JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Johnson City Police Department’s policies and procedures for sexual assault investigations met neither legal requirements nor industry standards, an audit of the department released Tuesday shows.
That was among eight findings from a comprehensive look at JCPD’s operations, particularly related to sexual assault, that took place over the past year.
Daigle Law Group (DLG), a nationally recognized expert in law enforcement issues, conducted the audit at the request of city leaders. That followed public outcry over a federal lawsuit that included claims JCPD failed to properly pursue multiple allegations against downtown business owner Sean Williams.
DLG reviewed more than 325 sexual assault investigations in cases that occurred between January 2018 and December 2022. It reviewed files, interviewed personnel and sought community input.
Other findings include that JCPD’s “investigations are found to be inconsistent, ineffective and incomplete,” according to a City of Johnson City news release detailing the findings in the 45-page report. The report also found that supervision of investigations “was insufficient to ensure a full, fair and complete investigation,” that training wasn’t sufficient to effectively conduct sexual assault investigations and that the department’s process for closing investigations “is flawed and inaccurate.”
City Manager Cathy Ball provided what may be the most direct apology to sexual assault victims since the city began publicly confronting the issue last July in the wake of Kat Dahl’s lawsuit and the protests that followed.
“We acknowledge that victims of sexual assault have not always received the best possible treatment and care from our police department,” Ball said in a cover letter.
“The department’s new leadership team is dedicated to continued changes toward compassionate and effective service so that all citizens know they are safe and protected.”
Karl Turner, who was police chief in 2022 and whose ouster was demanded by protestors, retired Feb. 28 as part of an early retirement incentive the city offered. So did a chief investigator, Kevin Peters. Longtime JCPD officer Billy Church was named permanent chief on May 23, and the JCPD’s entire upper management has changed this year.
Advocate unsurprised at findings, hopes for progress
Ben Putland helps lead a citizens group that formed following initial protests last July. He said a quick review of the audit findings didn’t surprise him that much.
“As we started to roll up and gather information and try to figure this thing out at the very beginning of it all, every story we heard was some version of the same — the police didn’t do enough,” Putland said.
He said that at some level he feels vindicated on behalf of victims.
“We’ll see what happens going forward and what happens with what has been found, but at least for now it has to be nice for people who have been clamoring all this time and people who have been doing work this whole time. Everybody knows they’re not crazy, you know?”
Putland said Ball “has been good to at least listen to us and hear us, and take some steps however small they might be to turn the track the right direction.
“Hopefully that machine can spool up a little faster now and we can try to find some justice and maybe prevent some more cracks from forming in the ship.”
The DLG report noted numerous examples of JCPD’s processes “discouraging victim participation,” and said its review showed “JCPD’s interactions with women reporting sexual assault all too often reflect reliance on gender-based stereotypes and bias.” It said that discrimination “is responsible in part for the deficiencies in JCPD’s response to sexual assault.”
The report also found some JCPD practices “create unnecessary barriers to building trust and rapport with women reporting sexual assault and make reporting unnecessarily burdensome for the victim.”
Putland called those findings “incredibly important.”
“One of our main tenets from the beginning is that there is … a top to bottom culture within the department regarding how they address sexual assault, how they treat victims whether they be women or not, and a very ‘why were you dressed that way’ attitude towards dealing with the victims of sexual assault,” he said.
Putland said he believes the advocacy group, which doesn’t have an official name, helped spur the city to conduct the audit — something Ball herself has said.
“They had no incentive to look within before,” Putland said.
He said as servants of taxpayers, governments need to serve people and their investment the best they can.
“They weren’t doing that and … they would have continued on, we would have people still working at the department who aren’t working there anymore — the pressure would have never been released on that valve.”
Putland said Ball has met several times with his group and was set to again Tuesday afternoon to review the audit.
“It doesn’t feel like an attempt to save face, because they have met with us a couple of times over the last few months,” he said. “They take feedback, so far.”
He said he’ll spend the coming days digesting the audit, “figuring out where the citizenry can apply pressure.”
Putland said he expects more public comment and public gathering in coming weeks. “If the results of the study don’t push the levers in the direction that we think they should be pushed, then we will push them.”
City has made some changes
The city already has taken several steps to address some of the major findings, including committing $100,000 toward training, $50,000 toward a new records management system and the creation of a more welcoming space in which sexual assault victims can be interviewed.
JCPD is also assessing additional staffing needs and reviewing all its policies and procedures.
The records management system’s inadequacy was another DLG finding, with the firm noting it was “inadequate to support the effective operation of the department.”
DLG said the “archaic” system hampered its review and that it spent six months working “to attempt to locate and review supplementary material such as warrant affidavits, evidence records, interview recordings, transcripts, and forensic reports.”
Other findings include:
- The sexual assault investigations … have material deficiencies that can hinder the ability to collect necessary evidence for a complete and accurate investigation.
- JCPD needs to ensure that all complaints of misconduct against the Department, including anonymous complaints, are timely investigated.
“We believe the steps to be significant but only the beginning,” Ball said in the cover letter, adding, “we commit to demonstrating improvements in the areas where we have fallen short.”
DLG noted that it had received full cooperation from JCPD and the city during its audit and that its team found several “generally good investigations.” It also said JCPD “does not have the widespread problem of underreporting, misclassifying, or downgrading reports of sexual assault that we have observed in other law enforcement agencyies.”
The audit also noted the “affirmative steps” taken to improve response even prior to the audit’s release.
“JCPD and the City have an opportunity not only to ensure improvement in the mechanism of conducting sexual assault investigations but to serve as a model for police departments desiring to implement an effective system for responding to sexual assault investigations,” Daigle wrote.
Ball will report on the audit to Johnson City commissioners at their Thursday meeting, and the city has invited the community to offer public comment after the presentation. Administration plans to report to the city commission on its progress in six months.
The release said the city welcomes feedback on the report, which can be submitted to email@example.com.
Ball and other leaders will address the media at 2 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the report’s findings.
This is a developing story.