Homicide numbers in Knoxville and Knox County have hit its highest point in nearly 20 years, with a drug epidemic that’s driving the killings.

“Each of these homicides is a person’s family member,” Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said.

Law enforcement investigated 37 killings in 2017, the highest rate since 1998, which saw 40 murders.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office investigated seven homicides in Knox County this year, with the Knoxville Police Department looking into 30 killings.

“Clearly, I think the drug issue is pushing the numbers, so I’m hoping that this is the top of the issue, but I can’t say that for sure, but because of the opioid issue, with the influx of heroin and fentanyl. It’s not necessarily just the opioids. It’s an illicit drug transactions that is causing some of this violence,” Chief Rausch said.

Chief Rausch said most of the 37 homicides reported this year stemmed from drug disputes; the rest were domestic conflict.

Though the numbers are unsettling, he said there are things we can do to reverse the trend.

“I think there are a lot of different prongs to the solution,” Chief Rausch said. “Prevention is a big piece. Getting the prevention messages out there to young people, so that they never pick it up in the first place. Treatment is another big piece – access to treatment and providing more affordable treatment, and then our intervention efforts. We have to continue to hold people accountable who are pouring drugs into our communities.”

While the rising murder rate causes concern, Chief Rausch said people can still feel safe in Knoxville, and random acts of violence are not something he’s seeing. 

“We all should be concerned that these types of activities are happening, but if you’re not directly involved in drug activity, you’re not directly involved in a volatile relationship, then in terms of stranger incidents, we aren’t having those,” Chief Rausch said. “For the general population, this isn’t something they have to concern themselves with, worrying that they’re going to be murdered in our streets.”

Knoxville Mayor Rogero also weighed in on the issue, sending WATE 6 On Your Side this statement:

“Our police officers are working long hours to bring to justice those responsible for acts of violence and to bring closure to families and friends of victims. Proactively, we’ll continue to partner with residents, business owners and faith leaders in our communities to reduce opportunities for crime and to make our neighborhoods safe.”