JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City City Manager Cathy Ball will meet twice for listening sessions with citizens who have been protesting the city police department’s handling of sexual assault cases.
An organized group that has protested at commission meetings is seeking 10 to 12 people who want to attend the Sept. 6 and Sept. 12 sessions. Leading members are actively seeking input through a website that includes an opportunity for people to request a chance to attend. People may also write about what they would like to see addressed if they don’t want to attend.
The protests and communications with Ball have come in the wake of a federal lawsuit filed against police chief Karl Turner and the city. A former federal prosecutor who worked with the city police, Kat Dahl, alleges the department failed to properly pursue prosecution of a downtown resident for allegedly drugging and raping multiple women at his residence.
“I want people to feel heard,” Ball told News Channel 11 of her decision to work with Ben Putland, one of the group’s leaders to set up a workable format.
“I want to really understand what the nature of the concerns are and I want people to feel like there’s been a forum that they could voice those concerns and walk away feeling like that information has been shared, has been recorded, and will be passed along if they wish to the investigator.”
She expects to brief the commission on this during one of her regular meetings with commissioners.
Citizens have gathered outside city hall and attended City Commission meetings in the wake of the late June lawsuit. Some have called for Turner’s ouster, and while leaders’ current stance leans toward supporting his suspension while the matter is further investigated, the group still calls itself #terminateturner.
The city has hired a third-party law firm to investigate the allegations. One early demand from the group was the establishment of some type of citizens’ police review board.
Ball said she’s open to discussing a possible citizens police advisory board but doesn’t want to establish one unless its role, authority and need can be clearly outlined.
“The successful ones have had to understand what their role is and what they can actually make decisions on,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is put folks in a role where they review things and they have no ability to make any decisions by state law or any other law.”
She said she has learned of situations where that’s occurred, leading to frustration for everyone. She also said she’s not convinced, one way or the other, whether such an effort is needed. The city already has a police-community roundtable.
“Out of the gate typically when citizens come into these roles they believe they have the ability to take personnel action, which they can’t do,” she said. “Some of the big cities on the West Coast have had some success but it’s taken a number of years of folks being frustrated and understanding their role in order to get there.”
Regardless of any outcome in that realm, she wants citizens who are engaged and care about the police department’s community role to believe and feel the department and the city is transparent.
“That’s what we’re trying to do right now. I think as issues come up we’re trying to…listen to folks and try and understand what they want or expect for us to do.”
Ball also said she realizes some people affected by sexual assault may be hesitant about attending a forum like the ones planned.
“We also are trying to determine whether victims want to come forward in a very, one that’s more private and whether or not we can have some social workers involved in that meeting that could be helpful to folks,” she said.
“We’re asking that some of the organizers in the community help us with that, because we don’t want to step in and have conversations with folks if they don’t want to talk to us.”