Does Knoxville’s Police Advisory Review Committee Hold KPD Accountable?

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When Latasha Williams opened the door around 8 a.m. on that surreal morning in May 2012, a police officer was standing there, holding a picture of her husband.

Did she know this man?

Marcus Charles Williams had died at 3:23 a.m., after falling from an interstate overpass. Latasha, suddenly a single mother, was overwhelmed. Her husband was gone, plus there were all these duties and details to handle, from the funeral to retrieving her car from the police. But she thought at least the police would be able to answer the question racing through her mind: Did her husband jump?

“It probably wasn’t a big deal to anybody else, but to us it’s very important for us to know exactly what happened,” Latasha Williams says. “If he slipped, that changes everything, because he left behind kids.”

But she says the investigator wouldn’t return her phone calls. So she tried to learn for herself what had happened by requesting a copy of the video recording from one of the police cruisers.

It didn’t show what she needed to see. But she could hear the officers at the scene joking about her husband’s death and about a past suicide.

“To hear them laughing and talking about how he was sweating and crying—that made me feel they didn’t do as much as they could have to help him,” Williams says. “It makes me wonder, do y’all care to protect and serve as you took the oath to do?”

In frustration, after more than a year of seeking answers, she called the mayor’s office and was referred to the office of the Police Advisory Review Committee, or PARC. PARC, which reports directly to the mayor, was established more than 17 years ago to investigate complaints against the Knoxville Police Department and make recommendations about its policies. PARC was designed specifically to be less intimidating to the public than filing a complaint with the KPD Internal Affairs Unit.

Williams filed her complaint with PARC in June of 2013, and PARC executive director Avice Reid requested a copy of the relevant dashcam video the same day. However, Reid’s case notes indicate she didn’t actually watch the video or talk with police about the incident until January, 2015—a year and a half after the complaint was filed.

“Even when I called Ms. Reid, it took more than a year to get back to me, and I just felt as if nobody cared,” Williams says.

Reid says she can’t remember the reason for the delay, but that most cases don’t take that long to conclude.

***

Critics say PARC is not representative, independent, or accessible enough to serve its intended purpose.

Joe Tolbert Jr., a young black Knoxville social activist now attending divinity school, says he thinks poor blacks don’t bother to file complaints with PARC because they’ve written it off as unresponsive. PARC staff members have a reputation for not calling back or following up, he says.

“They do make a lot of effort, but there’s so much more they could be doing,” he says.

Tolbert says he first became aware of PARC in high school, after an unarmed family member was shot by a policeman and the family filed a complaint with PARC. They felt the effort was unsuccessful because the officer was never charged in the killing, he says.

Dr. Joe Kendrick, executive director of Knoxville Community Step Up, says he learned PARC existed only last August, at a community forum sponsored by his group, which aims to keep black men from the cycle of prison. Kendrick, a lifelong community activist, says half the people in the audience had never heard of PARC either.

As a city department that has no professional investigator and can’t veto police decisions, “They don’t have any power,” Kendrick says. “It’s almost like the fox guarding the henhouse.”

PARC officials say the agency could be more effective if residents showed up to PARC meetings and reported complaints more. And police say PARC is a valuable partner in improving policies and providing training.

“For those who think PARC is not effective, I would tell them they don’t understand PARC and the daily communication we have with them,” says Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch. “The board asks hard questions, and many times those questions get us to dig deeper.”

Liana Perez, the director of operations for the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), says there has been little study of what features make groups like PARC successful. The association has recently been awarded a small U.S. Department of Justice grant to help it identify what structures and best practices are most common and effective.

PARC’s Role
Dr. Avice E. Reid, the city of Knoxville’s senior director of community relationsCourtesy of the city of Knoxville

Dr. Avice E. Reid, the city of Knoxville’s senior director of community relations

Knoxville’s Police Advisory Review Committee has seven members, who meet quarterly, plus a full-time executive director. Reid was a longtime senior project manager for the Tennessee Valley Authority and was serving as chairman of the PARC board when she was offered the executive director job in 2008. She replaced the first PARC director, Carol Scott, who retired. On Tuesday, Mayor Madeline Rogero named Reid the city’s senior director of community relations, with additional oversight of its Save Our Sons initiative and the Equal Business Opportunity Program; a new PARC director will be named later.

Reid takes citizen complaints, reviews KPD internal affairs cases and department policies, and conducts diversity training for police officers. Sometimes she accompanies citizens to city court or conducts mediation between a citizen and police. Reid also serves on the board of NACOLE.

