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Knoxville's police review committee could be model for Madison

Citizens review police investigations in Tennessee city

MADISON, Wis. - When a police officer fires shots in Knoxville, Tenn., police investigate but, unlike in Madison, the people have the power of review.

It started 18 years ago when, just like in Madison in recent months, police shootings divided the Knoxville community.

After Madison police cleared an officer who shot and killed Paul Heenan in November, some in Madison are asking why the city doesn't have independent oversight of police shootings.

Knoxville has a lot in common with Madison -- a major university, a bustling downtown and an engaged police department.

In her fifth-floor office in Knoxville's city-county building, Avice Reid gets several copies of the police department's internal investigation reviews a month.

Reid, who doesn't wear a badge, is the executive director of Knoxville's Police Advisory Review Committee and can do everything from interviewing officers to watching squad car dash cams

"We have access to KPD's information, and that's very powerful, because the citizens in the past did not have access to that information," Reid said.

Eighteen years ago, four separate police shootings in Knoxville and an outraged community forced the city to do something.

After three years of deliberation, the result was a seven-member panel of well-known, diverse community members to check everything the police did.

It wasn't an easy decision. In fact, the mayor at the time had to do it by executive order because the city council wouldn't go along with him. But over time, the committee's had success and become popular. Even police say they've accepted it, and it has made the city better.

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch was a young patrolman when the review panel was up for debate, and he opposed it.

"What we didn't want was a witch hunt. What we didn't want was some panel set up of folks in our community that just wanted to see policemen get in trouble," Rausch said.

What Rausch didn't see then was how the community viewed the department, and how a panel of their peers could help.

"I've got the advantage of now having that 20/20 insight, of being able to look back and say, that's what my concerns were then and now having the clarity of it and seeing how it has helped this agency," Rausch said.

Rausch said the biggest help has come in building trust. As an example, he pointed to a problem his agency faced last November.

Knoxville's police review committee could be model for Madison

A Knoxville officer shot and wounded a suspect in a mall parking lot. Weeks later, Rausch went on TV to say his officer had made a mistake.

"We train that you don't put your finger on the trigger until you've made that decision to fire, and he had his finger on the trigger," Rausch said. "We haven't had this outcry of an issue. The officers didn't get excited because I went on and said we made a mistake. The community didn't get excited because I went on and said we made a mistake, and that's because of this partnership that we have and this understanding that things are going to be done transparently and fairly."

Only one man in Knoxville has been police chief and review committee chairman -- although Sterling Owen said he didn't want the committee position at first.

"I was concerned as to how it would be accepted, by both sides," Owen said.

The former FBI agent became chief after six years heading the review panel. He said that while it has subpoena power and can put up a fight, the real value is the partnership between police and the people.

The review panel meets every three months in different parts of the city, and the executive director and police chief meet more often.

The chief gets insight into the community's concerns, while the panel gets answers to its questions.

"I think it has gained in credibility over time, but it's because we went in there saying it's going to be a level playing field," Owen said.

Reid said the best marker of success may be a smaller workload. The number of community complaints against police have dropped from 270 when the review panel started to about 100 last year. Reid said most of the cases prove the police were right.

"We've proven that we're fair, that we're honest, that we want the truth, and because of that, they are accepting of us," Reid said.

The Knoxville mayor appoints people to the committee, and the city council confirms. They can serve two three-year terms. Members cannot be current or former city or county employees, which means, no Knoxville police officers.

Madison has a Police and Fire Commission, but it doesn't audit or review internal investigations. That commission has the ultimate power to fire an officer, which Knoxville doesn't have.

While Knoxville's committee gets more than 100 cases a year, Madison's hears an average of one or two, and none last year.

WISC-TV asked Madison Mayor Paul Soglin if he'd consider creating a similar committee in Madison, but he didn't have any comment.

Soglin said he's waiting for an investigation to wrap up even though police and the Dane County district attorney have already wrapped up their investigations of Heenan's shooting.

There's also an effort at the state Capitol to start independent reviews of police shootings, although not as Knoxville does it.

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