JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An advocate pressing for change at the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) is glad now-imprisoned former Johnson City businessman Sean Williams has been officially identified as the “Robert Voe” in a 2022 lawsuit filed against Johnson City and JCPD.

So is City Manager Cathy Ball, who has had numerous meetings with advocates who took to the streets last summer demanding changes in JCPD’s handling of sexual assault cases after the “Voe” lawsuit broke.

“It’s a moment of excitement, because this all started around Sean Williams for us,” Ben Putland told News Channel 11 Monday. Putland has been among leaders in a group that has sought what they label greater accountability by JCPD in its handling of sexual assault cases.

“That was kind of the trigger,” Putland said of the lawsuit, which alleged that police had “substantial evidence” that Williams had committed multiple sexual assaults. Williams has not been charged with any sexual assaults or drug crimes in Johnson City.

“There were people who had a lot of stories (about experiencing unsatisfactory interactions with JCPD) and were worried, but for me and a lot of people who maybe haven’t had a personal experience, this was kind of the match that lit the fire,” Putland said.

News Channel 11 withheld Williams’s name until this week because in addition to his name being withheld in the lawsuit, a federal indictment against him was sealed until his arrest late last month. Putland said it was also widely believed among many people in Johnson City that Williams and Voe were the same person.

He added that Williams’s name being out in the open now could “give us an opportunity to provide more assertive pressure on the city, on the department. They’ve been good about trying to work with us, but having all of the information available will help.”

Former special prosecutor Kateri “Kat” Dahl sued the city and police in late June 2022, nearly a year after she was terminated by the JCPD. Dahl’s suit claims JCPD failed to adequately pursue allegations that Williams was a major drug dealer and that he had sexually assaulted numerous women, then botched a May 5, 2021 effort to serve a sealed federal warrant on him.

Williams was at large for nearly two years after that night. He was arrested in Cullowhee, N.C. April 29 after an officer on routine night patrol approached his parked car and allegedly found Williams in possession of 12 ounces of cocaine and 14 ounces of methamphetamine.

He was transferred to federal custody on May 5 and arraigned in federal court in Greeneville on May 9.

Ball said she was glad Williams was caught after two years on the run and that the city has seriously examined its policies.

“We have assisted the U.S. Marshal’s Service for more than two years in the search for Williams,” Ball said. “We are thankful that he is in custody and trust that justice will be served through the federal court process.”

The sexual assault allegations in Dahl’s suit in particular prompted several public demonstrations in the summer of 2022, calling for changes in the way the JCPD handles sexual assault cases.

Ball and city leaders quickly took action, saying they would hire an outside firm to audit the JCPD and seek “to determine if any actions by the Johnson City Police Department were inconsistent with acceptable practice of law enforcement.”

Ball has said several times, and repeated Monday, that Williams’s case was not the trigger for attorney Eric Daigle’s work despite the decision to solicit him coming just after the lawsuit and protests.

“It was that we had a number of citizens that wanted to make sure that we were investigating and working with the DA’s office in sexual assault charges.”

Ball said Monday that Daigle has nearly completed his report on the JCPD, but added that numerous changes have already been made. She’ll be sharing some of those updates with the City Commission Thursday, she said.

“Things we know we can improve upon, like our reporting system, record keeping. We have some improvement to do there. We want to do some additional training. So we’re going to be recommending some additional funding to the Commission in this coming budget year in order to address what we’ve heard from (Daigle).”

Ball also said from information the city has received about handling sexual assault cases, “having a more friendly interview room is something that we think will be a recommendation from that.”

Putland, who met most recently with Ball last week, said changes like that occurring in record keeping are among “a couple of steps” the department has made already. They include how employees speak to each other interdepartmentally and how they speak to the public for clarity.

“Some of the retraining about first point of contact for sexual abuse victims is very important, and we’ve started talking about what some of that is going to look like,” Putland said. “We would really like to see more investment in SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner) as always… We would like more money to go to the Family Justice Center.”

Putland did say he believes Ball has provided more consistent and transparent communication than the previous city administration. She began her tenure in late 2021.

For her part, Ball said city leaders “take these kind of allegations and these reports very seriously.

“I am very confident that our police department is at a really good place with these recommendations that we’ve heard verbally to be able to make sure that the community has a lot of confidence that how these cases are reported, how they’re investigated, how we hand them over to the DA are done to the best of our ability so that justice can be served.”

Williams’s trial on his federal charges is scheduled for Aug. 22 of this year. Dahl’s lawsuit is due to be heard beginning May 14, 2024 in Knoxville.