KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After just five months on the job, the highest-ranking Black female in Knoxville Police Department history is stepping down. Brooklyn Sawyers Belk began her role as deputy chief over the Office of Professional Standards on Feb. 20.
This Sunday — July 16 — will be her last day with KPD.
"When we hired her, we knew we wouldn't have her forever," said Chief Paul Noel. "I really hoped it was going to be a lot longer than this."
The job was created for someone like Belk. Noel envisioned someone with legal expertise and experience working with law enforcement. She was recommended by her close friend Charles Swanson, who is the City of Knoxville's law director. Belk was a perfect fit.
"When you really take a look at her resume, she's accomplished more in her life than some people have done in three lifetimes," Noel said on The Hal Show Podcast in late February. "She's the first female Black deputy chief in the history of the Knoxville Police Department, but that's not why we hired her. Her skills and qualifications are tremendous."
Belk is also the first civilian appointed as a deputy chief.
She and Noel set out to change the Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) at KPD. It's now called the Office of Professional Standards.
"The main thing has been building systems where they didn't exist before," Noel said. "The way we handled internal complaints ... we had good people working on some of the challenges, but we didn't have systems and she's built that framework."
Those changes were met with resistance — even outright concern — from some members of her team. The internal turmoil led to a retirement, resignation and transfers.
Longtime respected Sergeant Amanda Darnell-Bunch sent a department-wide email on her last day, detailing some of the concerns she had with new procedures for handling internal investigations.
"I attempted to support Deputy Chief Belk in implementing necessary changes to Internal Affairs, changes that I believed would help the unit become more transparent and efficient. However, I continued to fear for my position within the unit and voiced that concern to Deputy Chief Belk," she wrote to KPD staff and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon. "I was afraid the investigations could become unfairly narrow (due to needing prior approval for questions to be asked, witnesses to be interviewed, and evidence to be gathered)."
Captain Steve Still, who oversaw the IAU, retired in late April. The decorated 28-year KPD veteran said he had questions about Belk.
"In my interactions with her after she'd been there two or three weeks, I started being concerned about her conduct," he said. "This increased as time went on."
In the days following his retirement, he requested a copy of Belk's background investigation from before she was hired. The 34-page document details a storied career that includes work as a federal prosecutor, educator and independent counsel.
"Although candidate Belk's responses were short and somewhat curt, she was very available, cooperative, and helpful throughout the investigation. During the background investigation, she showed a strong desire to obtain the position," the background investigator wrote. "Everyone interviewed, supervisors, coworkers, subordinates, and friends, all spoke very highly of the candidate and recommended her without reservation or hesitation."
The only inexplicable portion in 14 lines in the "conduct" section is redacted by the City of Knoxville.
"Under the heading of conduct, which was the area I was concerned about, there was a large portion of that redacted," Still said. "Maybe it does meet state law, but I don't know at this point and I'm very suspicious and very concerned."
Noel said he's gained a lifelong friend with Belk during her short tenure at the department. He hopes her replacement can pick up where she left off.
"She did a great job for us building a strong foundation," he said. "The next person coming in is going to finish that work and then help run the system and be able to enhance it."
He said they will be posting the job on three nationwide websites, as well as to the Tennessee Bar Association. It could take several months to find the right person, Noel said.
We reached out to KPD to see if Noel or Belk wanted to comment further on her departure. They declined.