Knoxville Police Advisory & Review Board expands power
A new agreement between the Knoxville Police Department and PARC formalizes interactions
A meeting of the Knoxville Police Advisory Review Committee. (Photo: J.J. Stambaugh)
The state legislature may want to limit citizens in how much of a say they have over how their communities’ police departments work, but Knoxville is trying to forge its own path.
The city’s citizen review board, known as PARC (Police Advisory and Review Committee) has recently seen its powers expanded through an agreement hammered out between PARC director Tiffany Davidson and Knoxville Police Department Chief Paul Noel.
For the first time, the relationship between PARC and KPD will now be governed by a formal operating agreement that allows PARC staff far greater access to the agency’s disciplinary process and the ability to steer complaints toward third-party mediation as well as codifying a number of informal procedures, officials said last week.
“Hopefully this is a step in the right direction,” Davidson said. “A lot of people in our community feel their concerns are dumped to the wayside … When we talk about police accountability or the lack thereof, I think the community will appreciate knowing there is another set of eyes.”
PARC was created in 1998 after the deaths of four men, three of them Black, in confrontations with KPD officers over a seven-month period. Although all of the officers were cleared of wrongdoing, the Black community lashed out at what they perceived to be a culture of brutality and indifference.
City leaders responded by forming PARC, which provides an independent review of police activity and makes recommendations to the chief of police. It is comprised of seven volunteers served by a full-time executive director hired by the mayor and one investigative manager.
PARC’s authority has traditionally been limited to reviewing internal affairs investigations and making suggestions that KPD can choose to ignore. Critics, in turn, have often accused it of being a toothless exercise in public relations rather than a source of genuine accountability.
Citizen review boards have been adopted in a growing number of cities across the United States over the past three decades. In Tennessee, each of the four largest municipalities — Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville — have one.
But review boards have proven to be politically divisive even as police reform movements have gained traction. In 2019, Tennessee legislators who wanted to shield police departments from public scrutiny voted to strictly limit the powers of review boards, effectively barring them from having the authority to conduct independent investigations.
But Davidson, who has been working closely with Noel since he took office six months ago, says that KPD seems to be moving toward greater transparency and accountability.
One of the most important changes is that PARC staff will now be allowed to observe pre-disciplinary hearings, according to Davidson.
“Until now, we could only see the cases once they were already closed,” she explained. “Now that we can see how the conversations go once the investigation has been conducted, it should be very insightful.”
KPD will now allow PARC much greater access to its internal records and statistics that track uses of force and disciplinary actions, including the agency’s “Early Warning Database,” according to the agreement.
Also, it explicitly permits PARC members to gather complaints about police misconduct from any available sources, including anonymous tips or “third parties not directly” connected to a complaint.
Another new feature is that PARC can try to steer some complaints through mediation, a process that Davidson hopes will lead to both officers and civilians feeling more satisfied with outcomes.
“A lot of times when we get complaints they don’t necessarily warrant an internal affairs investigation,” she said. “Citizens sometimes say, ‘I don’t necessarily want an officer to be fired, I just want them to understand how they made me feel.’”
Allegations of serious or criminal misconduct wouldn’t be recommended for mediation, she explained, while complaints of officer rudeness or disinterest may be ideal candidates for it.
“We hope they could come to some kind of resolution or at least understanding,” said Davidson. “We are all human, and we all make mistakes. If this is taken advantage of, I think this could be a great opportunity.”
KPD spokesperson Scott Erland echoed many of Davidson’s comments and pointed out that many complaints lodged against KPD officers are the result of “misunderstandings.”
“If two people get together and hear each other out, they can work things out,” Erland said. “We think it’ll improve community relations. Also, an officer can possibly go that route instead of taking a reprimand that goes in their personnel file.”
Erland also pointed out that the new agreement formalizes a lot of interactions that “were on a handshake basis previously.”
“The advantage of this agreement is that it will live beyond the current PARC director and the current police chief,” he said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.