New Police Chief Paul Noel lays out his vision and explains why he loves ride-alongs
A week into the job, new Police Chief Paul Noel made good on a promise to answer questions about his leadership style and how he'll shape the Knoxville Police Department.
Knox News met with him this week to chat about how he'll approach discipline with a department that can hardly afford to lose more officers, what accountability means to him, and why he’s game for six-hour ride-alongs with patrol officers.
The following Q&A with Noel is edited for brevity and clarity, including coupling topics that came up at separate times during the discussion.
Paul Noel: Meet Knoxville's Newest Police Chief
Knox News: The general sense I gather is you’re not going to put up with misbehaving officers and that it’s not lip service. So how do you show and maintain that edge of being hard on ‘knuckleheads,’ we’ll call them while knowing you can’t spare a lot of officers?
Noel: I think there's a big distinction between mistakes of the mind and mistakes of the heart. So, if somebody is trying to do the right thing but they make a mistake, they screw up – we all make mistakes. I make mistakes every day. I think that those types of actions – as long as it’s not a consistent pattern – I’m absolutely fine with being lenient. No doubt.
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I don’t want to mistake the accountability piece I’m talking about a lot for being really hard on discipline. I’m absolutely not, in general, hard on discipline except for mistakes of the mind, for people who say, "I know what the rule is, but I’m going to defy that rule anyway."
Knox News: Can you give me an example of that?
Noel talks about the department changing policies on outer vest carriers (bulletproof vests) to make them more uniform for the department.
If someone says, "You know what, after I leave roll call after inspection, I'm gonna go put on whatever I want to put on." That's intentional. And I'm not saying anyone has done it, but that would be an example of somebody intentionally trying to circumvent the rules or regulations of the police department.
You know, you could probably think of a million things of somebody trying to do the right thing, trying to help someone, but they make a mistake. You know, we’ll certainly be very forgiving there. Mistakes happen.
But also the other piece is, you know, talking to command staff from day one or even before I was an employee here, I said supervisors need to be held accountable. We need to place the organization and the members of the organization first. So that’s one thing I’ve consistently messaged to the command staff and the supervisors, is we have to make sure that we’re doing our job and making sure that we’re holding people accountable.
And again, you know, the accountability piece and the discipline piece really are two separate things. I don’t want that message to get blurred. I'm not talking about you know, running people off this job because they're trying to do the right thing. Absolutely not. I think quite the opposite.
Noel ties this in with ride-alongs with patrol officers.
In my first week, I rode with an officer on Wednesday for six or seven hours. I rode with somebody else on Thursday night. ... The point is I really want to see what’s going on from the officers’ eyes and while my job is not to go out and handle calls for service, one of the things I said on day one is that patrol is the backbone of this organization, so I will be working shifts with these officers from time to time just to see what’s going on. Not only from their perspective but more importantly it’s a great avenue for me to get my message directly to the troops as well.
Later in the conversation, Noel said he intends to continue ride-alongs as long as he's here on a semi-regular basis.
Knox News: You’ve begun meeting with commanders individually. What are your general takeaways at this point?
Noel talks about how he has met with every captain and will meet with sergeants in groups and officers by squads.
So, everyone in this organization is going to get a chance to sit down and speak with me either individually or in groups. Once that's done, that's when I'm really going to start deciding where we're going to go moving forward.
But overall, I'm really impressed with the level of job knowledge and I'm really impressed with the level of dedication to this organization. I think that there are some people here, especially in the senior leadership, that have a really good skill set, and my job is going to be to make the best out of each one of those. You know, identify the strengths, identify the weaknesses, and really maximize those strengths, but improve the weaknesses and get everybody going in the same direction on the same vision. I think that’s going to be the biggest piece.
The other piece of that is, you know, one of my messages is that everyone really is going to get a clean slate with me. So, if you had a reputation of X, Y, and Z and if you did XYZ in the past, that's not going to carry over with me.
What's going to carry over with me is what you do while I'm here. I don’t know what the expectations were previously, but expectations moving forward will be very clear.
