RCK Member Russ Jensen introduced City of Knoxville Chief of Police, Paul Noel. Chief Noel assumed command in Knoxville in June of 2022 after having served in several capacities with the New Orleans Police Department for 25 years. He was most recently a Deputy Superintendent of the NOPD.
Chief Noel indicated that Knoxville is only the second place that he has lived. He has lived all his life up to now in the New Orleans area. He said that he and his wife were very intentional about where they would be willing to live if an opportunity for advancement arose. They chose the general area of common borders among North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The Knoxville opportunity arose, and here he is. Chief Noel said that this is not a stepping stone for him. This is where he and his wife want to be.
Chief Noel indicated that he found a good police department here in Knoxville, with areas that could be improved. Areas of focus will be reducing crime, changing the culture of the department, enhancing the department’s relationship with the community, and enhancing career development for KPD officers.
When he talks about changing the culture of KPD, Chief Noel has in mind enhancing the way the department treats people and reducing crime at the same time. He emphasized improving accountability, with KPD as a whole holding itself to a higher standard.
He pointed out that community policing involves a focus on small communities within the larger city. What concerns most people is what happens in their immediate area, rather than what happens on the other side of town.
He noted increased homicides in Knoxville over the last several years, and attributed that increase to increased population, changes in the way people act and interact with each other, and Knoxville’s proximity to a well recognized drug corridor or pipeline from the Midwest, particularly Detroit, down the interstate highway system through Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta and beyond.
After his opening remarks, Chief Noel indicated that he was interested in hearing what RCK members wanted to talk about and answering questions. In response to a question about the opioid crisis, Chief Noel reported that multiple law enforcement agencies along the corridor described above are working together. He pointed out, however, that KPD makes fentanyl seizures every day. He advised that the police will not and cannot win the war on drugs until and unless demand for drugs is reduced. The problem has been with us since the 1970s, with different drugs at different times. Fentanyl and opioids are the particularly dangerous drugs of choice right now.
Chief Noel reported that KPD now has four social workers on staff who ride with his officers to help deal with behavioral issues, and that KPD partners with Helen Ross McNabb Center for behavioral health work.
In response to a question about new officer training, Chief Noel indicated that KPD training emphasizes treating people with respect. He mentioned the Ethical Policing Is Courageous program, and noted training in active bystandership, teaching officers to intervene with their colleagues when things are not going the way they should.
He pointed out KPD’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff – a problem that exists all across the country. In our area, he noted that KPD regularly loses officers to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where experienced officers can be paid substantially more than they can make at KPD. KPD has lost four officers to Oak Ridge over the last several weeks, and could lose ten to twelve within the next few months. Of KPD’s 370 officers, almost 100 have the requisite time in to be able to retire today if they wish to do so. The staffing problem is coupled with increased demand for services, including by reason of simple population increase.
In response to a question about what the community could do to help deal with the drug problem and other social issues that the department faces, such as homelessness, Chief Noel suggested that the best thing that the community could do would be to support the social service agencies that provide help to people with those various problems.
Chief Noel discussed briefly his newly constituted cold case unit focusing on old unsolved cases. The restructured cold case unit in New Orleans recently solved several old cases by refocusing. The unit will be making a conscientious effort to read and review old files to see what steps remain to try to close cases. The particular area of emphasis will be whether there is evidence available that could be enhanced and better analyzed with new technology, such as improved DNA analysis technology.
Chief Noel discussed the new Real Time Information Center at the new Public Safety Complex in North Knoxville on the old St. Mary’s property. It will have available information initially from approximately fifteen city-owned cameras, plus the ability to access private cameras if the owners agree and if there is available bandwidth. The availability of this visual information can be an important tool in solving crimes after the fact.
RCK member and City Council member Lynne Fugate remarked at the end of Chief Noel’s presentation that the City is fortunate to have Chief Noel, that he is off to a good start and that she feels good about the direction KPD is headed.