According to NACOLE, there are more than 200 civilian oversight groups in the U.S. In places like Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco, they investigate police behavior. Other oversight agencies just review investigations and policy. Some have final decision-making authority, and a few even employ an independent law-enforcement auditor.

Knoxville’s citizen oversight group is stronger than many because it has subpoena powers and reports to the mayor rather than the police chief. But it has neither an investigator nor the last word on punishments and policy changes.

Reid says she doesn’t think PARC has ever used its subpoena powers, but it doesn’t have to—the police provide information when requested because they know PARC has the power to get it. Besides, Reid says, KPD is cooperative, even giving her real-time access to all its dashcam footage.

Rausch says PARC has influenced KPD training. For example, after a case in which a policeman used a knife to cut a homeless man’s lanyard, PARC asked whether the department was training officers on the appropriate use of knives. Although most officers carry a knife, knives aren’t issued by the department, so its leaders hadn’t thought of that, Rausch says. At PARC’s recommendation, police are now trained in using a knife as both a tool—to free a person trapped by a seat belt after a wreck, for example—and a weapon of last resort.

Sometimes PARC cases bring to light problems and gaps. “We have said, ‘The officer followed policy, but this policy is not right’” about two or three times a year, Reid says.

Sometimes KPD changes its policy as a result. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Each PARC board member independently reviews all the documents and footage from KPD internal affairs cases as well as PARC cases in which the citizen was unsatisfied with Reid’s response.

Reid says Rausch often comes to PARC meetings. If he doesn’t, he sends a deputy chief. 

Rausch says PARC is helpful, but, “My role is to make PARC disappear, because I want the public to have the confidence that they can come to us with anything.”

Until then, unlike the KPD Internal Affairs Unit, PARC opens a case on every complaint it receives, Reid says.

Reid pulls any related police documents and video and often talks with supervisors or captains about the incident. She reports the result back to the citizen. She won’t necessarily share the exact nature of any discipline an officer might receive, because that’s influenced by other factors in the officer’s personnel file, she says.

“For the most part, people leave here in a better situation than when they came,” Reid says. Even if they aren’t happy with the outcome, she says, “They better understand the officer’s actions” and police department policy.

From its founding in September 1998 through Sept. 30, 2015, PARC had closed a whopping 2,241 cases, according to its third-quarter 2015 operations report. During 2014, PARC opened 103 cases and closed 100, according to its annual report. (Some cases opened each year extend into the next.)

A review of PARC complaints for 2014 showed five dealing with excessive force, four with unnecessary force, four with racial discrimination or profiling, and four with harassment. Several recent PARC complaints about police brutality were discredited by dashcam video that showed police handling the complainant gently or showed the person using body parts in a normal way after claiming significant injuries.

In 2014, the highest number of PARC complaints by far—35—dealt with rudeness. Many hinge on the legitimacy of traffic stops, tickets, or towing.

Although PARC was established partly to combat racism in policing, a majority of PARC complaints usually come from white people, Reid says. It’s hard to tell for sure because the margins are very slim and PARC labels the ethnicity of some as “unknown” (15 percent, in the first three quarters of 2015).

Reid also says she doesn’t see a higher volume of complaints from East Knoxville, where many of the city’s poorest black neighborhoods are located. Because she and her executive assistant mark some complaints with a location but not others, it’s impossible to tally these for sure.

For the first three quarters of 2015, PARC files showed many contacts aren’t actually complaints. Citizens also call to report crimes or request information.

Reid says she may meet with police officials if she sees a pattern of similar complaints about a particular officer, even if they were deemed to be unfounded. She says she also looks into police-related incidents that make the news. But she was unfamiliar with several heavily-reported cases involving officers whose dashcam recordings were missing in disputed drug searches of black suspects.

Problems with PARC

PARC has the potential to change the way police and black residents relate to each other, but many say it hasn’t lived up to its promise.

Community activists criticize the makeup of the PARC committee and how its members are chosen.

The board is too old, wealthy, and well-educated, say Tolbert and others. Reid says their age is partly because they need to be vested in the community, and younger people tend to be less settled.

The seven-member board includes just three minorities: two blacks and one Hispanic.

No one has complaints about specific board members, but critics say they wish the committee included neighborbood-level leaders from “high-crime” areas.