Knox News: You’ll be filling two, potentially three, deputy chief positions in the next year. Do you think about that as you’re going through the process to this point with that in the back of your mind?
Noel: So, I’m trying not to, but I’m human, I’m just going, to be honest. My plan as of right now is very deliberate in really learning about the department and evaluating the organization. ... When the time comes to select the deputy chiefs, we’re gonna have a deliberate process for that. So, we’re gonna give people — probably from lieutenant and above — and give them the opportunity to apply to see who’s interested.
Then I’m going to take that and whittle that down and interview people and make a selection.
Knox News: You’ve talked a lot about accountability for command staff. Looking at the deputy chiefs, two of those three positions are empty because those individuals ( Kenny Miller and Ron Green ) did not have accountability. Many people think that bleeds into the organization. How much of that are you thinking about?
Noel: I think I’ve set expectations from day one. ... I clearly laid out my vision of accountability for the command staff ...
Accountability isn’t just with discipline. Accountability really involves managing every level of the organization. So, it’s not just someone in my shop who needs direction. If we’re all a member of the same police department, it’s all our job to jump in. It’s the same way with internal communication ... it’s the responsibility of everyone in the command staff – the deputy chiefs and the captains and Assistant Chief Fortner – to make sure that message is delivered down in an effective way where everyone understands not just putting out an email.
(We need to) make sure everyone understands not only what we’re trying to do, but more importantly, why we’re trying to do certain things. ... I think it's really important that, especially our younger officers, really understand why we do we do certain things, because this is a team, right? We want people to feel like they’re a part of something and we’re not just up here making decisions on the fourth floor asking everyone below just to do them. ... I want to build that culture where we're effectively communicating at every level of the organization.
Knox News: What types of people and what types of specific characteristics are you looking for in deputy chiefs?
Noel: Good question. I’m still piecing that together. First of all, competency, looking for people that really understand the job. Job knowledge is something that’s very important. So if you're gonna be a deputy chief in this organization, you know, you have to understand not only your job but the jobs of the people underneath you and jobs and everyone around you as well.
I think humbleness is important, not that you'll find too much of that in here (laughs). But what I mean by that is someone who will place the organization and its members before themselves. I come from a place where leaders eat last, where we put everyone in the organization in front of us.
The integrity piece is something that’s really important. I think it goes hand-in-hand with accountability. We need to be able to hold each other accountable ... that word gets misused so much. (Accountability) not in a negative way, but in a positive way where it keeps everyone on track before we get to that bad thing. Just keep everybody moving in the same direction.
Knox News: You announced last week in an email to staff that captains and above will wear Class A uniforms from here on out. Can you talk about why that’s important?
Noel (wearing a Class A uniform): So, first of all, I think it's very important as the leaders of the organization that we wear this uniform every day so that the men and women of the organization know who their leaders are and you know, more importantly, that the public know who the leaders of the organization are as well.
So, today we had the Juneteenth parade and you notice every member, captain and above, who walked in that parade (were in) uniform with the deputy chiefs and myself. So, it's important that when we're either here when we’re inside this building, walking through the halls of this building or outside this building, that when people see us they can recognize that's a captain and that's a chief and they know who we are. I think that’s important.
Another piece that I think is really important is the leadership of this organization will always be ready while they’re working regardless of what their assignment is. You know, if something happens in our community, an active shooter or something else, that they’re able to go right out and be able to take charge of that incident and deal with other responding agencies, something big, (like a) mutual aid situation when we have other agencies come in when you’re in uniform you’re clearly identified is a leader in the organization and able to take charge.
I think the biggest piece is, you know, we’re the leaders and it is our job to represent this organization. Every day every time when we’re working wearing this uniform is probably the most obvious way to do that.
Knox News: I’m imagining the upper management and command weren’t wearing shorts and T-shirts.
Noel: They were wearing suits and ties. They were wearing something very professional. I want to be very deliberate here. This is not being done because I came in the door and said, ‘I cannot believe what these guys are wearing.’ It’s an image piece, right? And while we’re working, we will be representing the leadership of the police department and we’re all going to be wearing the same thing.
