JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The City of Johnson City hopes to get an expert third party as quickly as possible to review the Johnson City Police Department’s (JCPD) handling of rape and sexual assault cases.

“We have reached out and said we are trying to get someone under contract within the next week,” City Manager Cathy Ball told News Channel 11 Wednesday.

The effort, initiated by city leaders a couple of weeks ago, stems in large part from a recent federal lawsuit.

The issue of sexual assault is central to Kateri “Kat” Dahl’s lawsuit filed last month. From September 2019 through July 2021, Dahl was a special assistant U.S. attorney working with the JCPD on specific types of drug and violence cases in order to apply stiffer federal sentences to defendants.

Dahl’s suit, and two Department of Justice whistleblower complaints, allege the JCPD ignored or dismissed her attempts to get them to broaden a case against a downtown business owner – known only as “Robert Voe” in the lawsuit – after she claimed to have discovered evidence he was a serial rapist who often drugged his victims prior to assaulting them.

Cathy Ball

“We’ve heard there’s concerns about the way we handle assault and rape victim cases,” Ball said.

“So we are reaching out to people who are accredited and nationally known for doing this kind of work and investigation, to ask that they come in and say, ‘you need to improve certain processes or certain areas to provide better services to our community,’ and we are very open to that.”

Additionally, the city has asked its official JCPD accrediting agency, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), to include a focus on this issue during its regularly scheduled assessment slated for Nov. 18-26.

While she said the city can offer little comment on the lawsuit in order for due process to be followed, Ball said the concerns it has produced in the community are one reason the city is seeking an expert review that can be completed thoroughly but fairly quickly.

“In the event that we have some findings very early on that we can implement we will do those,” Ball said. “We won’t wait for a final report. We don’t want victims that are not getting what they need from the police department or don’t have the help that they need. That is just critical. I do not want this community to think that we are not serving…the victims of our community who are victims of rape and assault.”

The outside review will answer a part of one demand (out of four total) that a group of citizens made to the city July 7 during the first City Commission meeting after News Channel 11 first broke the lawsuit story June 29.

That demand, the group’s top one, called for JCPD Chief Karl Turner’s suspension pending a third-party investigation of the department’s handling of sexual assault cases.

One of the still-unnamed but organized group’s de facto leaders said the quick action Ball is promising was “a small victory” in several ways, including that the city is searching outside the region for an external reviewer.

“Our chief concern was that they might just bring in some local, for lack of a better term, good ol’ boy type group that knows everybody in the department and are just gonna be like, ‘these are good dudes, I know ‘em’ – and that’s not what we need,” Ben Putland said. “So I’m glad to see that it looks like they’re looking for outside help.”

The reviews will focus on JCPD’s handling of rape cases, and potentially on whether JCPD was incompetent or even corrupt in its approach to one specific suspect who is now a fugitive wanted for a federal weapons charge.

Turner, a defendant in the suit, told Dahl in late June 2021 that the JCPD wouldn’t renew its annual agreement with the Eastern District of Tennessee U.S. Attorney’s Office. Dahl claims that decision came in retaliation for her insistence that JCPD pursue a broader case against “Voe,” including for federal drug crimes and the alleged rapes.

Ball said the city’s own internal reviews haven’t shown evidence in police records of multiple women reporting sexual assault allegations against one individual, as the “Voe” suit alleges.

Women at the July 7, 2022 Johnson City Commission meeting wear tape over their mouths after not being allowed to speak on allegations of police being dismissive of rape allegations. The issue was not on the agenda, which meant no public comment period was slated for it. (WJHL photo)

“From our perspective, if there are 20 victims out there, we really want you to come forward,” Ball said. “We want people to come forward. If they don’t feel comfortable coming to the Johnson City Police Department we would ask that they go to the Washington County Sheriff’s office or the DA, because we want justice for those individuals.”

Putland said much of the citizen group’s internal discussion has revolved around “the level of patience we’re going to choose to have as a group.” 

He said numerous members have experience in advocacy efforts and non-profit work and that they realize things don’t tend to happen as quickly as they’d like – or sometimes at all.

“If we can have some clear and transparent communication along the way as much as they’re allowed, we know they can’t say everything, but ‘hey, we are talking to some people, here is an example of that. We have signed a contract with a group to do an audit. Here’s the name of that group.’ Just so we know that something is happening.” 

Ben Putland is among the leaders of a citizens group pressing the city of Johnson City to act on allegations of police insufficiently investigating rape claims. (WJHL photo)

Ball reiterated a theme she’s expressed in several instances since becoming city manager Dec. 20, 2021 – that government should be transparent and accountable.

“What I would tell people who are concerned in this community is that we take this very seriously,” she said.

“I have seen in communities where there is not a response to things that concern the community and I would hope that they would feel like that we’re in a situation where we have a commission and as a city manager where I’m responsive to the concerns of the citizens. And that there would be an opportunity to know that we’re leaning in on this and that we’re hearing people, so there isn’t a need to be as extreme as maybe other situations called for.”

The citizen group went into their advocacy on this issue with low expectations for a response, Putland said.

“The nature of government and bureaucracy is to think first, act later or think first, never act – one of the two. And that’s okay in some instances, but not when it comes to something like violent crime.” 

Ball said because the people who are alleged to have done their jobs improperly or corruptly deserve fair treatment through the process, it’s unlikely to be quick. She also said she has seen no evidence of “any level of corruption at all” so far in the police department.

“I know we want to fix things we want to see what’s going on, but we are trying to get factual information so that we make sure that we’re taking the action we need to,” she said. “Because all of this stuff is really hard. It is hard to hear the stories, it’s hard to hear what’s happened, but until we have factual information, we can’t rush to judgment. I don’t think anyone wants us to rush to judgment without making sure we have all the information.”

Putland called group members “hopeful skeptics,” and said they’re used to “a lot more losses than victories” in their efforts.

“We continue to do that work because we are hopeful and we want things to be better,” Putland said. “So we will take small victories when we can get them and we could take this as a small victory at least.” 

Ball made it sound as though she hoped community members like Putland will believe they’ve won more than just small victories by the end of the process.

“I will do everything I can to make sure all of our community are safe, and I would not take any action – or inaction, which is what a lot of activists are concerned about – that would not be in the best interest of the community,” she said.

“Now, that’s a lot of words and I get when people are in a situation where they’re a victim of a crime, that sometimes those don’t fill the spaces and the holes within their heart. And what I would say to them is just, we won’t leave you out there. You know, we will try to get answers we will find information.”

Asked about whether being Johnson City’s first female city manager and the mother of a daughter affected her approach to this challenge, Ball said “you can’t separate the two.”

“I’m a mother of a 15-year-old, I’m a woman, have a lot of women that I care about and and and I care deeply and I would not want to see myself or my daughter or anyone that I love or anybody in the community suffer some of the things that have happened.

“Having said that, I equally say that I believe that it is important that fairness and justice be served to everyone. I think that’s what this community believes in. I think rushing to judgment without having facts is equally harmful. And so from my heart of hearts, from the concept of thinking about the victims, to thinking about people being accused unjustly and information getting out without all the facts, concerns me as much as a mother.”

Any additional review of the case, for instance from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would occur through different channels. The city’s legal department has contacted the FBI but the agency “has indicated there is not sufficient evidence or proof of a crime to justify their involvement.”

The local district attorney’s office would initiate any potential TBI investigation.