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Community Conversations: East Knoxville neighborhood bridging gap with Knoxville Police

by: Bo Williams

Posted: Aug 18, 2020 / 05:55 PM EDT/ Updated: Aug 26, 2020 / 12:24 PM EDT

Talk to most residents in East Knoxville’s Walter P. Taylor homes and they’ll tell you relationships with police were on-edge for much of the 90s, but since then strides have been made to bridge a gap.

Those strides include the work of two officers, one a longtime Knoxville Police veteran, the other an Austin-East grad whose mission is to give back to his community.

WATE 6 On Your Side’s Bo Williams shows us how they’re working together to improve relations.

For almost two decades, KPD Lt. Gordon Gwathney has been calling the streets of Walter P. in East Knoxville home.

“I like to walk, so I walk Walter P. everyday,” Gwathney says. During these walks, the KPD veteran has established a lot of bonds, but maybe no greater than the one he has with Officer Matthew Sims.

Gwathney says of Sims: “He’s 35 now and I’ve known him since he was 13 or 14.”

Officer Matthew Sims says of Gwathney, “He’s my mentor.”

A 2003 graduate of Austin-East, Sims is closing in on 5 years as a Knox County Schools division officer, which is a career he has pursued since an early encounter with the man he simply calls “Officer G.”

“It was about 20 degrees outside, and it was real cold and I said, ‘Officer G you mind giving me a ride home?'” Sims recalls. “He’s like sure… he took me about three blocks. When I got out of that car I made my mind up. That’s what I want to do.”

“I guess the main thing was how he treated me,” Sims said. “He was respectful and that right there bridges a gap.”

It’s this respectful approach to others that Sims says he now uses to this day; as well as continuing to build the trust with those he serves.

“One of the biggest things I picked up from him is respect. I treat every single person I come in contact with — with respect, and nine times out of 10 I get respected back,” Sims said.

“I always try to give back to my community… especially with the younger kids,” Sims says. “Try to play with them.. mentor them and show them I am a human being just like they are.”

This one of the many lessons he has taken from his mentor and vice-versa.

“I’ve been a mentor for him and he has for him with the community,” Gwathney said.

“When a new officer comes out I try to tell them to be respectful and what to do and how to carry yourself… and most people tell me, ‘you taught me a lot.'” Sims said. “I learned from Lt. Gwathney so I just pass it on down.”

And it’s that teamwork, that ability to connect with those they serve, that will hopefully assist in bridging a gap.

“Both of those officers… they personify what we mean when we say community policing, they exhibit that in a way that lets us know it works, if we work it,” Dewey Roberts, former Knoxville NAACP president, said.

We recently sat down with Lt. Gwathney and former Knoxville NAACP president Dewey Roberts to get their thoughts on whether relations between police and residents of Walter P. Taylor are improving or continue to struggle.

Both admit it is a work in progress but they say by just starting a dialogue, it’s already paying off.

“The relationship with the police in the 90s.. there wasn’t much communication between the inner city citizens and the police. You know we had a very hard time getting witnesses, and now they will come to us,” Gwathney said.

“You can always get better.. can always do more… but you have to start somewhere in moving toward a goal of everybody being satisfied,” Roberts said. “This is a lesson.. not just for Knoxville but all across the country. You know we really had to work and work on establishing that communication between the police departments and the different communities.”

The Knoxville Police Department has been integrated since 1882.

Currently, the department has 20 Black officers and one recruit is nearing graduation from the Recruit Academy. KPD spokesperson Scott Erland says the primary goal of the department’s recruiting efforts are attracting qualified and diverse candidates; their recruitment team specifically targets communities and colleges with a higher population of minority citizens and students, locally and regionally.

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