Editor’s Note: Tonya Jameson was an Observer staff writer from 1994-2009. She lives in Charlotte. This column first appeared in her blog.
I was putting my license plate on an Isuzu SUV that I bought on April 28 from a nice lady in Jefferson City, Tenn. when it happened.
I rented a one-way rental from Charlotte, to Morristown, Tenn., and took an unmarked taxi to the woman’s house on May 3. I talked to her the day before and told her that I would be coming to pick it up and she could remove her license plate because I had NC plates. The car was parked in the same spot in her driveway as it was the previous week when I purchased it from her.
After the cab dropped me off, I got the plate and my screwdriver out of the duffel bag to put my plates on. I was screwing in the license plate when I heard: “Hands up, I’m an off duty officer.”
I turned slowly with my hands up. I explained that I bought the car the previous week. He didn’t lower his gun. He’s the seller’s son-in-law, also a Knoxville cop, and lives across the street. He said he saw me get out of a car, which sped away.
It was a taxi, I explain. From where, he asks, still holding the gun on me. Morristown (about 20 minutes away), I reply.
He’s incredulous. I tell him the registration and bill of sale (signed by the woman) are in my duffel bag. I tell him the keys are in my pocket. He tells me not to move. I ask if I can put down the small screwdriver that I’m sweatily holding in the air. He says yes. I ask if I can put my hands down, and he says yes.
He’s still pointing his gun at me as he calls 911. He reports a suspected auto theft. He finishes the call and holsters his gun. I exhale and lean against the truck. He tells me to sit on the step beside the house.
I again invite him to check the registration in my bag. I share various details about his mother-in-law. He tells me he knew she was selling the car, but she didn’t tell him she’d sold it.
A Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy arrives. I’m thinking this should finally be over, and I can be on my way back to Charlotte. The off-duty cop tells his side of the story. I tell the deputy I have the registration in my bag. Does he check it? Nope. Does he run the plates? Nah. I offer him the signed bill of sale and keys. Not good enough.
He tells me to call the cab company and tell the taxi to return to the house. The dispatcher says “sorry honey,” but is willing to talk to the deputy. He doesn’t want to talk to her. He wants to talk the woman who sold me the car, which no one can reach by phone. She’s not home. She’s out cutting the grass on a hill, and she isn’t answering her cell. We’ve been over this already. No one can get her by phone.
I tell the deputy again that registration is in my bag, and it matches the VIN on the car. Or he can simply run the plates. He asks for the title. I tell him that I don’t have the title with me.
He asks if I have the phone number of the woman who sold me the car. Yes. He asks for her number. I read it to him from my phone. He compares it to the number on the bill of sale. It matched. (I’m not sure what that proved). He still doesn’t run the plate.
Since I was finally allowed to pick up my phone off the ground, I text a friend: “Cops here. They don’t believe I bought the car. Just stay on the line…gonna call.”
Finally, the off-duty cop gets the seller’s daughter on the phone. She confirms that the car was sold to someone in NC. Did I mention that the off-duty cop was the seller’s son-in-law, and knew she was selling the car?
They let me go with a weak apology, and the typical, “There’ve been a lot of burglaries in the area.”
The deputy thanks the off-duty cop, who’d held the gun on me.
All of that talk about police de-escalating situations hasn’t reached Jefferson County, Tenn. The Knoxville cop’s first inclination was to point a gun at me. I was kneeling down with my back turned to him screwing in a license plate. It was broad daylight. I wasn’t fleeing nor was I threatening him in any way. He could’ve just asked me what was I doing without drawing his gun first. Then instead of following common sense by simply running the plate, the Jefferson County deputy asks me a bunch of nonsense questions.
I filed a complaint with the Knoxville Police Department’s Internal Affairs regarding the officer who drew his gun on me. I talked to Jefferson County Sheriff G.W. “Bud” McCoig about how his deputy handled the call.
McCoig said his deputy acted appropriately despite not running my tag or looking at the registration (the deputy denied that I told him I had the registration). Since the deputy only stayed for 11 minutes, McCoig didn’t think it was a big deal. I explained that after one cop pulls a gun on you, and then the law enforcement officer who arrives won’t follow common sense and simply run the plate, but instead interrogates you, 11 minutes is an eternity.
I told him his officer created an even tenser encounter. McCoig was unsympathetic and concluded the conversation with, “I’m glad everything worked out and as far as I’m concerned this is closed.”
I’m waiting to hear back from the KPD’s Internal Affairs. They needed additional information from me today. I’m not sure what if anything I can do about the ineptitude at the Jefferson County Sheriff Department.
I do know that I’m thankful that I survived that day. I understand how easily a police encounter can escalate. Some cops are willing to draw guns first and ask questions later. It also showed me how they protect each other. We’re expected to be thankful they didn’t kill us, beat us or lock us up in the name of public safety.
The system isn’t set up to protect us. It’s set up to protect them when they abuse their power.