East Knoxville residents back ‘Officer G'
Former NAACP president: 'We are not Ferguson'
"A crowd gathered as Knoxville Police Department Lt. Gordon Gwathney struggled with the screaming black woman in the public housing development.
Gwathney already had shot his stun gun at the 5-foot-2-inch tall woman, but her crack cocaine high made her impervious to the electric jolt designed to freeze the muscles of large men. She ripped the metal wires from her body and continued to fight.
As he tussled with the 110-pound woman, the crowd of onlookers in Walter P. Taylor Homes swelled. Gwathney’s radio was ripped from his uniform as he forced the woman to the ground, so calling for help as the crowd closed in around him was not an option.
As he fought to get handcuffs on the squirming woman, two people from the crowd jumped into the fray.
“I saw something I thought I’d never see — people come to the aid of an officer,” Dewey Roberts, former president of Knoxville NAACP, told a community group last week. “They were telling her to calm down and they got his radio that had been knocked loose.”
Roberts witnessed the event through a window at the Dr. Lee Williams Complex, a senior citizens center he oversees in Walter P. Taylor Homes. Roberts had seen the confrontation develop despite Gwathney “trying to de-escalate the situation” and worried as he saw the crowd of black onlookers encircle the lone officer.
“With my experiences with police over the years, I was just amazed,” said the 69-year-old Roberts who led Knoxville’s black community through the racial tinderbox in the late 1990s when several black men died during confrontations with Knoxville officers.
“And it wasn’t just a few people, it was the whole crowd. I was shaking my head in disbelief, but it was a good feeling.”
Gwathney, an 18-year veteran of the Knoxville Police Department, said the woman bit two of the residents who came to his aid. The 28-year-old woman, he said, was wanted on 10 outstanding warrants and had been ordered to stay out of Walter P. Taylor homes.
The gathering crowd was a reassurance and not a threat for him. These are his people. He knows their names. He goes to their children’s graduations.
To residents of East Knoxville, Gwathney is “Officer G.”
“He treats us like people; he knows our names,” said Linda Conner, a resident of Walter P. Taylor Homes whose two adult children benefited from Gwathney’s influence.
“One kind of got off on the wrong foot and he picked her up in the ninth grade and started to mentor her,” the 49-year-Conner said. “He came to her graduation.”
“Other officers come through and they’re going to run. Officer G comes through and he gets out and talks to people.
“Because they wear their pants low, Officer G knows that doesn’t mean you’re a drug dealer or criminal. We know and respect him. He’s a blessing out here.”
Gwathney has spent 12 of his 18 years in Knoxville’s housing projects. His Seymour upbringing suits him better in East Knoxville.
“I worked West Knoxville, but I like this better; I fit in better,” he said.
It wasn’t always like this for Gwathney. When he joined the force, Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe was trying to ease racial tensions twisted to the point officers were alerted to threats that snipers on rooftops would pick them off the street. Ashe in 1998 created the Police Advisory Review Committee to oversee investigations of alleged police misconduct in the black community.
“When I first came on, there’s no way I would walk through Walter P. by myself,” he said of the majority black development. “Now, I can do that at 3 a.m.”
Roberts recalls getting “10-15 calls a week about harassment by KPD” during his two decades leading the Knoxville NAACP.
“Police have changed the trend with their training, and training is everything,” Roberts said.
David Rausch, who this week celebrates his fourth year as chief of the Police Department, agreed training officers on diversity, treating people with respect, creating walking patrols and attending community meetings has dissolved boundaries and created relationships.
Rausch said police training employs “procedural justice where we listen to people and not go into a situation with your mind made up, so people know they are being heard.”
“They no longer see us as an occupying force,” the chief said. “We’re seeing a huge decrease in complaints, a decrease in resistance responses and an increase in compliments.”
Roberts, however, cautions how fragile the nascent trust between police and minorities can be.
“You can never rest because it only takes one incident to ignite the passion we’ve seen before. But our mayor and police chief are ready to de-escalate any situation.
“We are not Ferguson.”