“If they would have a board that would be more inclusive—come from Walter P. [Taylor Homes], come from the Burlington area—people would feel more comfortable talking to those people,” says Diane Jordan, a former longtime Knox County commissioner representing East Knoxville. 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.

Elandria Williams grew up in Powell and works for the Highlander Research and Education Center, a nonprofit that supports grassroots community organizing. She argues that the board should include a parent or grandparent who has lost a child to a police shooting.

“The people most impacted by issues of being criminalized are not up there, not only in terms of race but class,” Tolbert says. “Upper middle class, black or white, usually don’t have to come into contact with police the same way that the poor and working class do.”

Elandria Williams, Tolbert, and Andre Canty, who have all been associated with the local Black Lives Matter movement, say they are also uncomfortable with PARC members being appointed by the mayor.

“I feel like anything that is an appointed thing is only going to work so far, because no one is going to appoint you to make their life difficult,” Elandria Williams says. “It’s solely dependent on you having someone in that office who actually thinks that’s important.”

In most cities, the members of police oversight boards may be nominated by a mayor or city manager, but are also confirmed by City Council, according to documents on NACOLE’s website. In some places, each Council member appoints a representative from his or her district.

Ron Davis was one of the organizers of Citizens for Police Review, a nonprofit created in the 1990s to advocate for greater oversight of the Knoxville Police Department. (In 1998, four men, three of them black, died in the span of seven months after altercations with police. Two of the black men were unarmed, and one was suicidal.) The group helped draft the structure of PARC. Davis says it was always a challenge to create an independent oversight group funded by the city it is overseeing.

Davis says it’s a weakness that PARC doesn’t have its own investigator. Reid refers cases to the police department’s Internal Affairs Unit when she thinks the investigation may involve a serious policy violation or when the number of witnesses may require more manpower, she says. (Someone making a PARC complaint can always request a referral to Internal Affairs, too.)

The PARC board can ask KPD for more information about Internal Affairs cases before deciding if they agree with the department’s findings. Their disagreement doesn’t require police to make changes, however.

Rausch says it’s rare for the department to change its disciplinary decisions based on PARC’s comments. “A lot of times they don’t understand the nuance,” he says.

“I think it needs to be more than recommendations,” says Canty, who is also president of 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville, which aims to empower minority youth. “There needs to be more weight to it.”

If PARC is dissatisfied with how the police handle an issue, it could take its concerns to the mayor. Reid says she’s never had to do this.

Reid says the fact that they work closely together shows the police are open to constructive criticism and support PARC’s goals. The police chief who served before Rausch, Sterling P. Owen IV, was PARC chairman when he was chosen for the top cop job. 

“It’s important to have a relationship with the chief, because we like to resolve issues without running it through the mayor every time,” Reid says.

Davis says he thinks PARC has good intentions. “But it realized that it can’t get anything done unless the police cooperate,” he says. “So PARC ends up appearing to do a lot of cooperating with the police department, which makes the community feel PARC is just an appendage of the police department.”

Jordan says that leads citizens to feel that no one is on their side. “They don’t consider [PARC] their forum,” she says. “They consider that the police’s forum. They don’t have any trust or faith in that at all.” Jordan served on Knox County Commission during the police shootings of the 1990s—she or her sons knew many of the victims—and advocated for PARC to be created. But now she says she doesn’t think it works.

Darius Hunt, a young black man from East Knoxville who is on parole for a drug conviction, says he believes he was often profiled by police before he got involved with drugs. He says he received more than a dozen tickets in a year for minor traffic violations and was roughly drug-searched when his car broke down in an intersection. But he says he has never considered filing a PARC case because the committee sides with police most of the time.

“Their checks are being cut by the same people,” says Hunt. “So why wouldn’t they look out for each other?”

PARC is part of the city’s community relations division and doesn’t have its own budget, but its annual expenses run roughly $162,000, says Eric Vreeland, city communications manager. PARC salaries (for Reid and an executive assistant who works 30 hours a week for the office) total $136,670, Vreeland says.

Although PARC “takes all complaints,” there are some barriers to using its services. Perhaps the biggest is that Reid doesn’t proceed with an investigation until a complaint is written down so its claims are clear.

“Having to fill out a form is definitely a wall,” Jordan says. “This is a low-income area, low-educated area, a lot of these people have dropped out of school. … They can’t write it up. They can tell it to you, but they don’t have those kinds of skills. ”

The alternative is meeting Reid or coming to her office, but this can be time-consuming and intimidating, especially for someone without a car.

