KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Kingsport Chief of Police David Quillin spoke out for the first time on Friday in response to a viral video showing the director of a local food bank being arrested. Quillin emphasized the heightened police activity in the area surrounding Hunger First came at the request of Kingsport residents living in the neighborhood.
On Thursday, Michael Gillis, director of Hunger First, was taken into police custody. Police charged Gillis with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, illegal parking, and failure to obey a lawful order. Cell phone video of the arrest taken by witnesses was shared online, with some social media users accusing Kingsport police of harassing the homeless population that frequents Hunger First.
Trouble in the neighborhood
News Channel 11 has been monitoring the increased police activity surrounding Hunger First throughout the week. On Tuesday, Gillis was interviewed about the heavy law enforcement presence.
“They continue to harass our homeless that have nowhere to go. I’m at odds with them right now,” Gillis said of the police.
Hunger First has given out food and clothing to those in need, with no questions asked, since 1996. But Chief Quillin said in the past three years, police have been called within a 750-foot radius of the intersection where Hunger First sits nearly 2,000 times.
“We are not targeting the homeless. We are targeting criminal behavior,” Quillin said.
Quillin said countless residents in surrounding neighborhoods have contacted the KPD, begging for help. The police chief asked some residents to share their experiences with News Channel 11.
Richard Brown lives among the city blocks surrounding Hunger First. He said the frequent criminal activity in the neighborhood worried him, especially with schools nearby.
“I’ve seen public intoxication, I have seen things that look like drug deals happening. I’ve seen public urination, public defecation,” said Brown. “So yeah, we have asked for help to make sure that lawlessness is not allowed in the area.”
Blountville resident and Kingsport native Bruce Tranbarger said his mother has lived in the neighborhood near Hunger First for 50 years. Her home was recently burglarized for the first time.
“Hunger First is symptomatic, or a microcosm of the change in dynamics in the neighborhood itself,” said Tranbarger. “You drive by there, you see the panhandlers, you see the trash that has increased exponentially. And I’m not just talking bottles and cans. I’m talking needles, syringes.”
Quillin said the KPD has to respond to the resident’s calls for service.
“No resident should have to put up with what those people have been putting up with. That’s why we’re there. That’s the only reason we’re there. That’s our job,” said Quillin.
On Tuesday, prior to Gillis’ arrest, volunteers at Hunger First said police had been writing an excessive amount of jaywalking tickets – so many, that it was deterring people from coming in to receive hot meals.
Hunger First’s ‘Hot Meal Days’ can attract anywhere from 65 to 115 people every Tuesday and Thursday, according to volunteers. Gillis said only 10 people showed up this Tuesday.
Volunteer Barry Foster said police were targeting Hunger First.
“I’ve been here for two years. Never in my past have I seen so many jaywalking tickets ever. And they’re targeting… they’re bringing four to five cars outside of one building,” said Foster.
Steven Ruth, who described himself as homeless, said the police presence kept him away from Hunger First.
“I didn’t want to come up here and end up having to pay another fine I can’t afford,” said Ruth.
As police have been patrolling the area more, Ruth was cited last week for sleeping in public near the Salvation Army.
“And I’m homeless, so I have no way to pay a $110 ticket,” said Ruth.
Chief Quillin responds
Quillin said police have to enforce city ordinances and he’s seen the dangers of jaywalking firsthand.
“The very first fatality that I ever worked, three and a half decades ago, was right up there in that area. A homeless man was trying to cross the street there. I held his hand as he died,” Quillin said.
People had been walking directly in front of cars, sometimes at night and wearing dark clothing, Quillin said. As for the citations for sleeping, he said there were issues with people sleeping on sidewalks and blocking them, as well as park curfew violations.
Quillin described the range of criminal activity in the neighborhood surrounding Hunger First.
“Aggressive panhandling, littering, public indecency. Criminal trespassing, blocking the sidewalks, and illegal drug activity. We’ve had reports of people walking naked down the middle of the street. We’ve had reports of people urinating in heat pumps. We’ve had reports of people defecating in backyards and front yards,” he said.
There have been arrests and citations related to this activity, Quillin said, noting some were just warning tickets, but repeated offenses can lead to citations.
“All we’ve been trying to do is get compliance,” he said.
Michael Gillis was released from jail Thursday evening. He was scheduled to appear in court on Friday.
Gillis did not respond to an interview request on Friday.
Chief Quillin said he did not want to comment on a pending court case.
“The video that I have seen, that I’ve been able to view, I have seen nothing that the officers did wrong. And we’ll let the courts decide,” Quillin said.
A police report says an officer originally stopped Thursday morning to address a man sleeping on the stoop at the entrance of Hunger First. Gillis later drove up to the building.
“The Kia was parked in a manner that it was literally blocking the roadway at the intersection and was causing a traffic hazard. The driver of the Kia exited the vehicle and began screaming at me and telling me that I needed to get off his property and to stop harassing the homeless. The male was later identified as Michael Gillis,” the report reads.
A video shared on social media shows part of the interaction.
“Are you going to arrest me? Are you threatening me? Is that what you’re doing?” Gillis asks an officer.
Gillis can be seen getting back in his car, and refusing officer’s requests to leave the vehicle. KPD officers eventually pulled him out of the car.
“In attempt to gain control of Michael we redirected him to the ground. Michael continued to resist arrest and would not give us his hands. After having to physically wrestle to obtain Michael hands we were able to overcome his resistance and place him into handcuffs,” the police report reads.
As Gillis was restrained on the ground, he could be heard yelling for officers to ‘stop.’ The video shared on social media ends there.
Searching for solutions
Hunger First’s temporary homeless shelter was shut down by Kingsport authorities over the winter due to safety and fire hazards, as well as not being properly zoned. Gillis attempted to have the building re-zoned, but his application was denied by the Kingsport BMA in June. Several Kingsport residents living near Hunger First spoke out against the re-zoning at the June meeting.
News Channel 11 requested interviews with Kingsport city officials on Friday. A city spokesperson deferred comment to Quillin.
As attention has stayed on Kingsport’s homelessness situation, city leaders have said in the past they’re taking steps to curb the issue.
The City of Kingsport launched its homeless coalition plan in January in partnership with the United Way. A social worker with the Kingsport Police Department and a homeless services liaison with the United Way were hired.
Chief Quillin said the department’s social worker, Erin Gray has worked to get members of the homeless population birth certificates and valid identification. Gray has also helped people locate family members and move into transient and permanent housing.
“We have done more in this city in the last 12 months for our homeless population,” Quillin said. “We have brought in a social worker and homeless liaison. Those people have made great progress in helping the people who need help and want help.”