When you think about the deputy chiefs and the captains of the command staff of the organization, when I’m not there they’re representing my leadership. So, having them wear this is, to me, I thought, a very important cultural change.
Knox News: You also announced the internal affairs unit will report directly to Assistant Chief Mark Fortner. Many of these investigations have lagged for months.
Noel: (They’ve taken) an inordinate amount of time, yes.
Knox News: So is this to address that bottleneck, if it’s a bottleneck? Is it an administration issue with the city? Is it IA?
Noel: So (IA) was one of the pieces that reported directly to me in the old chain of command. So that means I’m responsible for the day-to-day supervision of that unit.
Well, you know, the reality is if you took a peek at my calendar ... my calendar is full pretty much from 8 a.m. until like, I got something tonight, so until like 8 p.m. It’s hard to keep up with me.
But there will be days when I have 12 hours and stuff where I'm literally going from thing to thing to thing to thing, while I have to force myself to drink water, eat a sandwich or even look at my phone. So, it’s not fair to the men and women of IA who need that immediate supervisor, right? That immediate supervisor’s not there.
So, the point of this was to assign the immediate supervisory role to Assistant Chief Fortner. Remember, that’s a new position, right? So, he didn’t really have a portfolio underneath him. So he’s the No. 2 in the organization but he didn’t really have a portfolio other than him being the assistant chief. So, having him with the day-to-day supervisory responsibility gives him a portfolio but more importantly it gives an immediate supervisor to the internal affairs unit that they can go to on an immediate basis and deal with problems.
And he’s tasked with getting it moving more quickly.
Knox News: Do you expect that to help?
Noel: I absolutely do, but I want to be clear with this: I don’t want to sacrifice timeliness for quality. Quality is very, very important. But we also want to get this stuff moving.
So you know, like for example, Chief Fortner is now going to have the time to sit down with IA and go through these cases and give them the immediate supervision that they need, the immediate direction that they need. And one of the roles of a supervisor, you’ve probably noticed in the paper, is sometimes you need your boss to get you stuff. Well, it’s hard for them to pick up the phone and get in touch with me and have my answer right away because I’m doing something like this (interview). Now they can go directly to Mark Fortner and get something done.
But I want to be very clear, that the final decision-making process in all disciplines still lies with me. I’m not abdicating that responsibility ... anything that’s still in the hopper is on me. You know, the buck stops right here. ... I think it’s a much more efficient management structure.
Knox News: Oftentimes these investigations get stuck in the Law Department. ... KPD will be done with its investigation and it’ll be months before it’s released. Is there anything you can do as chief to address that end of it?
Noel: ... So I’ll say this: I'm gonna be evaluating this process from start to finish and moving IA under Mark Fortner is just the first part of that.
Knox News: Are you already aware of some of those investigations or are you just going to read the file when you get the file and that'll be that?
Noel: So, that’s what I did over the weekend. I saw “Top Gun” and read internal affairs files. So, it was a fun weekend. So, I’m going back and reading old cases and cases I need to (act on) I’m going through now (so we) can start dispensing those cases as quickly (as we can) but we need to be fair to everyone involved to make sure we get it right.
Knox News: The Knoxville City Council approved an outside company to conduct a cultural climate survey of KPD. Has that been completed?
More on new police chief: Knoxville will take a culture survey at the police department as the new chief takes over
Noel: (21CP Solutions) has not started yet. It's a popular organization. I think we are pretty close to getting started with that. I've had some initial phone calls with them about the parameters and my vision for (the survey) ... they're putting all of that together right now.
They're looking at stuff like what I wanted to get out of the survey and what I wanted them to probe and then they get to come in and do that.
It is going to give me a great baseline. We keep talking about really improving the department. You have to know where you're at first before you just start fixing stuff.Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism
Connect with Tyler: Twitter | Email
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: New Police Chief Paul Noel lays out his vision and explains why he loves ride-alongs