A Conversation with Mayor Indya Kincannon: Reflections on Her First Term

Mayor Indya Kincannon, Dogan-Gaither Flats, 211 Jessamine Street, Knoxville, March 2021
Mayor Indya Kincannon, Dogan-Gaither Flats, 211 Jessamine Street, Knoxville, March 2021

James C. Luttrell served as Mayor of Knoxville from 1859 – 1867. During his first term, Tennessee seceded from the Union (June 8, 1861), over the objections of the county’s citizens, but with 2-1 support inside the city limits. The next month, General Felix Zollicoffer of the CSA instituted martial law in the city. By the summer of 1863, General Ambrose Burnside established Union control over the city. In November 1963, General Longstreet led a siege and then attacked the city, but failed to take it from Burnside who continued his occupation through the end of the war.

Why start an article about the current administration with 170-year-old history? Because the Luttrell tenure is one of the few Knoxville administrations that might claim stronger headwinds and a more complicated set of issues than that of current Mayor Indya Kincannon.

Sworn in for her first term in late December 2019, only a few weeks would pass before a global pandemic upended world social order. Largely as a result, homelessness, and drug use, including overdoses, swept the country. In May, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, unleashing protests, and marches across the country, including in Knoxville. In January 2021 our nation’s capital was attacked and we did not peacefully transfer power after a presidential election for the first time in our country’s history. In 2021 five black teens were killed in Knoxville, including one inside Austin East High School at the hands of the KPD. Most everyone was capital A angry over one or all of the above issues, though often from opposing perspectives.

The pandemic and this toxic political and social stew welcomed Mayor Kincannon to her first term. Arriving in the office optimistic about the progress the city had made under the previous several administrations, she anticipated building on that momentum. Instead, she found herself navigating nearly impossible issues, both old ones, which were suddenly exponentially worse, or new ones we’d never faced. I asked her to talk about that first term, the highs, and the lows. A second installment will focus on her hopes and goals for her next term. I asked questions along the way but have removed those so she can be heard directly. I’ve edited for brevity and clarity.

Mayor Kincannon with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of East Tennessee, March 2020

Mayor Kincannon in her own words:

I’m thrilled to have won re-election. I love being mayor, I love the city. There are a lot of things happening right now, a lot of positive energy, a lot of change which can make people anxious. I’m excited to serve a second term. I was able to get a lot done in my first term, but also a lot of things started that I hope to continue to make progress on. I understand that all the work we do is just a contribution to the evolution of the city. I am building on some of the things Mayor Rogero started, and she built on things that Mayor Haslam started and Victor Ashe before him and Randy Tyree, and Kyle Testerman. We all learn from our predecessors . . .

It was sixty days in (to her first term) and a global pandemic was declared. That was trial by fire as a new mayor thrown into a situation that was new to everyone . . . My platform when I was running in 2019 was about housing, land use, smart growth, expanding our greenspace . . . and suddenly this happened and I declared a state of emergency and we shut some businesses down, based on the recommendation of the CDC and Dr. Buchannan and that was the beginning of an odyssey.

We had to expend a lot of energy on trying to address this public health emergency and working with the health department, but knowing they were a county department, not reporting to me and that was its own set of challenges. Mayor Jacobs had some different responses to the COVID pandemic and has a more libertarian philosophy about at least that aspect of government. It was very challenging.

It was also a time when there were a lot of unknowns and uncertainties, so trying to be a conduit of accurate information, including updates (became a focus). It was a dynamic situation . . . and I’m really proud of our efforts and I would even use the word “courage” in light of some very challenging situations. I was also as an individual and a mom trying to deal with the pandemic and its effect on our family, personally. It was a very challenging time, and it was non-stop.

I had put together a draft budget proposal in early March and we had to pivot and basically put a pause on a lot of new investments and proposals . . . because we didn’t know how the pandemic (would impact the city). The budget had been approved when George Floyd was murdered and there was an aftermath of efforts to defund police . . . I was glad we had adopted our budget.

Mayor Kincannon, KAT, Knoxville, January 2021

I was mortified at the murder of George Floyd, and we did have protests here in Knoxville. We adopted the 8 Can’t Wait policies My Brother’s Keeper said needed to change in police departments as soon as possible. Luckily, KPD was already doing most of them, but we were able to confirm that and add a few, such as banning chokeholds. That was a very intense time with protests downtown, at the police department, and at my house. I was glad at the time that one of the things I pushed for as mayor, even before the pandemic, was body cameras and council approved, but it took a while to acquire and buy those . . . and put them in place.

