors were property, and who even today tend to have less of it to protect.

“Police tend to pick on people who are less affluent,” agrees Joe Kendrick, executive director of Knoxville Community Step Up, which works to help reduce the number of black men behind bars. He and his wife have spent 30 years teaching study skills to public school students in Knoxville.

Kendrick, a veterinarian, says he learned to wear a tie as a survival skill, just as his grandson has learned he won’t be hassled when wearing his Webb School uniform.

“When you have survival skills, race seems to be less important,” Kendrick says, which is why Community Step Up offered a forum last August at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church to teach young black men how to respond when stopped by police.

Among the 250 people who attended, some accused his group of teaching people how to give up their rights. He says that wasn’t the point.

“I can’t change police attitudes right now,” Kendrick says. “What I’m trying to tell my son or grandson is: In spite of how that police guy acts, you need to think, ‘I’m going to do whatever I can do to go home tonight.’”

Because there are mothers waiting up for them. Even in neighborhoods your momma told you never to visit, mommas are waiting up.

Kendrick, Rausch, and Avice Reid with the Police Advisory Review Committee all advise people to cooperate with the police, then file a complaint later if they think they were mistreated. Reid points out that the recording devices are gathering evidence all the time, and can back up a claim.

“It’s a lot easier to tell me what they did wrong than for us to come to the scene after you’re dead,” Reid says.

But Hunt, who says he has had more than a dozen brushes with police, disagrees with that approach. “By complying with it, it’s like you agree,” he says, recalling an incident when he refused to follow a police officer’s commands. “The cop told me to spread my legs and tried to push my head into my car. I pulled my hands out of his so I could brace myself on the car,” he says.

“If I let him bust my head on his car, there’s no guarantee I would have got out of that situation. I saved my life or a trip to the hospital. … I’m not trying to fight him, but I’m not going to let him abuse me, either.” He says he sat down and waited while the officer called for backup.

Knoxville Police could not find a record of the incident, which would have occurred more than a decade ago. More recently, Hunt jumped from a moving car, allowing it to continue down the street without a driver, because he feared being caught without a license while on parole. (He admits it was a bad decision.)

Profiling

Four times a year, KPD’s Internal Affairs Department conducts an internal review of the department’s arrests, tickets, property seizures, and field interviews, looking for any indication that people are being treated differently based on their race, sex, or age. Reports issued for the first three quarters of 2015 found no indication of bias-based policing. There was one complaint about racial profiling filed with the city’s Police Advisory Review Committee during the third quarter, but it was determined that the officer knew the driver being pulled over and was aware the person didn’t have a license.

In each quarter, 76 to 77 percent of the people ticketed by the Knoxville Police were white, while between 18-19 percent where black. That’s pretty representative of the city’s population, which is 17 percent black. A slightly higher proportion of of black people were arrested—between 23 and 25 percent—while 74 to 78 percent of people arrested were white.

However, the numbers get less proportional when it comes to incidents when police use force against suspects. Blacks citizens were involved 44 percent of the time. Nevertheless, the majority—54 percent—were white, according to KPD’s own internal reports. (Hispanics made up an additional 2 percent.)

“We don’t profile,” Rausch says. “We pull people over for things which are legal or safety issues.”

In one recent example of alleged profiling, Officer Thomas Turner pulled over Jamie Allen Foxx repeatedly during the course of a year, often for minor traffic violations such as window tinting, then found reasons to search him or his car for drugs. The most recent charges were thrown out by the judge, who said Turner didn’t have probable cause to hold Foxx until a drug dog could arrive.

Rausch says this wasn’t racial profiling but criminal profiling, because Foxx had a (short) police record.

But Butler, with the NAACP, notes that people who have been released after serving their jail time have rights, too, and police should not treat them as if they are committing crimes at all times.

Many black men say they’ve been the victims of profiling.

