Knoxville's Green knows controversy

Deputy chief is Durham finalist

Staff WriterJune 16, 2007 

  • "I worked a vehicular homicide around the University of Tennessee. We had two young girls ... they were leaving at 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. from having been studying or working. They were coming across Cameron Avenue where there are lots of bars. ... A vehicle comes over and kills both of them and flees the scene. Luckily, one of the individuals close by also was able to follow the car and ... it turns out it was an 18-year-old high school student who had been drinking all day. They got him on two counts of second-degree murder instead of vehicular homicide.

    "We were able to do something that at least brought some resolution to the family. ... One of the child's ... mother, even years afterwards, set the dinner table for her daughter. Christmas would come and she would buy her presents. ... It was just so hard for her to let go."

  • *To learn more about Jose Lopez Jr., the candidate from Hartford, Conn., and Ron Hodge, the internal candidate from Durham, go to newsobserver.com/news.

    *A decision is expected by mid-July, according to city spokeswoman Beverly Thompson.

It's hard not to talk about the Duke lacrosse scandal when you're trying out for the job of Durham's next police chief. Especially for Knoxville, Tenn., Deputy Police Chief William "Don" Green.

Today, white supremacists will travel to his city to protest the district attorney and media's refusal to label as a hate crime the brutal January murder of a white couple in which five black men and women are accused.

Protesters in Knoxville will talk about how the sexual assault allegations against Duke lacrosse players made national news -- when the supposed victim was black and the accused were white.

"Rather than just dealing with the crime itself, there are those that have their own agenda apparently," said Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols.

That refrain might resonate in Durham. Like Bull City boosters, Knoxville leaders would rather focus on their city's reputation as the home of Tennessee's flagship university in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, where a growing high-tech community is feeding a downtown renaissance.

And when Green, a 28-year veteran with the Knoxville Police Department known for his candor, talks about the Knoxville case, he focuses on the stellar work he says his force did. Detectives started a missing persons case. They lifted a single fingerprint to find the two bodies and made arrests in 48 hours, he said.

Green, 50, is one of three finalists to replace retiring Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers. The other two are Jose Lopez Jr., an assistant police chief in Hartford, Conn., and Ron Hodge, a deputy police chief in Durham.

Green is prone to short, succinct answers without a salesman's pitch.

He points to his experience mending community ties after four deaths of people in police custody during six months in the late 1990s.

State investigators looked into them, and Nichols, the district attorney, said none warranted criminal charges. Still, the community lost some faith in its officers.

Green helped restore it, said Carol Scott, executive director of the Police Advisory and Review Committee.

The city formed the committee in 1998 after the deaths so Knoxville residents could lodge complaints with a third party.

It wasn't popular with the officers, said Green, who was a lieutenant overseeing 82 officers in one of the department's patrol districts at the time.

"Nobody likes oversight," he said, because the implication was that they couldn't be trusted.

Nevertheless, Scott said Green recognized the committee's usefulness and always cooperated.

Since then, relations have improved, said Bob Davis, a member of Citizens Police Review, another watchdog group formed after the 1998 deaths.

Davis calls the relationship a "warm Cold War."

Career change

Thirty years ago, Green took a break from studying psychology at the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1977 and became one of five officers in a small police department in South Fulton, Tenn. He had no police training.

Police work agreed with him, and he went to the Knoxville department 2 1/2 years later. He's been there ever since, working his way up while finishing his degree and then completing a master's degree in criminal justice systems application in 1987 at UT-Chattanooga.

"I enjoyed the interaction with people and the public," he said.

He worked on patrol; in the jail; headed several departments, including the SWAT team-like Special Operation Squad; and coordinated the department's public housing policy program. As one of several deputy chiefs, he assumes the chief's role during absences and heads the support services division, which includes making sure the department has up-to-date weapons and technology. He also has training and recruiting responsibilities.

Training has changed as officers have gotten more tools: computers to file reports, in-car cameras, stun guns and sprays to immobilize subjects in less dangerous ways. Green keeps up with those changes and makes sure officers are, too.

Green's philosophy is to be as transparent as possible without compromising an investigation. In leadership roles, he said he tends to trust officers to do their jobs until they prove him wrong.

"I've got nothing to hide," he said, "That was the way I shared it for the officers who worked for me: As long as you are doing the right thing, you don't have anything to worry about."

Complaints unfounded

In the 1980s, four citizen complaints were filed with Internal Affairs against Green, though all were investigated and determined to be unfounded, said Darrell DeBusk, public information officer with the Knoxville Police Department.

Two were for alleged physical abuse, one was for not informing an arrested person of his charges, allowing a phone call or to post bond; and another was for false arrest.

Green recounted details of the complaints and said in the last case he may have reported it himself because he got into an argument with a man pulled over for DWI. They wrestled, and the arrestee was struck in the head and needed stitches.

DeBusk said it's rare for a career police officer not to get complaints. In 2005, the office investigated 33 complaints, 10 of which were found to be true.

"If you are an officer, you are going to have people complain against you," he said.

While Green might value transparency, he does worry his candor can come out harshly.

"My biggest weakness is sometimes I lack tact," he said. But he treats people as he would want to be treated.

Scott said that means that his word is his bond.

"He's straight up," she said. "Don't ask him something if you don't want the truth."

Green was passed over for chief in 2004. Instead, an outsider got the job, former FBI agent Sterling Owen. Through a spokesman, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam said he would not comment on why Green was passed over for chief, though he was a finalist.

Davis of the Citizens Police Review said he was happy with Owen and hiring an outsider to shake things up.

Now Green, whose twin brother lives in Wilmington, has pending applications for jobs in Raleigh and Durham.

Green enjoys the Triangle, he said, and he's ready to be a chief.

Staff writer Jessica Rocha can be reached at 932-2008 or jessica.rocha@newsobserver.com.

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