Grassroots Intervention

Grassroots Intervention

Council approves financial support for a new community-based program charged with blocking gun violence in city streets.

by scott barker • June 15, 2022
Turn Up Knox Executive Director Denzel Grant.

A newly formed grassroots community organization will run a city-funded pilot street outreach program with a goal of stopping gun violence before it starts.

Council appropriated $450,000 for the Turn Up Knox violence intervention program.

City Council voted Tuesday to provide $450,000 to launch Turn Up Knox, which will develop and implement the violence intervention program over the next year. Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED), which helped the city plan the effort, will serve as the new organization's incubator. 

Under terms of the agreement approved by Council, Turn Up Knox will deploy seven to 10 full- and part-time workers in violence-prone areas of the city to prevent situations from escalating to violence and to respond to violent incidents to reduce the likelihood of retaliation. The organization is also tasked with connecting “proven-risk individuals” to community resources and programs.

The city’s Office of Community Safety will monitor the program for consideration of ongoing funding next year. 

The pilot program will prioritize street outreach to individuals at highest risk for participating in violence, based on data from a comprehensive analysis to be commissioned by the city, the Turn Up Knox staff’s community knowledge, and information gathered from residents.

“We’re finding a proactive solution,” said Denzel Grant, the owner of an East Knoxville security company who will be executive director of Turn Up Knox. “We want the same goal.”

Another participant in Turn Up Knox, Rashaad Woods, said some of the violent offenders can relate to those who are forming the organization because they have gone through similar experiences.

“Maybe we can’t stop all the gun violence, but maybe we can interrupt the cycle and slow it down,” he said.

In February, Council members approved hiring SEEED to formulate a street outreach strategy in response to two years of soaring homicides in Knoxville. Homicides in 2020 rose 61 percent over the previous year, and 2021 saw another 16 percent increase. Forty of 41 homicides last year involved the use of firearms. 

Chief Community Safety Officer LaKenya Middlebrook said the program will focus on areas where shootings are most commonplace — East Knoxville, Lonsdale, Mechanicsville and South Knoxville. 

Discussion during Tuesday’s meeting got emotional at times. Nicole Daniels, whose 5-year-old niece Brittany Daniels was killed in a driveby shooting in 1996 and whose nephew died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, spoke in favor of the program.

“I’ve been surrounded by gun violence all my life,” she told Council members.

Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie, who represents East Knoxville, teared up as she recognized the suffering of Daniels and other African-American families affected by gun violence. “We are a community in trauma right now,” she said.

Not all Council members agreed with the approach. At-large Councilwoman Amelia Parker, who has been a consistent critic of the Knoxville Police Department and Mayor Indya Kincannon’s response to gun violence, said the city needs more data on crime before designing the program and that existing organizations involved in violence intervention need the city’s support.

“This city will find Black people who aren’t necessarily qualified for the job, because they’re loyal to the city leadership,” she said at one point. Later, she said, “We are not supporting our community.”

Rick Roach, a citizen who raised concerns about the program, said the city’s approach has not worked in the past. “We can’t do it like we’ve done it before,” he said. “We’re going to have to have some accountability.”

McKenzie said infighting would be counterproductive. “This is going to take all of us working together, not coming in and pointing fingers,” she said. “There’s always more to do and we’re going to do it, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Other Council members agreed. Charles Thomas said the program allows for creativity: “What impresses me about this plan is how it is based on the community and is based on personal relationships.”

Council members Lauren Rider and Tommy Smith said they are supportive of the effort and willing to help in any way possible.

“You stood up,” Rider said to Grant, Woods and the other Turn Up Knox members in attendance. “I appreciate you guys being willing to stand up.”

Council voted 5-1 to approve and fund the program, with McKenzie, Rider, Thomas, Smith and Seema Singh voting in favor of the contract and Parker voting against it. Council members Lynne Fugate, Janet Testerman and Andrew Roberto were absent.

Directly addressing the Turn Up Knox contingent in the audience, Parker said, “I will be supportive of you as this moves forward, but I won’t be able to support this tonight.”

Council also authorized the Kincannon administration to seek a Justice Department grant of up to $1.5 million for future street outreach violence prevention efforts. 

After the vote, Grant said Turn Up Knox already has the street credibility to be effective in the community.

“We already have the trust,” he said. “We don’t need to create it; we need to strengthen it. The relationships are already there.”

While the Knoxville Police Department doesn’t have a formal role in the Turn Up Knox program, new Police Chief Paul Noel said Tuesday that the key to community partnerships with law enforcement is communication.

“That doesn’t mean everything has to go through the police department,” he said, “but a close relationship with them will be important. You can’t ignore community partnerships.”