“I don’t think there’s a person in this barber shop who hasn’t had a negative interaction: profiling, continuously getting pulled over,” says Chuck Brown as he gets his hair cut in Gam’s Barber Shop in Mechanicsville. “They just want to know your name for outstanding warrants and probation violations.”

Another customer, Darrow Davenport, who works for the city at the E.V. Davidson Community Center in East Knoxville, says he is careful how he conducts himself when pulled over. “I’m definitely scared,” he says. “You have more fear if you’re a black man.”

Rex Howard, one of the barbers, says he thinks police training contributes to these loaded situations.

“Cops start out probably because it’s a passion,” he says. “Then in training, they’re taught to fear certain areas, to be extra-prepared for the worst. … In a pull-over situation, then, everybody’s nervous. The cops are nervous. The people are nervous. And the first person who makes a wrong move is in trouble.”

Hunt says he received more than a dozen traffic tickets (only one for speeding) during the year after he started driving. He says they ended up being so expensive that he lost his license when he was unable to pay them, a problem he says is common in East Side neighborhoods.

“I started selling drugs just to pay off my tickets,” he says. “In one year I went from having a license and insurance to owing them $1,400 for tickets and court costs” before fees. “Especially on the East Side, most people don’t even spend $1,400 a month on rent and utilities combined. If you want to go to school, if you have kids, you want to have a license so you can drive back and forth. It disenfranchises the entire community.”

Black women, too, express distrust of the police. Williams recalls walking back to her car with a girlfriend late at night when they felt footsteps behind them. “We looked back, and there are two men coming after us, and we got so scared,” she recalls. “So we took off. Broke some heels in process.” Although they saw a policeman, at first they didn’t consider asking for his help.

“[The presence of] a cop did not signal it was okay to stop, until we saw he was black,” she says. “That says everything I know about police.”

Law-enforcement agencies try to recruit more minority officers partly to build trust with black residents. At the FBI forum, city, county, state, and federal law-enforcement officials say they’d like to attract more.

Just 20 of the Knoxville Police Department’s 293 patrol officers are black—7 percent, much less than the city’s overall black population of 17 percent. (Six more patrol officers are other racial minorities.)

Rausch says he is trying to make sure that the Knoxville Police Department isn’t unintentionally eliminating good minority candidates with the cognitive hiring test it has used since the 1980s. “Experts will tell you these can be biased,” he says.

An industrial and occupational psychology testing company is helping Knoxville develop a new test with both cognitive and behavioral elements, covering both book learning and practical knowledge, as Rausch describes it.

East/West

East Side residents like Diane Jordan, who represented the area on the Knox County Commission for many years, say they feel overwhelmed by the level of police presence. Jordan’s brother, Kevin Taylor, was murdered in 2004 after a botched cocaine delivery, and two of her eight sons served time for drug convictions. She knows the crime problem is real, but she says police have overreacted.

Starting four or five years ago, she says, “If you were driving down the street or walking, they’d stop you. Now it’s like the twilight zone at 9 [p.m.]. Police have shut it down. You’re scared to go out after 9”—because of the police, not the crime.

Jordan says once the area around Walter P. was designated a gun zone, “It got to where you couldn’t stand and talk, or walk. If you were on street, they’d stop and search you,” she says. “You had no rights if you lived over here, and if you were black.”

But Jordan acknowledges that police might receive mixed signals: “Older people are calling all the time wanting more police presence,” she says, adding that neighborhood watches have “turned into neighbors spying on you.”

Criminal defense attorney Mike Whalen notes that simply living in rough areas of East Knoxville can be a strike against you criminally. For example, police have to prove just two factors from a list of possibilities to show someone is in a gang, which makes a related crime eligible for enhanced punishments. One of those factors is simply living in “a criminal gang’s area.”

Hunt says his experience has been that police seem to think, ”‘Okay, you’re in this area, so we’re going to target you.’ It’s just you being there is like a violation of the law.”