I also remember how we got better at sharing COVID data, particularly helping people understand how many people were getting infected, how many people were dying, how many people were hospitalized. I think . . . we were a major source of information that was trusted by the community. It was local, it was for Knoxville . . . People wanted guidance and reassurance.

It was a very frenetic pace. Coupled with reimagining policing, we’d moved forward with our conversations and actions on addressing racial reconciliation. Council adopted the African American Equity Task Force in December 2020. It was challenging, but healthy. In 2021 we had a big surge in violence after an increase in 2020. That was the hardest time of my tenure as mayor. We lost six children at Austin East High School to gun violence in one semester.

Another young man was killed in August. One of those was an officer-involved shooting of Anthony Thompson, Jr. and that was very challenging. We had body cameras, and I was very glad for mutual accountability for police and community. If we hadn’t had body cameras that day we would have had a lot more questions unanswered. The body cameras did shed some light on what happened.

Mayor Kincannon, Caswell Park Unveiling of Electric Buses, Knoxville, September 2021

There were more protests. I had someone vandalize our house, painting “Death” on our garage because he was upset about COVID. We had people come to the council upset about the violence in our community. We saw the problem and . . . we asked, and council approved a million dollars in 2021 and trusted me and my administration to deploy those funds towards stopping the violence . . .

We started the Office of Community Safety led by LaKenya Middlebrook . . . We have a violence reduction plan. We’re working with some national groups. The National Institute of Criminal Justice reform is coming November 2 to help us do best practices . . . We’re also working with Thomas Abt of the Violence Reduction Center at the University of Maryland. We have Turn Up Knox that is working to interrupt violence. We are really leading in best practices on violence reduction.

These are things that didn’t exist before . . . Everybody just sort of assumed that stopping violence was just the job of the police, and it is their job, but they are much more effective when the community is working on these issues. We absolutely (have seen a change). Murders are down 35% this year. I don’t want to take full credit for that, but I think our violence interruption efforts have been a big help. I also think things are a little more stable, post-pandemic. It was unusual for Knoxville to have such a surge all at once, but there were communities all over the country having unusual surges. Ours was particularly acute because it was something not typical for Knoxville and since so many of the victims were so young.

We did a problem analysis to find out exactly who was at risk of being victimized and who was perpetrating the violence. The average age of the victims and the suspects in crime in Knoxville is 29 . . . Sometimes the anomalies get a lot of attention, because it is extra layers of tragic when someone is caught in a crossfire, or is such a young age . . . We’re making progress working on the community side and the policing side . . . early returns are promising.

Karen Pershing, Executive Director of the MDC with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, The Gateway, 530 West Fifth Avenue, Knoxville, September 2022

Chief Thomas retired and I did a (national) police chief search . . . I’m really pleased that Chief Noel applied and I selected him with community input and committee help with the interview process. He was head-and-shoulders the best candidate. Now he has been our chief for sixteen months or so and he’s gotten a lot of good things done. By the end of this year we expect every officer to have had the ABLE training . . . this is to prevent what happened to George Floyd, to prevent misconduct, to prevent officer mistakes, by empowering officers to intervene when they see something going wrong.

I promised the applicants that their names would be confidential. It’s exactly how they did it in Memphis. We don’t do things blindly. We did this with full legal counsel to make sure what we were doing wasn’t just the right thing to do but was perfectly in compliance with the law. We have subsequently shared all the applicant information with the court, with the public, and with the News Sentinel. I am pleased with the outcome and the process. Chief Noel is doing a great job. There has never been more public input on a police chief search ever in the history of the city of Knoxville.

One thing I’m really proud in addition to our progress on public safety is our progress on housing. We have invested more and made more progress on affordable housing than ever before . . . We have invested about $37 million and it has helped catalyze private investment of over $500 million. Around 12,000, including KCDC, private developments . . . we also passed the affordable housing ordinance where we have pledged to spend a minimum of $5 million per year, but we have exceeded that minimum every year . . .

Sometimes it is smart to partner with your critics. The leader of Turn Up Knox, Denzel Grant, at one time was asking, “Why aren’t you doing anything about violence?” Now he’s helping lead that effort to interrupt violence as Executive Director of Turn Up Knox. Similarly, Justice Knox has always been a critical friend. They were partners to help create that ordinance and make sure we stick with it.

A couple of lessons learned (during the first four years): You can never communicate too much . . . and never take things personally. There’s a lot of angst in the community and sometimes that manifests itself in people being mad at elected officials even though it’s not personal . . . Those are two lessons to take forward . . . ”

And we will look at that second term and “going forward” in the next installment of our conversation with Mayor Kincannon.