JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Leaders of a group demanding changes at the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) expect a large crowd outside and inside City Hall Thursday for the first city commission meeting since a federal lawsuit was filed against JCPD Chief Karl Turner and the city.
Katelyn Yarbrough and Ben Putland, both of whom worked with the JCPD during summer 2020 anti-racism protests they were part of, said their short-term goals are that the city suspend Turner and get an independent audit of the JCPD’s handling of rape and sexual assault cases. The quickly organized and still-informal group developed a list of four demands following stories about the lawsuit.
The suit filed by former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kateri “Kat” Dahl alleges that Turner and JCPD investigators refused to fully investigate a downtown business owner whom Dahl came to believe had serially drugged and raped women in his downtown condo.
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Yarbrough said of Turner, “but if you have those accusations and you’re leading an entire police department, you need to step down, and then a third party investigation needs to happen for the entire department.”
Their group doesn’t even have a formal name yet, but Putland said he hopes Thursday produces a couple of things: a significant turnout of concerned citizens and a clear indication that city commissioners and City Manager Cathy Ball are willing to take those citizens’ concerns and demands seriously.
Putland said he and Yarbrough are making sure anyone who wants to speak during the commission’s public comment period follows the proper steps and that demonstrators do things the right way.
“We know nothing will happen right away, that’s just not how the gears turn on a machine like this,” he said. “But we want to have a great turnout, we want the commission to listen to us, we want everyone to stay peaceable — there’s no reason for that not to be the case.”
The group’s additional requests include completing an analysis of outstanding rape test kits, if any exist; diverting some level of JCPD funds to fund community programs that help sexual assault victims; and establishing a formal accountability board that allows for some level of community oversight of the JCPD.
News Channel 11 requested comment from the city regarding whether leaders were considering an independent audit of the JCPD, considering suspending Turner and about the group’s other demands. A city spokesperson said they wouldn’t comment further Tuesday. The city last week didn’t comment and cited the pending litigation.
In it for the longer haul
Yarbrough and Putland both said they took some time to read the suit and have spoken with people familiar with the case of “Robert Voe,” as the businessman is named in the suit. They said they don’t believe they are jumping to conclusions, but that in their view what citizens are demanding is reasonable at this point.
“Make sure it’s not just him (Turner), make sure it is just him, make sure it’s nobody — or whatever the case may be, but we really want to make sure that the culture of the police department is not regressive and misogynistic and dismissive of women and victims,” Putland said.
Editor’s Note: News Channel 11 is currently not using the real name of the man known as “Robert Voe” in a federal lawsuit filed against Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner and others pending availability of official records that would make it legally appropriate to name him.
For her part, Yarbrough said she worked in the restaurant and bar scene in downtown Johnson City for several years and can attest to the problem of sexual assault at the very least.
“I have had friends that have been assaulted sexually, I’ve heard stories,” she said. “I bartended at Tipton’s (Tipton Street Pub). You hear a lot working behind a bar.”
In the wake of the lawsuit story, though, Yarbrough said she was “appalled and disgusted” to read the allegations of JCPD leaders being dismissive of alleged sexual assault victims’ claims.
“It’s just truly disheartening that something can happen and there’s no one that you can call that will take you seriously,” Yarbrough said. “And it’s just scary.”
She said numerous women have sent her private messages since news of the “Voe” case broke and she began posting about it on social media.
“I’m getting lots of stories … of people that have gone to the police department and were either laughed at, or scoffed, and just told, ‘we’ll follow up,’ there was no follow-up. Things of that nature.
“And so it just doesn’t seem that they take these allegations seriously. It doesn’t seem that they care for the vulnerable people of this community — especially women. It seems interesting that they didn’t want to follow up on these things, and yes, personally, people just have zero faith in the police department because they will do nothing.”
Asking again for accountability board
Putland and Yarbrough both participated in dialogue with JCPD during the protests that occurred in 2020 following the death of George Floyd.
Putland said at the time, with various groups staging protests that often included blocking streets, Turner “was really good to work hand in hand with them.” He said the chief would explain what protestors could and couldn’t do to avoid breaking any laws and was “amicable” in those interactions.
It was also during that period that some of the activists “asked several times to establish an accountability board and participatory budgeting that ensures community oversight of the police that serve us,” Putland said, adding that a board of this nature was actually former mayor Jenny Brock’s idea.
Putland and Yarbrough said those conversations centered around creating a board of people from different demographic backgrounds tasked with studying the police budget and also making recommendations about ways policing could better reflect the needs and wants of underrepresented parts of the community.
“We had lots of brainstorming about (how) to have an accountability board that is diverse, that people will feel safe to file complaints so that it can be investigated by a diverse group of appointed people in the city, not the usual people that are always running things,” Yarbrough said. “It needs to be people that look like you and me, that care for the community and want to see things through and have things run as they should, protecting and serving.”
Yarbrough said she doesn’t expect quick results unless it’s in the matter of Turner’s suspension and a pledge by city leaders to conduct an audit.
“My first hope for what’s going to happen on Thursday is that the victims, whether they’ve come forward or not, know that they were supported and that we’re rallying behind them,” she said.
As for the commission and Ball, “I’m hoping that they will have compassion in their hearts to hear the cries,” she said. “I’m just truly hoping that they will listen, that they won’t be flippant about any of this because there’s nothing flippant about any of this story. This isn’t political. This is public safety, and so … I hope that they take it seriously, I hope they listen.”