After a two-year surge in murders, particularly gun deaths in East Knoxville, the number of homicides in the city has begun to taper off.
The dramatic two-year swell in the number of murders in Knoxville appears to be subsiding somewhat, though homicides are still higher than historic levels and police officials caution the trend could reverse itself quickly.
At the halfway point of 2022, Knoxville has seen homicides decline by 36 percent from the first half of last year.
The city recorded 41 homicides last year and 37 in 2020, numbers well above the 10-year average of 21.3 from 2010-2019. The only comparable era in recent Knoxville history was 1990-1992, when there were 35 murders a year. For a time in early 2021, Knoxville’s homicide rate was higher than Chicago’s.
Halfway through this year, on June 30, the number of murders stood at 14 — a 36 percent drop from the 22 sustained at the midpoint of 2021.
Knoxville’s surge during 2020 and 2021 was part of a national trend. According to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, there have been about 45,000 deaths nationwide from gun violence — by far the most prevalent cause of homicides — in the past two years. Experts can’t point to one cause for the nationwide trend, but they frequently point to the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, strained relations between police and some communities, and access to firearms.
Ebb and Flow
Lt. Ryan Morrow, who supervises the Knoxville Police Department’s Violent Crimes Unit, said in a recent interview that his investigators can’t offer a definitive reason for the local increase over the past two years.
“There's nothing that was obvious to us for the reason of the spike in violent crimes, especially homicides,” he said.
Drugs play a big role, as well as poverty and to a lesser extent gang activity. To Morrow, the root cause of all homicides is the same: “The cause of it’s the lack of respect for life.”
If there is one enforcement factor that has led to this year’s decline, Morrow said, it’s the Community Engagement and Response Team, or CERT. Initially formed as a temporary unit, CERT’s sole purpose is to prevent violent crime through enhanced traffic enforcement and increased patrols at violence hotspots in the city.
The vast majority of murders involve firearms. Of the 115 homicides in the city between Jan. 1, 2019 and June 30, 2022, 105, or 91 percent, were committed using guns. Last year, guns were used in 40 of the city’s 41 homicides.
Morrow said CERT officers have filed 290 charges involving illegal guns just since January.
“That’s 290 guns we've taken out of the hands of felons for literally breaking the law,” Morrow said. “That had a huge, huge impact on our violent crimes.”
A 26-year veteran at KPD, Morrow has been in charge of the Violent Crimes Unit for two years. The unit’s squad room is a small, dark, cramped space on the third floor of the Safety Building, where investigators keep track of their cases on a whiteboard.
KDP solves murders at about the same rate as other departments around the country. Of the 78 homicides that occurred in 2020 and 2021, 32 are still open, for a closure rate of 59 percent. As of June 30 this year, half of the 14 homicide cases begun in 2022 were still open. (KPD maintains an unsolved murder cases website.)
Morrow cautioned that the numbers could spike again at any moment. In the time since he sat down for an interview last week, three people were murdered in the city, bringing the year’s total to 19 as of Tuesday. The number of closed cases has climbed to 11.
“Our investigators take every homicide seriously and take it personally,” he said. “When they're assigned that case, that is their baby.”
Tips and Evidence
Once a homicide occurs, the most important piece of information investigators need is an eyewitness account, Morrow said, despite television programs that focus on forensic science.
But eyewitness accounts are also the most elusive evidence. Morrow said witnesses are often afraid to come forward because they don’t want to be labeled a snitch.
“We have to have an eyeball witness, somebody that says, ‘This individual shot and killed this individual; I saw it, I was there.’” he said. “And nobody wants to do that. It's extremely difficult to prosecute a homicide case based on evidence alone.”
East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers, which provides a way for residents to leave anonymous tips and offers rewards, has led to numerous drug and theft arrests, but it hasn’t had a big impact on homicide investigations during its first 14 months of operation, according to Morrow. That’s because tips alone can’t be the basis for an arrest.
“We can get 100 tips on this one homicide,” he said. “And it's information we may have already known or it may just give us a direction to go, but without that eyeball witness … we aren't there.”
Those eyes can come in the form of a camera lens. The use of surveillance footage from homes and businesses is a long-established part of criminal probes, and investigators can turn to traffic-light cameras if a witness has identified a car used in a crime.
“Technology is a big thing now,” he said. “Of course, everybody has a Ring camera, there are cameras throughout the city at all businesses. It's just good old-fashioned police work that solves a lot of them.”
A real-time crime center proposed for the new Public Safety Complex in North Knoxville would be a centralized location for police to keep track of video footage from cameras across the city. Morrow said he’s not familiar with the details of the project, which is just entering the design phase, but thinks it would give a boost to investigators’ efforts.
The Geography of Homicides
No part of the city went through the past two years completely unscathed by homicides, but East Knoxville bore the brunt of the 2020-2021 wave.
In 2019, East Knoxville was the site of four murders, compared to 10 in North Knoxville. West Knoxville also saw four homicides that year. There were three homicides in Northwest Knoxville and two in South Knoxville.
The number of murders soared in East Knoxville during the next two years — 17 in 2020 and 23 in 2021. That’s more than half of all murders in the city. The other parts of the city remained relatively steady, with North Knoxville seeing a sharp reduction.
This year, as of June 30, there had been five homicides in East Knoxville, four in North Knoxville, two each in South and Northwest Knoxville and one in West Knoxville.
During the past three and a half years, no homicides occurred in the core of downtown, though one in 2021 happened in the Old City.
Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration is looking to prevent violent crime from happening in the first place through a variety of efforts, most notably a new violence intervention program called Turn Up Knox. With $450,000 in funding, the community-based program is in the early stages of development.
LaKenya Middlebrook, who oversees the program as the city’s Community Safety Director, said Turn Up Knox is building up its personnel and procedures.
“Their primary focuses right now are continuing to grow relationships in the community and with partners, raising awareness about the organization, and training staff and volunteers,” she said.
Homicide investigations are, by their nature, primarily reactive, not preventative. Morrow, however, said every case that ends with an arrest and conviction for a past crime can help keep future crimes from happening.
“We get called out when things go bad,” he said. “Our reduction comes into play when we put the bad people in jail and they can no longer offend. That's our method of reduction — people in jail for the rest of their lives.”
Ultimately, Morrow said, Knoxville residents are the key to further reductions in murders throughout the city.
“At some point, the community has to get fed up with the violence and seeing these young individuals gunned down in the streets,” he said. “Somebody needs to step up and help us clean up their community and make their quality of life much better.”