If she never receives a written complaint, Reid attempts to reach the person again but often finds the phone has been disconnected or her message isn’t returned. Then she closes the case. A review of PARC files from the first nine months of 2015 showed that this happens frequently.

Another complication of PARC being a city department is that it won’t take complaints from someone who has hired an attorney, because that could put Reid in the position of gathering evidence for a lawsuit against the city.

“But that doesn’t mean I stop looking at the issues involved,” she says.

Reid can arrange for a citizen to talk directly with an officer or police supervisors to discuss a disagreement. But Jordan says that’s more intimidating than helpful.

“They have these meetings, and when you go to them it’s like going to court,” she says. “They have all their people and you have to come before them. If you made complaint, you feel like you’re the one on the spot, not the officer.”

Sparse Citizen Involvement

“What’s disappointing about being on PARC is the minimal participation we get,” says Rosa Mar, a PARC board member and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “That is important for the community to keep PARC, and also the police department, on its toes. We’re a group of six representing 200,000 people, and we don’t necessarily see all and know all.”

It’s a common problem, Davis says, and the same one that eventually doomed Citizens for Police Review, which fizzled out about four years ago: “If there were no high-profile police shootings… the energy didn’t maintain,” he says. “Part of the challenge of PARC, as well as the community, was that trying to keep citizens coming out and pushing to hold PARC accountable just didn’t last.”

Elandria Williams agrees. “Once people stopped dying in police custody, people were like, ‘Great! We’re done!’” she says.

PARC holds its meetings in a different neighborhood of the city each quarter, in an attempt to be more accessible. There was a brief surge in interest last year after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.: Young people showed up to complain generally about police. But Reid says only one person has gotten on the mailing list or come to more meetings.

“It was an opportunity to say how horrible life is, and we need to fix it,” she says. “Well, help us fix it.”

Kendrick says when people at the Community Step Up forum last fall complained about their treatment at the hands of police, Rausch asked repeatedly, “Did you report it?”

“And they said no,” Kendrick says. “African-American people often believe even if you are going to report something, nothing is going to happen.”

There’s a good reason for that, Tolbert says. He argues that blaming black residents for failing to hold police accountable ignores a long history. That history extends from police sending slaves back to their masters to police beating up Civil Rights protesters to police shootings of unarmed blacks today. The upshot is that PARC should expect to have to do more to engage black residents.

But Rausch and City Councilman Mark Campen speculate that low turnout at PARC meetings indicates Knoxville residents have few concerns about police behavior. In other words, it could be a good sign.

Tolbert and Davis emphasized that “PARC is better than no PARC.” Mar, Reid, and community leaders say a similar board is badly needed as a counterbalance to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. (Reid often gets complaints about sheriff’s deputies and directs those to the Sheriff’s Office, but says she knows there’s little recourse.)

***

Latasha Williams received some help from PARC in understanding her husband’s 2012 death, but she says the explanation didn’t make much sense to her.

According to Reid’s case notes, Reid told Williams in February 2015 that officers said Marcus Williams had first jumped, then attempted to hold onto a railing over the highway before falling. The police officers who had made insensitive remarks at the scene would not be getting in trouble—their reactions were not unusual coping mechanisms after seeing something traumatic—but their supervisor would talk to them about the need to turn off their mics when they aren’t in contact with citizens.

Reid’s case notes indicate that at the time, Williams thanked Reid for her help.

Latasha Williams’ PARC complaint also dealt with her frustration with the case’s investigator. Williams’ car had been impounded because her husband drove it to the overpass before his death. Her complaint states the investigator had told her he didn’t know if there was a suicide note in the car because the officers weren’t allowed to search it without her permission. But she says she heard officers on the dashcam recording discussing the contents of her car. In addition, Latasha Williams says the investigator never showed up for an appointment to help her retrieve the car, which she had to pay to free from the impound lot per police department policy.

Police spokesman Officer Darrell DeBusk says officers check the car for indentification but don’t search it after these kinds of incidents. He says the investigator had to cancel his meeting with Latasha Williams but did provide her with information about how to reclaim her car. The investigator declined to speak about the case to the Mercury.

Reid never appears to have followed up on the parts of the complaint dealing with the investigator or the car.

Latasha Williams says she believes that the investigator lied to her and that the officers at the scene were disrespectful, and both should have faced some kind of consequences. But she gave up a while ago:

“I had children to take care of, and I couldn’t keep stressing over it.”

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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