Rausch says the areas with the most calls for service are assigned the most officers.

“We’re not an occupying force,” Rausch says. “Our efforts are to keep the community secure.”

KPD’s 2014 annual report actually showed more calls coming from the West District (124,178) than the East District (120,901). The number of arrests was also greater in the West District: 6,114, compared with 5,531 in the East District.  But according to KPD calculations, about 9,000 more people live in the West District, although the two districts cover about the same number of square miles.

Since that could vary significantly by neighborhood, the Mercury requested information on call volume by police squad in early November. Public Information Officer Darrell DeBusk says the department cannot provide such a breakdown because it is in the process of migrating to a new records-management system.

Patrol officers in the East District are more likely to use force and more likely to be flagged as potential problems by the department.

A 2014 KPD “response to resistance analysis” produced by its internal affairs unit found that half the incidents when police used force on a suspect occurred in the East District; 34 percent of such confrontations happened in the West District, and the remainder were in special units.

The department has an early warning program to help identify officers who are developing problem behavior patterns; the program automatically flags officers annually and each quarter if they meet a certain threshold for complaints, internal investigations, vehicle pursuits, discipline, and use of force. Rausch says being flagged is not necessarily an indicator that the officer is a problem. But over the past three years, officers in the East District were flagged three times as often as those in the West District. And within the East District, four officers from a single squad (D Squad) were flagged, some repeatedly—as many as in all the other East District squads combined.

“Like many people, I want to live in a crime-free environment,” says Butler with NAACP. “But I also want to live in a community where my rights will not be violated and I will feel safe.”

***

Officer J.D. Hopkins arrests a man in Walter P. Taylor Homes for felony possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor. Hopkins initially sought to issue citations for the offenses, but was forced to take the man into custody after learning the marijuana offense was his fourth. Clay Duda

Officer J.D. Hopkins arrests a man in Walter P. Taylor Homes for felony possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor. Hopkins initially sought to issue citations for the offenses, but was forced to take the man into custody after learning the marijuana offense was his fourth.

Hopkins is answering his questioner again, in another reversal of the cop stereotype.

“You just come here now and then,” says the black man in the Stanford shirt, in between the squat brick rectangles of Walter P. Taylor Homes.

“Every day I work,” says Hopkins. Blue light flickers from a television onto their faces through an open window. “You never met me,” Hopkins tells the man. Without moving his feet, he leans his tall frame forward and his voice thickens. “You don’t know how I take care of people over here. You ask anybody in here about me, and they’ll tell you.”

Maybe they do. Because as Hopkins continues weaving through the parking lots, the man emerges following 10 steps behind. At Hopkins’ police cruiser, the man gets a contact for the drug squad so he can give details about the West Knoxville drug supplier. “This should reflect on your stripes, too,” he tells Hopkins generously.

The officer chuckles and shakes his head. He offers to give the fellow a lift. The man says he’s staying at the rescue mission but can’t go there tonight because he’s been drinking. He doesn’t want to get banned as the weather gets cold.

“It’s already cold,” says Hopkins, his breath hanging in the air. “I can call and get you in over there.”

No, the man wants to sleep on a church porch near the bus station.

“You sure? I don’t want you to be cold.” It’s something a momma would say.

He’s sure. So Hopkins pats him down before giving him a ride into town. In the car, Hopkins finally asks the man’s name.

“If I tell you my name, you’ll look me up and think I’m full of shit,” the man says. “I know who I am. … At least I’m trying to be a good boy now, and get back in with my momma.”

Turns out, Hopkins knows his mother. They agree she’s a good woman, a mother to be proud of.

The officer eases the car to a the curb and the men wave before heading in different directions, one into a crowd, another toward blue lights flashing a few blocks away. Into a night that hasn’t ended yet.

Related Story:

KPD’s Approach to Community Policing Does Not Include Much ‘Walking the Beat’

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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