KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Knoxville Police Department is facing challenges, like other organizations, that leaders in the department haven’t faced before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed safety protocols with the addition of more protective measures for officers in the field; but also throughout the department too.

In a wide-ranging conversation, KPD Chief Eve Thomas spoke with WATE 6 On Your Side about COVID-19 impacts, the status of body worn cameras or bodycams for officers, recruitment, and the department’s budget for the next year.

Bodycams for officers not likely by July 1st

Last year, Chief Thomas said by the summer of 2020, KPD officers would likely be equipped with bodycams the date given: July 1st.

Since then, seven vendors successfully submitted proposals and KPD’s committee is working through the evaluation process to select the vendor to receive the contract.

“That would be a near miracle,” Thomas said when asked about meeting the July 1st deadline.

She’s not discouraged, though, as she says delays in the process are signs they’re doing it “the right way” by finding a vendor that can provide what KPD needs.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon’s 2020-2021 budget includes additional funding of $746,400 to support the deployment of body worn and in-car cameras for all KPD patrol offices; including the software and staffing to support this investment in police transparency and accountability. 

Thomas says that totals nearly 300 patrol officers.

“The cameras aren’t the biggest expense, it’s what goes with them: The data storage. Being able to get to that video quickly, again, we have to redact that. We have to be able to redact kids’ faces by state law, getting software that allows us to redact within that software,” said Thomas.

In a proposal submitted in December 2019 to then-mayor of Knoxville Madeline Rogero, Thomas outlined the needs of the department and requirements a company would have to meet to receive the bid.

Thomas says testing is the next step underway. The final vendors will bring a fully equipped cruiser and body-worn cameras to Knoxville to test in the field.

With the addition of bodycams and in-car cameras, Thomas said the amount of data KPD is collecting will double.

“We want this. We probably want this more than the community. We’ve probably looked at it the last five, six, seven years at the cost to get them. When this opportunity came about… we had a lot of information already,” said Thomas.

KPD will be hiring a second tech services position to keep up with the amount of data and process District Attorney and public records requests for video, faster.

COVID-19 impacts on KPD

KPD officers are wearing more personal protective equipment (PPE) to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep the community safe.

Cloth masks have been donated, gloves are being worn, and more hand sanitizer is provided to each officer than before.

Meetings before each shift are held outside KPD headquarters, with social distancing in place. To enter the building, temperatures must be taken first.

“We want to make sure that the public understands that we are keeping our employees safe. That keeps the public safe as well. We’re working on it,” said Thomas.

But, even with extra safety precautions, Thomas notes that there is inherent risk for KPD officers anytime they’re on the job. She says it’s difficult to maintain social distancing when taking someone into custody and says officers are as safe as they can be, while also doing their jobs.

State database for COVID-19 patients

KPD opted out of the state program that allow law enforcement to access COVID-19 positive patient information. However, before the decision to opt-out, Thomas says the department had access for two weeks.

In that time, there was backlash from some community members who voiced concerns with how the data could be used.

The information, provided by the Tennessee Department of Health, was only accessible to officers who signed nondisclosure agreements, according to Thomas.

Each officer who signed those nondisclosures was given a unique password that they could use to access the database. When they encountered a person on the job, like at a traffic stop for example, they could search the person’s name to see if they tested positive for COVID-19.

That information, Thomas said, would then be used to inform the officer’s next steps to keep themselves, the person, and the community safe.

“I think that if we had that information we would take more precautions, to protect ourselves and our officers, and the public. Because the next call we go on that gives us the ability to come back here, throw that uniform in the wash,” said Thomas.

Thomas herself admits she didn’t have access to the information because she did not sign a nondisclosure.

But, after two weeks of backlash, and no announcement publicly that the program was being accessed for KPD, Thomas said she met with leaders in Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon’s office to discuss it.

“The mayor and I talked and I said it’s not worth the fight right now. I still believe in that list. I think it’s a great tool for officer safety,” said Thomas.

Recruitment is ongoing, new officers needed

Already behind with recruitment numbers before the coronavirus outbreak, KPD is pushing forward with its marketing campaign to fill the scheduled September academy.

Right now, 22 new recruits are three weeks into a training academy that started in March. The academy runs for 22 weeks.

Currently, there are 369 sworn officers, but KPD is authorized for 416. The current staffing low described by Chief Eve Thomas as “not ideal”, but she’s hopeful.

“Every night. Every night. I worry about the safety of my officers. I worry about having enough officers on the streets to answer the needs of the community. I know it’s not feasible, but I realized as a young sergeant… When I was leading my officers, when somebody calls 911 they expect an officer to be right outside their door ready to help them. We work to do that.” 

Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas