Election Issues: Public Safety

Election Issues: Public Safety

City Council candidates weigh in on KPD funding and staffing, as well as violence intervention programs.

by scott barker • October 1, 2021

Public safety has become one of the biggest issues in this year’s city election, for several obvious reasons. 

The GOP-backed challengers are focused on KPD funding, while the incumbents tend to take a broader approach to public safety.

Knoxville set a record for homicides last year and is on a pace to break that record in 2021. The Knoxville Police Department is chronically understaffed. Calls for new approaches to law enforcement have grown since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide protests.

Compass recently asked the candidates for the five City Council seats that will be on the ballot their positions on several aspects of public safety. Their responses have been edited for brevity.

City elections are nominally nonpartisan, which means candidates aren’t identified by party affiliation on the ballot. In recent cycles, candidates have seldom even mentioned their party allegiances. That’s changed this year.  

The five challengers — Elizabeth Murphy (1st District), Kim Smith (2nd), Nick Ciparro (3rd), Jim Klonaris (4th) and Garrett Holt (6th) — are backed by the Knox County Republican Party and are running on a unified platform. Their responses hit on the same themes and sometimes used identical phrases to make their points. All emphasized strengthening KPD’s capabilities over other priorities.

The incumbents — Tommy Smith (1st District), Andrew Roberto (2nd), Seema Singh (3rd), Lauren Rider (4th) and Gwen McKenzie (6th) — are Democrats but they’re running more independent campaigns. They point to violence intervention measures and other social services as being just as important as traditional law enforcement.

Would you support significantly increasing KPD’s budget for traditional policing, keeping funding levels for traditional policing about the same, or decreasing the funding for traditional policing? Please explain why.

Tommy Smith (1st District incumbent): “We recently voted to continue existing funding for KPD, and we increased funding for new training, equipment, and responses to mental illness. The new Co-Responder model is an example of improving public safety. One of the most significant challenges for KPD at the moment is recruiting, which we have continued to fund.”

Elizabeth Murphy (1st District challenger): “I absolutely would support increasing KPD's budget. Right now we're down a significant number of sworn police officers. The lack of available police officers is contributing to our city's high crime (rate). It is also resulting in overworked employees. We need to look at retention bonuses, higher starting pay and recruitment bonuses as ways to increase our retention rates for sworn police officers who are an asset to our community.”

Andrew Roberto (2nd District incumbent): “KPD is authorized to have 416 officers and the 2021-22 budget passed by Council fully funds all 416 positions. The issue is not the budget for KPD, rather it is recruitment and retention of officers. KPD is currently staffed at 364 officers with 24 who have indicated they are retiring and an additional 30 are eligible to retire at any time. I support KPD being fully staffed at 416 officers in order to properly implement our community policing model.”

Kim Smith (2nd District challenger): “We definitely need to increase funding for our police. This year there were over 60 police officer vacancies. The city is, and has been, experiencing record crime and record murders. This is a direct result of a lack of officers within KPD. We must look at creating recruitment bonuses, higher starting pay and retention bonuses for our first responders.”

Seema Singh (3rd District incumbent): “While I do not support abolishing the police department, I do support decreasing funding for traditional policing. Over the last few years we have consistently increased funding to record levels for traditional policing; meanwhile the data shows violence has also been increasing to record levels. It is past time to reimagine public safety and reallocate our investments toward more effective approaches to reducing violence.”

Nick Ciparro (3rd District challenger): “First things first, we are almost one-fourth down on our police force with a record number of murders. This has been the horrible fruit of the mayor and current City Council’s agenda for the last four years. Current funding for the police would be useful if the deplorable policies were curbed, but unfortunately our leadership is just pure garbage.”

Lauren Rider (4th District incumbent): “Council votes on the overall city budget, which is approximately 75 percent salaries and wages. Outside of salaries and budgets, all contracts and purchases are voted on over the course of the year, item by item. I support a budget that fairly funds a fully staffed, high-quality KPD. We are examining pay right now to look at retention and recruitment specifically.”

Jim Klonaris (4th District challenger): “There is a strong need to increase funding to KPD to fill the huge gap of sworn police officer vacancies, become competitive and retain those who protect us. The lack of available sworn police officers has contributed to Knoxville’s high crime, record murder, and deadly shootings per-capita. To be competitive with other agencies, we should look at retention bonuses, higher starting pay, and recruitment bonuses.”

Gwen McKenzie (6th District incumbent): “I would support an increase in KPD’s budget if presented with specific plans for officer salaries, training and definitely recruitment. I believe specific  enhancements to training and community engagement are needed. Knoxville is growing and becoming more diverse, therefore our training and recruitment of our officers should promote an inclusive and diverse workforce and work environment.”

Garrett Holt (6th District challenger): “Our police department is understaffed and oftentimes these men and women are being overworked. We continue to see officers leave to work for other municipalities. I believe we need to increase KPD’s budget to support measures that help us recruit and keep good, quality officers, such as retention bonuses, higher starting pay and recruitment incentives.”

Would you support significantly increasing funding for public safety-related social services such as violence intervention programs, keeping the funding about the same, or decreasing funding? Please explain why.

Tommy Smith:Funding public safety programs is less about the dollar amount and more about the effectiveness of the approach; we should work smarter. While new forms of violence intervention are needed, there are many nonprofits in Knoxville who are actively preventing violence with young adults. They need our support as well.”

Elizabeth Murphy: “I'm not opposed to increasing funding for safety related social services. That said, our budget is limited and we need to prioritize spending. The current City Council majority spent $75,000 on Cities United. After the program produced ineffective results, the city changed course, resulting in a waste of taxpayer money. Our shared goal should be public safety.”

