Downtown Knoxville Is Safe: Should We Be Worried?

Car Crash Scene on Gay Street, Knoxville, December 2024
U.S. Marshalls and K.P.D. Scour the Promenade Garage, Knoxville, June 2021

Danger in the city presents a popular topic on media outlets. Lots of pixels have been utilized alerting the nation (often with a particular political stance) that cities (Chicago, San Francisco, New York City) have become lawless, dangerous hellholes. It’s a great narrative for clicks on the Internet or readership in general.

I often travel to New York City, among other cities, and really enjoy my time there. I’ve been asked multiple times how safe I felt, particularly in New York City. The answer is, “Very safe.” I wouldn’t take my family there if I felt their safety was in question. But the coverage suggests that it has become a very dangerous place. So, what gives?

So, why bring this up now? I love Knoxville and I’ve always intended this website to shine a light on the great things we have going on. That said, I have always tried to make it an honest representation of what I think is a pretty great place.

Cities are necessarily messy organisms. They offer the best and the worst of humanity, from fine dining to hungry people, from amazing homes to the homeless, from great art and entertainment to human tragedy. Our city is no different. And recent events highlighted that point.

December 13th at 3:20 in the afternoon, KPD officers found a victim shot to death beside Knox Rail Salvage on Depot (a block from Jackson in the Old City). The police called the shooting “targeted,” and last report I saw had the shooter still on the loose. On December 23rd at 9:40 pm, a shot or shots were fired in Krutch Park, resulting in serious injury to one person. Police arrived on the scene as several people ran. Initial reports indicated the shots were fired after an argument. I’ve not heard that any suspects were apprehended, but “persons of interest” had been identified.

Krutch Park, Christmas Windows and Lights, Knoxville, December 2023

Not downtown, but elsewhere in the area just a few hours earlier, a North Knoxville man, accused of not picking up his dog’s poop, fatally shot his accuser. Also not downtown, but nearby, about 5:00 am the next morning a person was charged attempted murder after shooting at an officer near Chilhowee Park. That’s three shootings, one fatal, in a span of about eight hours from the 23rd into the 24th.

Additionally, there have been dangerous vehicular incidents. It’s been about a year-and-a-half since the school bus crashed into a downtown building. An additional downtown wreck happened just the day before the shootings above when a car apparently drove at a high rate of speed in the wrong direction on the one-way Wall Avenue and flew across Gay Street, crashing into a wall across the street. The driver fled the scene on foot. Happening about 11:00 PM, that’s the time lots of downtown residents walk their dogs along that sidewalk. Any car turning onto Wall at the wrong moment would have been hit head-on.

So, is America and are our cities becoming less safe? Is Knoxville less safe? Statistics do show (see here where I took a deep dive) that where there are more guns, there are more shootings and deaths. Tennessee would be near the top of any such list. Our legislators have worked diligently for the last twenty years to ensure that as many people as possible, in as many places as possible, have access to as many guns as possible.

As I said in that article:

If you look at the ten states with the loosest gun laws and the ten states with the highest rate of gun ownership (five are on both lists) and then compare them with the CDC’s measure of per capita deaths by gun in each state, a pattern emerges. It is not that lax gun laws and high rates of gun ownership keep us safe. It is the opposite.

The states with the loosest laws and/or the highest rate of gun ownership are also among the deadliest to live in. Seven of the ten states with the highest mortality rates from guns have the laxest laws and the highest rate of gun ownership. Increased availability of guns produces more deaths by guns.

But is it getting worse everywhere? No. The numbers do not back it up, despite the impression we might get from various media sources. Even with the additional homicide at the end of the year, murders in Knoxville have dropped dramatically in the last several years.

Twenty-four homicides occurred in Knoxville in 2023, which represents a 33% drop in homicides from 2022 (36 murders). By that measure, we got significantly safer, and murders dropped to fewer than we’ve seen since prior to 2019. Of the 24 homicides last year, 18 were the result of gun violence. Only one — the one mentioned above on Depot — was in what most people consider downtown, though several were just outside that area.

Knox Rail Salvage, East Jackson, Knoxville, February 2023

What about the larger picture? In the U.S., homicide rates increased dramatically from 2019 (4.99 per 100,000 population) to 2021 (6.81 per 100,000). What does that look like historically? In 1991 the rate was 44% higher than in 2021 (9.82 per 100,000).

Further, the rate has fallen nationally since 2021, with an estimated 13% decline nationwide in 2023, even as a large majority (75%) tell surveyors that the rate is increasing.  And what of New York City? There were 391 murders in New York City last year. That represents a 39.8% drop since 2021. It represents an 82.7% drop since 1990 (2,262 murders). There is an extreme disconnect in our perception, I think driven by media and politicians who benefit from our fear.

So, all that to say that we are a lot safer than many people think we are. Are we completely safe? Absolutely not. Should be afraid? No. Can we make ourselves safer in the city? Yes.

I think the larger danger in downtown Knoxville is from vehicles — and I’m including all sorts of vehicles, but cars carry the mostly deadly potential. Cars often speed on Gay Street, run traffic lights and stop signs when pedestrians may be crossing, travel the wrong way on one-way streets, and turn into pedestrians without noticing them, often thinking they are in the right and the pedestrians are in the wrong. Pedestrians have the right of way. I’ve also nearly been hit by cyclists and scooters who are racing through red lights and stop signs.

Car Crash Scene on Gay Street, Knoxville, December 2023
Car Crash Scene on Gay Street, Knoxville, December 2023
Car Crash Scene on Gay Street, Knoxville, December 2023

So, what can you do? Drivers: Don’t do that stuff. Pedestrians: Be aware that vehicles may disregard the laws. Assume they are not watching you. If you jaywalk (guilty) don’t be oblivious. It’s on you. I think sometimes crossing in the middle of a block can be safer (no turning vehicles!), but the cars have the right of way. You are breaking the law. Don’t be chatting up your friends, texting, or listening to your headphones. Even on a sidewalk pay attention to drivers who are doing dumb things. They can kill you.

As for guns? We need to assume everyone has a gun, because many, many of them do. As in the case of the guy on Depot, don’t make the wrong people angry. If you owe big debts to people with guns or have in some other way gotten crosswise with people who do not value human life, that will not end well. In the past if you got into an argument with someone on the street, you might get your nose punched. Now? You may be shot dead. Is it worth dying because someone doesn’t pick up their dog’s poop? Because they insulted you or your family? No. Walk away.

Be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to your instincts. Something feels funny? It probably is. That street looks too dark and deserted? Go another way.

I’ve walked all over downtown at night for the last fifteen years (and quite a bit for the twenty-five before that) and I’ve always felt safe. There are dangers, but we can reduce them by being just a little more tuned in, a little more aware, and a little more hesitant to engage in confrontation. Let’s have a safe 2024 even as we enjoy everything our beautiful city has to offer.

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