KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knoxville Police Department looked into claims last year that a female officer was sexually assaulted by a fellow officer, despite its insistence it was not aware of such an incident when a city councilwoman raised concerns last week, a 10News investigation shows.
A KPD sergeant recalled in February 2020 that he told the department's Internal Affairs Unit about the claim, according to a transcript of his interview included as part of a separate investigation into allegations of racism and a hostile workplace within the department.
Now-former KPD Officer Jordan Henderson, who alerted his sergeant to the allegations, confirmed to 10News on Friday that he was interviewed by Internal Affairs about the female officer's claim that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow officer.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation also looked into information regarding the possible sexual assault, but was not requested to open a criminal investigation, a TBI spokesperson said.
When asked by 10News last week whether an incident along these lines had been reported to the department, KPD spokesman Scott Erland said the department had no record of an internal affairs case.
When pressed by 10News on Thursday, Erland provided details of the incident and acknowledged the Internal Affairs Unit spoke with the alleged victim. He said she "adamantly declined to provide a statement" and "went as far to say that [she] did not want an investigation of any kind into the matter."
He said the department arranged for the alleged victim to speak with a TBI investigator and said a fellow KPD officer went with her to that meeting.
"Following that independent review, which was initiated by the KPD and referred to the TBI, it was determined that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant further action," Erland said.
The spokesman reiterated that the department is still not clear if this is the incident referenced by Knoxville City Councilwoman Amelia Parker during a July 27 council meeting. Parker has pushed for greater accountability in city departments for employee behavior that she said may be racist or "sexist."
"Possibly illicit encounter"
Erland said a "possibly illicit encounter" between two of its officers occurred at a private party. The TBI said it happened in Sevier County.
Henderson said the alleged victim alluded to the assault over a text message with him in February 2020. He said she did not give details or name the officer who assaulted her, but indicated she wanted to talk about it to "get it off [her] chest."
Henderson said he felt obliged as a police officer to report it to his chain of command.
"If indeed it did happen, I don't want to be working next to someone who is a sexual predator," he said.
Henderson said the alleged victim was upset he reported it. 10News is not naming her to protect her privacy. The next day, Henderson said, Internal Affairs investigators interviewed him about the text conversation.
He said the alleged victim messaged him after her conversation with Internal Affairs to say she was no longer angry with him and that the inquiry "wasn't going any further."
When contacted by Internal Affairs, the alleged victim did not provide a statement or make a formal complaint, Erland said.
"Despite the alleged victim's refusal to initiate or take part in the [Internal Affairs Unit] investigation, the KPD initiated the process for an independent body to look into the possible criminal matter," Erland said.
He said the department referred its criminal investigation to the TBI. The bureau brought its findings to Sevier County District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn, who declined to ask the agency to pursue the matter further, a TBI spokesperson said.
Later, Henderson said Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas stopped him near the basement squad room in police headquarters and said "I appreciate the way you handled that situation."
When asked if he thought Thomas knew of the allegations, Henderson said "absolutely."
Councilwoman Parker at the July 27 City Council meeting raised concerns about city employee behavior but was not specific about the alleged rape — until forced to respond to a question from a fellow councilmember. The exchange occurred during a discussion Parker raised about the culture within the Police Department.
During the council meeting, Councilwoman Lauren Rider pressed Parker, asking her plainly if she was talking about a rape, which is a crime.
"Yes!" Parker replied.
Chief Thomas appeared incredulous about Parker's allegations during the meeting.
"If I hear that my colleague that I'm working with raped another colleague that I work with, I will not be able to restore my working relationship with that individual," Parker said.
Thomas responded: "I'm confused as to the information that you have and why you haven't come forward, Councilwoman Parker, because I think that's serious."
"I have come forward," Parker said.
"Hmmm," Thomas replied.
Parker went into greater length about her concerns July 29 in an interview with 10News.
She told WBIR the rape occurred in 2019, but that she did not report it to KPD to protect the employee's identity. She said she did bring the incident to the attention of city leaders.
10News asked department spokesman Erland on July 30 whether there was any truth to Parker's claims that a KPD officer raped another officer or if any similar incidents were reported in the three years prior.
He responded with a statement saying the department takes the allegations seriously. "Though little context or details were provided in reference to those allegations, there is no Internal Affairs Unit case involving allegations of a sexual assault between two KPD employees," the statement said.
Emails Parker sent in March 2020 confirm she did notify the mayor's office of an employee's concerns about "sexist behavior and victim-blaming." Parker did not specify the nature of the allegation or that it was within the Knoxville Police Department, emails show.
One to Mayor Indya Kincannon dated March 13, 2020 reads: "I'm emailing to follow up on my meeting request and to clarify the reason for this meerting (sic). The employee who would like to speak with you wants to share concerns about her own case but also other cases in her department that suggest a pattern of sexist behavior and a culture of victim-blaming. She is looking for support from a superior in helping to shift the culture in her department.
Please let me know as soon as you can when you've had a chance to speak with your attorney.
Thanks in advance,
The emails, provided by Parker, show Deputy to the Mayor Stephanie Welch attempted to ask Parker for more information. Parker declined to provide it.
"The employee has decided that the cons of being a whistleblower have outweighed the pros. She wants to remain anonymous. Therefore she will not be moving forward with her complaint," Parker wrote in a follow-up.
Parker canceled a scheduled interview with 10News on Friday, Aug. 6, but said in a statement: "We must commit as a city to providing a safe and healthy work environment for all employees. To do so, we must address reports of racist or sexist practices seriously and take swift action to ensure such behaviors are stopped and individuals are held accountable for their actions or inaction."
10News obtained a 2020 Internal Affairs report into a separate and unrelated investigation about how supervisors reacted to reports of a hostile work environment within the department's Violence Reduction Team.
Contained within is an interview with Sgt. James Lockmiller. In the interview, Lockmiller mentioned that Henderson had come to him with the details of a female officer's allegations.
"A female officer had suggested to him that she may have been a victim of sexual misconduct," Lockmiller told the Internal Affairs investigators. He said he "made a formal notification" to the Internal Affairs Unit.
The interview includes the name of the female officer and the timeframe of the report to Internal Affairs.
Knoxville Police maintains the department is still not sure whether the concerns Parker raised are related to the reported sexual assault it asked the TBI to investigate.
"The allegations made in last week's City Council meeting lacked details and important context, and it is still not clear if this is the instance that was referenced by Councilwoman Parker," Erland said.
Henderson has no such doubt.
"I felt pretty confident that we were probably talking about the same situation," he said.
He left the department in July after seven years of service, most recently as part of the organized crime unit. He is currently engaged in a worker compensation claim with the city over an injury he suffered on the job.
Looking back, Henderson said he credits the department with taking the allegations of assault seriously.
"The culture they want to cultivate within the Police Department is a culture that doesn't tolerate that kind of behavior," he said.
He said he's choosing to share his story to show the vast majority of rank-and-file officers within the department are trying to do the right thing.
"The overwhelming majority are very good people who are in this job for the right reason and want to serve the community," he said. "In order to serve the community and hold the community accountable or to a standard, we have to hold ourselves to the same standard."
Henderson said he disagreed with how Parker brought up the allegations in the council meeting last week, but was surprised when the department denied her claims.
"I think the Police Department tries to polish stuff up a little too much instead of just being real with people," he said.