Proposed law could hinder Knoxville’s PARC from police oversight

Local News

A proposed law in Nashville would limit the ability of a Knoxville group, the Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC), to compel documents or witnesses to get to the bottom of complaints between civilians and the Knoxville Police Department. 

PARC Executive Director Clarence Vaughn says the group works to improve engagement between the community and police, promote transparency and accountability and foster policy change where needed. Vaughn says the idea of civilian oversight really took its name after Rodney King incident, followed by riots, in Los Angeles in 1992.

They offer a service to people who feel they’ve experienced an unwelcoming experience with Knoxville police. In 2018, they received 85 total complaints. In 2017, the number was 88. So far in 2019, they’ve received 16. He says their ultimate goal is to promote accountability on both sides. 

Vaughn says PARC has not used it’s subpoena power since the group was formed more than 20 years ago. He fears if they lose their ability, they lose leverage. While he touts a good working relationship with the Knoxville Police Department today, he fears it could be damaged in the future without the subpoena power. 

The entire Knoxville City Council passed a resolution Tuesday night basically condemning the bill, with the words “having subpoena powers have been beneficial to the City of Knoxville in conduction investigations, which otherwise may be hindered or incomplete.” 

Following a few racially charged incidents in Knoxville in the late 1990s, Vaughn says former Mayor Victor Ashe formed the committee through executive order, with the support of local clergy and officials pushing for oversight and better community engagement with law enforcement. 

Their top three complaints, according to Vaughn, are unprofessional conduct or rudeness, failure to investigate (where a person’s loved one may be a victim of a violent crime and investigators may not follow-up with information), and needs for improvement (PARC would act as a citizen’s advocate, such as neighborhood groups and schools concerned with various safety hazards). 

“It’s important not to play an adversarial role,” Vaughn said. He says that would lead to stonewalling, not answers.

The climate between KPD and PARC today, he says, is great. He says they don’t have to wait long for information. They typically receive responses immediately and there’s not a long wait time for police reports, belt mic audio and dash camera video. 

The group also helps with mediation, with the full participation of KPD, to talk with citizens who feel they were treated unfairly.

“We have to also appreciate officers when they do the right things. If they do some things that are wrong, which we do as humans, we’re human beings, something is going to happen, that we hold them accountable, and treat it as a learning lesson, how to improve some policy and improve some best practices going forward,” Vaughn said. 

The complaint process begins with filing a complaint. You can come to the office on the fifth floor of City/County Building or file a web form  Then, Vaughn says he’ll reach out to the complainant to gather more information. Vaughn then works to get records and video to see what actually occurred.

He’ll then share the complaint with KPD and get their side, including a statement from an officer, beat partner, lieutenant or captain.

If a potential violation or standard operating procedure is breached, PARC could resolve it by holding a mediation session or recommend an internal investigation to the police chief or KPD captain.

If a KPD internal investigation needed, the complaint is sent to the KPD Internal Affairs Unit and PARC reviews their conclusion.

Four cases were recommended to KPD for internal review in 2018. Vaughn calls the service vital, particularly for minorities and African American men. He says people who feel they’ve been targeted or treated badly are often scared to go to a police station to file a grievance. To have an office in the City/County Building and open door policy makes a big difference to some people, he explains.

 In most of the cases, Vaughn says the committee sides with the officers because a majority of the accusations stem from misunderstandings. While the following policy is a black or white issue, Vaughn feels the community oversight group helps to find a grey area, where maybe the right policies were followed, but an action maybe wasn’t as moral or polite as it could have been. 

As a committee, they’ve made real change, especially in the areas of responding to resistance, engaging, additional training on cultural diversity. They’ve been at the forefront of meaningful policy change, such as the proper usage of utility knives.

“Fortunately, here in Knoxville, we haven’t had a lot of controversial issues to date outside of a few incidents. but you look at history, places like Chicago, Ferguson, New Orleans, that had a lot of conspiracy and a lot of issues within their police department and really a lot of illegal activities taking place,” he said. Through the work of PARC, it’s something he hopes to help prevent.”

He hopes the legislature reconsidered their stance on subpoena power.

“The benefit here in Knoxville, we have that structure in place so God forbid, if we did have a tragic accident, similar to a Ferguson would occur, we already have that structure to address it to make sure citizens are aware of what that process would look like,” he added. 

A spokesperson for the bill’s sponsor, Middle Tennessee Rep. Michael Curcio (R-District 69), also the House Chair of the Judiciary Committee, sent this statement:

The goal of House Bill 658 is to preserve the fundamental rights of our police officers and our citizens. This will ensure everyone is treated respectfully and justly during any review of alleged misconduct involving members of our law enforcement community. This legislation stipulates that all Community Oversight Boards do not have the power to issue subpoenas. This is because of an observed best practice by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

The NIJ reports that few community oversight boards across the country have the power to issue subpoenas and, the boards that do have this power, rarely – or in Knoxville’s case, never – use it.

We appreciate the desire for transparency within our police departments. However, we need to make sure the approach taken by our citizens to achieve transparency is fair to all. This legislation is that a balanced solution with a statewide application that will benefit both our police officers and our citizens.

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