Andrew Roberto: “Council passed a $1 million dollar budget item to fund violence intervention programs. Only about $338,000 of that fund has been allocated to support needed programs like Summer Youth Violence Prevention grants, the CrimeStoppers start-up, and the United Way Community Healing Fund. The issue isn’t the level of funding, it is actually using what has been budgeted to fund effective violence intervention programs.” 

Kim Smith: “The current budget is already spending money on social services and violence intervention programs, yet crime and murder continue to go up. The current City Council majority spent $75,000 on Cities United, a violence intervention program, but later reversed their decision due to what they determined were ineffective results.”

Seema Singh: “I support significantly increasing funding for evidence-based, public safety-related social services that get at the root causes of violence before we are forced to react to violent acts.”

Nick Ciparro: “It’s rather convenient that this is such a pressing issue when we are down so many officers. These people pretend a bank robber or drug dealer would stop if a psychiatrist showed up in the middle of the crime and asked, ‘How are you feeling, and tell me about your childhood.’ This is ridiculous at best — criminally negligent, if you ask me.”

Lauren Rider: “I support the addition of the co-responder team and other related professionals for a ‘right response.’ We should send officers for police work and health care professionals to handle crisis calls of a health care or social work nature.  Violence Intervention: we can't simply police our way out of violence. We need community supports and changes that interrupt and disrupt the pathways to gun violence.”

Jim Klonaris: “As previously mentioned, City Council and mayoral leadership should focus on filling the 50+ sworn police officer vacancies. Our budget is limited so we must use common sense and prioritize accordingly. We have spent more money on non-traditional policing and social services for violence and intervention programs. We need our city leadership to make better decisions that don’t waste money.”

Gwen McKenzie: “I absolutely would support recommendations and plans from the Office of Community Safety and partners with specific recommendations and a comprehensive plan. Public safety/social services, along with community partnerships, especially in high-risk areas must remain a high priority.”

Garrett Holt: “I believe the city needs to prioritize filling the massive number of police officer vacancies before we start tackling other areas. While I think certain public safety-related social services stand to be beneficial to Knoxville, consideration for funding these needs to come after we solve our core problem with officer recruitment and retention.”

Name one or two policies related to public safety that you would like to see instituted or changed and explain how you would engage the administration to achieve those goals. Please note if you do not think policy changes are in order.

Tommy Smith: “Recruiting public safety employees, both police and fire. Public safety is a critical service provided by local government, and we should make investments that produce and support first responders. Also, traffic safety. Traffic calming and pedestrian safety is fundamental to a healthy and connected community, by bike, car, foot, or accessible vehicle.”

Elizabeth Murphy: “By increasing our sworn police officer levels, we need to move back to three 8-hour shifts. Requiring police officers to work 12-hour shifts is stressful and can lead to less effective policing. Another policy change we should be looking at is civil asset forfeiture which is the seizing and permanent taking of an individual's property without a criminal conviction and in some cases even charging of a crime. This practice should be ceased at the local level.” 

Andrew Roberto: “Recently, the staff shortage at KPD has led to shifts increasing from 8 hours to 12 hours. This is a dangerous policy change that is compounded by increases in overtime and doesn’t provide enough rest for our officers before and after their shifts. I voted for a salary survey aimed at making salaries for police and firefighters more competitive to increase recruitment. I look forward to the results of that study.”

Kim Smith: “The amount of time our sworn officers are on duty for a shift must be reexamined. Currently, police officers are required to work 12 hour shifts. This is not only physically exhausting for officers, but also can likely lead to a decreased job performance. Again, recruiting and retaining cadets is imperative to reducing workloads and improving overall job performance. We must fill our vacant police roster.”

Seema Singh: “While the vast majority of my experiences with KPD officers have been positive, I know that has not been the experience of some of our fellow residents. The administration needs to engage a professional third-party auditor to review Internal Affairs cases to determine whether patterns of repeated officer misconduct have been appropriately addressed. Officers who serve with honor and respect for all in our city need to know we have their backs and value their essential services.”

Nick Ciparro: “The police force needs to be restored. End of story. It doesn’t take much to see the current policies of no officers on the street relates to the record number of murders. Instead of $100 million to a faceless and blatantly corrupt slush fund (a reference to the African-American Equity Restoration Fund — the Editors), maybe put cameras in locations of high crime so drive-by shootings cannot go unsolved. How about helping those who are victims instead of coddling the criminals?” 

Lauren Rider: “Public safety must be viewed as more than just policing. We ask officers to ‘wear a lot of hats’ while never increasing the number of sworn positions from 416. Every special unit or assignment pulls officers off beats in our communities. They work long shifts and we expect them to solve myriad social and cultural problems. We need to examine and decide what services truly need police officers and what services are served by supplemental staff with complementary training.I believe we need to keep working on staffing models that address the actual root causes and needs.”

Jim Klonaris: “Increasing our sworn police officer levels to current needs and shifting away from burdensome 12-hour shifts back to three 8-hour shifts or four 8-hour shifts with overlapping hours would be a great start, both improving morale, mitigating stress, and thus providing more effective policing. Under current guidelines, an officer could find themselves working a 13 or 14-hour shift if an arrest is made late in the shift. In addition to providing competitive compensation, we could look at providing incentives to keep our best performing officers committed to KPD.” 

Gwen McKenzie: “I would like to see a policy that addresses violence as a public health issue, thereby creating the space for broader community partnerships between the Office of Community Safety, KPD,  community-led advocacy partners and the medical community. This would call for funding into initiatives that support this policy.”

Garrett Holt: “First, we need to address our officers being overworked in our current 12-hour shift protocol that has stemmed from a lack of personnel. Second, we need to drastically improve our recruitment efforts outside of Knoxville. Knoxville is a great city to relocate to, and I believe the administration needs to revamp our marketing efforts to better attract good law enforcement talent to the area.”