Knoxville police chief fires lieutenant, suspends captain following investigation into racist behavior

The two were accused of hampering an internal investigation into the racist behavior of another KPD officer.
The two were accused of hampering an internal investigation into the racist behavior of another KPD officer.
Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 5:42 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2022 at 6:12 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A veteran Knoxville Police Department lieutenant was fired and a captain was suspended for 10 days on Tuesday following a two-year investigation into alleged racist behavior at the department, according to a memo obtained by WVLT News.

The Investigation

The investigation centered on the actions of Lieutenant Michael Earlywine, Captain Donald Jones and Deputy Chief Kenny Miller after another officer, DionDré Jackson, complained about a racist and hostile working environment, an Internal Affairs Unit report states.

According to the report, Jackson, who is Black, originally made a complaint after another officer, Adam Broome, who is white, made racist comments to him. Specifically, the report states that Broome told Jackson “you should know something about being on a slave ship, shouldn’t you?” and “yeah, that’s just like you all asking for reparations; I think it’s stupid.” This original incident reportedly happened in a parking lot in 2019.

After Broome made the comments, Jackson reportedly met with several of his superiors, including Earlywine and Jones, to complain about what happened. Jackson said in his testimony to Internal Affairs in 2021 that Earlywine met with four separate officers, including Jackson himself, who all told him about Broome’s racist comments. Throughout the investigation, Earlywine told Internal Affairs that he was never told the specifics of Jackson and Broome’s disagreement.

“Broome had said something that made Jackson upset, but I don’t know what it was,” Earlywine said in 2021.

Additionally, after the incident in the parking lot, Jackson reportedly met with Jones. Jones had asked for the meeting with Jackson after Earlywine told him of the issues between Broome and the team, the report said.

In the meeting, Jackson told Jones about the incident, including the specifics of the racist comments, Jones told Internal Affairs. At the end of the meeting, Jones said he asked Jackson if Broome had “made a bad joke,” and Jackson stood firm that the comment was racist in nature, the report states. Further, Jones asked Jackson whether he would like to bring the matter to Internal Affairs and Civil Service or let Jones speak to his coworkers and “handle it,” the report said.

In another interview, one with Officer David Gerlach, who has since moved on from the department, the report states that Jackson later said that Jones asked him to “think of the totality of the circumstances afterward involving the News getting the information” before deciding how he wanted to handle the situation.

Additionally, after the meeting with Jackson, Jones admitted that he called together the entire team for a meeting on teamwork to address the issue, and began the meeting by “bringing up the old unit called ROPE (Actually ROP) way back wearing t-shirts with a noose image on them and making a point of saying ‘we cannot say and do things that way we used to as we may offend or hurt someone.’”

The Outcome

The firing of Earlywine and suspension of Jones stem from how they reacted when confronted about the department’s work environment. According to city policy, when supervisors are made aware of racial harassment in the workplace they are required to contact Civil Service, City Law Department or the Internal Affairs Unit. They are not allowed to handle the situation themselves.

Instead of following the proper procedure, Earlywine and Jones attempted to sort out the issue themselves, without contacting the departments they were required to.

Additionally, the report states that Earlywine lied when asked if he knew about the racist nature of Broome’s comments. Multiple officers said they told Earlywine the specifics of the encounter, the report said, but Earlywine insisted he did not know Jackson was complaining about racist behavior.

Because of these findings, Earlywine was terminated for violation of the department’s truthfulness policy and Jones was suspended for violation of the procedure policy.

Broome officially resigned during the original investigation into his behavior on June 28, 2020, according to the report.

How Knoxville’s New Police Chief Reacted

Chief Paul Noel made the final decision on the termination and suspension. Afterward, he sent an internal email to the department explaining why he decided to terminate Earlywine and suspend Jones, as well as his expectations of the department going forward.

“I have spoken at length about accountability and the importance of holding ourselves accountable for our actions and one another accountable for their actions,” Noel said in the email. “Discipline will always be fair and impartial.”

Noel also said in the email that he considered the decision heavily.

“This is not a decision that I made without great thought and consideration,” he said. “We can recover from most mistakes, take the appropriate action and move forward. Unfortunately, truthfulness is not one of those mistakes.”

The chief continued, saying that as police officers, the employees at the department are held to a high standard. Additionally, Noel addressed an apparent department-wide perception that leadership in the department has not been held to the same standard as the younger people in the department.

“I have met with almost every Lieutenant at this point, and a consistent theme that has been brought to my attention in those meetings is that there is a perception internally that there is a different criteria for deciding appropriate discipline for senior leadership and those underneath their command,” Noel said. “Whether that was true or not, that is not how I operate and will no longer be how we as a department operate.”

In that theme, Noel did not discount his standards for himself, saying “Accountability starts with me, and I expect that same level of accountability from the Command Staff... I expect more of them and will hold them to a higher standard.”

At the end of his statement to the department, Noel said that “We will learn from this, move forward and keep striving towards becoming the best department that we can be.”

WVLT News reached out to KPD Communications Manager Scott Erland for comment from Noel on the incident and following investigation, but the chief declined to make a statement.

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