A Knoxville Police Department Internal Affairs investigation into a complaint, which claimed an off-duty officer unlawfully detained and drew a gun inappropriately on a North Carolina woman, concluded Tuesday that the officer acted appropriately.
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch traveled to Charlotte, N.C. to convey the results in person to Tonya Jameson, who filed the complaint about how she was treated by officer Matthew Janish on May 3. Soon after the incident, Jameson shared her experience on a blog and Facebook posts that went viral, interpreting the officer’s behavior as racist for assuming she was a dangerous criminal because she was black.
“I almost became a hashtag – another unarmed Black person shot by a cop,” Jameson wrote on her blog sipandplayclt.com, which was once about Charlotte nightlife but now focuses also on police behavior toward black suspects. “I’m thankful that I survived that day. I understand how easily a police encounter can escalate. Some cops are willing to draw guns first and ask questions later. It also showed me how they protect each other. We’re expected to be thankful they didn’t kill us, beat us or lock us up in the name of public safety.”
Jameson is a former Charlotte Observer reporter and columnist who now manages social media for companies. She filed the complaint May 10 about what happened when she arrived in Jefferson City to pick up an SUV she had purchased from Janish’s mother-in-law, who lives across the street from him. The seller wasn’t home. Everyone involved agrees Jameson was dropped off by an unmarked taxi to pick up the vehicle, and was changing the license plate when Janish pulled a gun on her from behind while calling 911 to report a burglary.
Jameson stayed calm as Janish kept the gun trained on her for about five minutes before allowing her to sit and holstering it. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Curtis French arrived shortly afterward.
Statements from Jameson, Janish, and French indicated that neither Janish nor the deputy would allow Jameson to show them the registration or keys to the car that she had with her. They released her only when they reached Janish reached a relative who could confirm that Jameson had in fact bought the vehicle. The report stated it was “proper” that Janish would not let her take items from her bag because Janish was there by himself and she could have pulled out a weapon.
In his interview with Internal Affairs, Janish indicated he knew the SUV was for sale but did not know it had been sold, and Jameson gave the wrong last name when he asked from whom she had purchased it.
“In reviewing the statements and 911 recording, it is determined that Officer Janish did not violate the Knoxville Police Department’s Use of Force Policy,” wrote Lt. Jerry Armstrong in the Internal Affairs report. The reason given was that Janish saw what appeared to be suspicious behavior across the street and believed a felony was about to be committed. The car that dropped Jameson at the residence and “sped away” seemed suspicious, the report stated, as did Jameson not knocking on the door before pulling something (a screwdriver) from a duffel bag and going to work on the car.
Jameson said the owner knew she was going to be there, and pointed out that many people use unmarked Lyft and Uber services. But Janish feared the taxi might be a getaway car that would return, leaving him outnumbered, and he didn’t know if Jameson had a weapon in the duffel.
“He painted this whole picture where he felt threatened,” Jameson says. “And if they feel threatened, the system’s going to let them off. And that’s crazy.”
In an interview Wednesday, Jameson pointed out that if Janish was concerned about his safety he could have simply called 911 inside his house, as the average person would do, rather than coming outside to pull a gun on her. She says details from the investigative file, which Rausch shared with her, indicated that Janish thought she was a black teenage boy,apparently adding to his suspicions and concerns.
“The calm demeanor of both Ms. Jameson and Officer Janish, during what was a stressful encounter for both of them, resulted in a peaceful and appropriate outcome,” the police department release stated.
Jameson has said in Facebook posts that she believes Knoxville Police officers need to receive training on de-escalation and implicit bias. She has been urging people to contact KPD to pressure Rausch to suspend Janish and require him to make a public apology, and has contacted the Jefferson County budget chairman to request funding for deputy training. She says many of her friends and readers “shut down the phones” in Jefferson County and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero’s office immediately after the incident, which is at least part of why she received a personal visit from the chief.
When Rausch visited Jameson in Charlotte, he told her “she did everything right” by calmly complying at the time and filing a complaint later.
Jameson says the audio transcript of the 911 call showed Janish was “amped.” She says, “The onus is really on us as individuals to de-escalate the situation, and that’s an unfair burden to put on the average person facing a gun, because we’re not the ones who are trained to be in these volatile situations. If I’d overreacted and gotten angry because I knew I was in the right, where would I have ended up but getting shot?”
Both the police department and Rogero released statements saying Janish acted appropriately but they understood Jameson’s perspective and took her concerns seriously, which is why Rausch delivered the results in person so he could answer any questions.
“Any of us can imagine what it would be like to be alone in an unfamiliar area, having done nothing wrong, and suddenly be confronted by a man with a gun. Ms. Jameson had a terrible experience, and she was understandably upset by it,” said Rogero in her written statement.
Rogero added, “I want to assure Ms. Jameson that our city is a welcoming place. We embrace people of all races, ethnicities, religions, genders and orientations, and we train our police officers to do the same. I am sorry for the misunderstanding that led to this unfortunate encounter.” Rogero stated that officers do receive de-escalation training.
Jameson says she was surprised when Rausch called her last week to ask to deliver the results in person. Although she says she was disappointed with them, she was not surprised. She says Rausch was apologetic, “really cool and open to suggestions.” In particular, Jameson suggested that the same internal affairs investigator shouldn’t be interviewing the officer and the complainant, because the first interviews influenced the later ones, skewing the outcome toward verifying the officer’s story. She says Rausch acknowledged the department handles interviews in criminal investigations differently and appeared willing to consider changing the approach used in internal investigations.
Jameson says that when he posts about the incident went viral, she received Facebook messages from many strangers in Knoxville telling her they were sorry about her experience and that it was not representative of what Knoxville is like.
The incident will also be reviewed by the independent Police Advisory Review Committee, which can ask additional questions or make other recommendations to the police department based on its assessment of the incident.
Jameson says she’ll put the same pressure on PARC and its process that she did on the internal affairs investigation but doesn’t expect a different outcome.
Nevertheless, she says she’s glad she filed the complaint because of the awareness it generated. “It was an eye-opener for other people who are in the same sort of socio-economic status as me and don’t really interact with the police that often, to help them understand how a Philando Castile happens,” Jameson says, referring to the Minnesota police shooting of a black man who had committed no crime. “This can happen to them too. They’re not doing anything wrong or anything illegal, and can still have a cop pull a gun on them…. And we have to hold them accountable and say this behavior is not acceptable.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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