JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Even though only one in 13 Tennesseans lives in Northeast Tennessee, more than one out of every six officer-involved shootings (OIS) statewide from 2019-2022 have occurred in the region.
That leaves the region with more than double the number of such shootings than what its share of the population is according to data kept and published by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). TBI reported 198 such shootings from 2019-2022, and 34 of them occurred in News Channel 11’s seven-county Tennessee viewing area.
A local criminal justice instructor told News Channel 11 that police shootings, while regrettable, make for very complicated cases, and it’s impossible to draw any strong conclusions from the disproportionate numbers.
“You or I are not there when this goes down,” Northeast State Community College’s Eric Stanton said.
“We need to have a thorough investigation to find out why that officer felt that he or she needed to unholster that weapon, why the officer felt that he or she needed to discharge that weapon.”
TBI does investigate nearly all OISs in Tennessee.
“Usually, the TBI is going to come in and they’re going to check the facts, they’re going to do a thorough investigation, they’re going to be transparent in their investigation to make sure the officer or officers acted as they should.
The region is again trending above the state in 2023. Wednesday’s fatal shooting of a North Carolina man by Sullivan County deputies at a Bristol Dollar General store was the 23rd OIS statewide this year. It was the third in the region, which represents 13% of statewide shootings by law enforcement officers.
In about half the cases, the person shot by officers died. So far in 2023, all three regional cases have resulted in a death. One was in Greene County on Feb. 19, when Joshua Baker shot a woman at a home before officers fatally shot him.
On March 1 in Johnson County, 64-year-old Tony Smith allegedly fired shots as sheriff’s deputies attempted to speak with him. One deputy returned fire, and Smith died at the scene.
Stanton said TBI investigates nearly all OIS’s that occur in Tennessee, and in fact already has Wednesday’s case, which resulted in the death of 48-year-old Casey Crowley, up on its OIS webpage. The page shows the dates and locations of each shooting along with the law enforcement agency involved, and each case includes a link to a news release.
The main page indicates whether a civilian died for all incidents in 2019 and 2020. Since 2021, only the links indicate whether there was a death, injuries or no injuries.
Those releases always indicate the bureau is investigating and will share its findings with the local district attorney general. It is the DAs who ultimately decide whether the shootings are justified.
“A lot of times, as has been proven over and over again, they’re justified in doing so,” Stanton said of the investigative process. “In those rare instances when they’re not justified in doing so, those are the issues that hit the media, they hit it quickly, as it should, and those people are dealt with swift and quickly.”
Still, Stanton acknowledged the rate of incidents is statistically significant given the relative equality of law enforcement training.
“The POST commission in the state of Tennessee regulates training,” Stanton said.
“All officers across the state of Tennessee have the same basic level of education, training, stuff of that nature and so it’s interesting, when they (all) learn about the force continuum, use of force, deadly force, that it would be higher per capita in our area.”
Stanton said many factors are at play when it comes to police shootings.
“Based on my understanding from talking to a lot of law enforcement officials around here that some of these have to do with just the mental health crisis that we currently find ourselves in,” he said.
“At this point, unfortunately, a lot of mental health dollars have been taken away by the state and other entities and moved to other places, and as a result now we have individuals that are in mental health crisis,” Stanton added. “Sometimes if they’re off their meds or something of that nature, may not absolutely be aware of what they’re doing, and my understanding is some of these situations are actually suicide by cop.”
Stanton also described Tennessee as a “very Second Amendment-friendly” state, which he said increases the odds of law enforcement coming upon people with weapons.
“Now add that to somebody who’s in a mental health crisis or something of that nature and that’s just an absolute recipe for disaster.
“At that point, law enforcement doesn’t know their intention is maybe to shoot or not shoot. At that point, they put law enforcement in a very difficult situation where they have to respond.”
Stanton said the aftermath can be very difficult for officers.
“The good news is there’s very robust services for those officers while they’re on administrative leave afterward to make sure that they receive the counseling and stuff that they need to not only return back to work but also to not displace their aggression on family members or anybody else.”
The incidents since 2019 span the region, a deeper dive shows. A total of 14 occurred in Sullivan County, with six of those in Kingsport, one in Bristol and the rest outside city limits.
Six occurred in Washington County: four in Johnson City and two outside city limits. There were also six incidents in Greene County, half of them in Greeneville (all fatal shootings) and half in Greene County. Four occurred in Carter County, two in the county and two in Elizabethton.
The agency involved in the most incidents was the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, with six. The Kingsport, Greeneville and Johnson City police departments each were involved in three incidents, as was the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office.