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New KPD chief says he's committed to reducing crime, boosting staff ranks, creating culture of accountability, partnering with community

Paul Noel is the first "outside" chief to oversee KPD in more than a decade.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When Louisiana native Paul Noel takes over as Knoxville's police chief on June 13, he wants to hone in on four concerns.

The Knoxville Police Department must find ways to reduce violent crime, he said. As the new chief, he wants to make sure the rank and file know they're appreciated and have a future, while KPD also continues to find ways to recruit new members.

He wants to ensure KPD has a culture in which everyone is held accountable for what they do as members of the force.

And he wants to improve the relationship KPD officers and the community have with each other. That can be achieved by partnerships that benefit both -- and to which both are committed, Noel said.

Tapped last week to replace the retired Eve Thomas as chief, Noel, 46, and his wife, Rachel, spent the weekend in Knoxville getting to know the city better. On Sunday, he met with about half the patrol force, he said, during roll calls.

"We have to have an impact on violent crime," said Noel, who spent 25 years with the New Orleans Police Department, most recently as a deputy superintendent.

"We have to find ways to reduce violent crime. So that's what we're going to be looking at from Day One. And then community -- forming last partnerships. Community policing is not just doing a walking beat. It's not just going to an event and talking to people. That's just the beginning. It's about the relationships we build. It's about forming relationships where we partner and we collaborate together to create safe public spaces."

His annual salary will be $185,000, according to his offer letter.

The new chief and Mayor Indya Kincannon, who hired him, sat down Monday afternoon for an interview with WBIR before he headed back to New Orleans to begin the move northward -- out of hurricane country.

Credit: WBIR
Mayor Kincannon praised new Chief Paul Noel as he prepares to take over the department.

Noel said he hopes by a year's time that he'll see an impact on reducing violent crime and that KPD will be on its way to being more fully staffed. Getting up to 100 percent staffing isn't something that can happen quickly, he said. He said Kincannon's proposal to boost police pay will help with recruiting.

Noel's goals appear to align closely with those of Kincannon, who said Noel's hire is "the most important" she's doing to make as the city's mayor.

Kincannon said she wants to change the trajectory in crime that's been apparent in recent years, including a jump in homicides last year.

She said she's also committed to improving pay and taking steps to ensure KPD is a desirable place to work for recruits as well as established veterans.

"We have police officers who've been working and very loyal and dedicated. But pride and dedication doesn't pay the bills. And we need to pay them a fair wage and also attract new people to the profession," she said.

KPD has more than 50 vacancies, Kincannon said, a problem departments across the state and country also are seeing.

KPD right now is budgeted for 521 full-time employees including 416 sworn officers.

Noel has gained a reputation for fighting crime, touting reform and figuring out solutions that allow police to continue to enforce the law without getting into a hostile or adversarial relationship with members of the public.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer two years ago this month thrust the question of police reform onto the national consciousness. If Floyd hadn't been murdered, Noel said, he likely wouldn't have found himself ending up as KPD chief, he said.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the New Orleans PD came under federal scrutiny for its conduct -- internal and external. Noel, who by then had about eight years with the department, stepped up to embrace and help lead reform efforts.

From that period emerged an in-house program that Noel championed called Ethical Policing Is Courageous, or EPIC. NOPD describes EPIC as a "peer intervention program that teaches officers how to intervene to stop a wrongful action before it occurs."

The non-profit Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, awarded its 2021 Gary P. Hayes Memorial Award to Noel for his work with EPIC. PERF presented Noel to Kincannon as one of its recommended chief candidates.

The Georgetown Law Center for Innovations in Community Safety, in turn, has partnered with the law firm Sheppard Mullin, to create a program called Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE. Noel said it resembles EPIC.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown Law Center, ABLE is meant to "prepare officers to successfully intervene to prevent harm and to create a law enforcement culture that supports peer intervention."

ABLE hopes to create department cultures in which officers feel empowered to help prevent misconduct, avoid on-the-job mistakes, and look out for everyone on the force.

Noel said EPIC is NOPD-focused. KPD will take part in teaching officers the tenets of ABLE, he said.

The new leader, the first "outside" chief KPD has had in more than a decade, said he's not looking to transfer the NOPD to Knoxville.

"I am going to be very respectful of their traditions, and of the culture of this organization. So what we're going to look to do is enhance that, and I asked them to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. So that's exactly how I'm going to build that trust. I'm going to be very active. Just like I'm gonna be very active in the community, I'm going to be very active meeting the officers. I'm not even an employee of the city of Knoxville yet and I'm already really trying to meet as many people within the police department -- as many members of the community as possible," he said.

Noel also knows he's walking into a department that has had recent shakeups in its top command staff. There are vacancies. One deputy chief resigned following an embarrassing review of his past conduct toward young women in the department and community.

The new chief said he considers himself an expert in policing but he doesn't know all the "inside baseball" that goes on within KPD.

"So I'm going to be looking for those leaders within that organization that understand what it takes to have a quality police department. They love the police department, they want to make it better. Those are the people that I'm going to be looking for the goldmine leadership strategies around," he said.

Kincannon said she'll judge Noel as being on the right track after six months on the job if he's spent a lot of time in the community and has built and even restored ties within the community. She endorses him having KPD implement ABLE.

"And I'm hoping that we start having full academies and people clamoring at the door to join our Police Department," she said.

Credit: WBIR

Noel said he and his wife and 3-year-old girl are looking forward to living in East Tennessee. It's the kind of place he's been thinking about moving to for awhile. His parents will likely relocate from Louisiana to Atlanta or the Knoxville area, he said.

"I love the outdoors. I love college football. There's amazing weather here.  So when I was starting to think about where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, this region kept popping up over and over again. So when this opportunity presented itself, it truly was my dream job, my dream place to live and I'm so excited to be able to join this community," he said.

In the handful of days he's spent in Knoxville, he said he's already seen that the community cares and sees the need for a good police department.

"This is a very dangerous profession. It's a very challenging profession. But it's also the most rewarding profession I've ever been involved in," he said. "I truly believe that the profession of policing is a noble profession. And we're going to do the best job we can to show the members of the Knoxville Police Department that the community truly does care and support them. And I think that that's what I've seen walking around this community. The past week, people have recognized me, people have walked up and spoken to me, and they all truly support their police officers. And they truly support the mission of the organization. And that's why I'm truly excited to be here."

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