50 years after Ethel Beck’s death, policing issues remain | Opinion

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On a typical August evening, Ethel Beck answered a knock on her door. Two young men told her that something was amiss at her property in Mechanicsville, where she kept a few farm animals that included cows, goats and several chickens. Apparently, it was a ruse to get her away from her home, which was burglarized while she was gone.

Concerned, Mrs. Beck immediately left her home on Dandridge Avenue — now the site of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center — to investigate. Her property in Mechanicsville, near Knoxville College, was previously an orphanage that she operated with her late husband, James Beck. 

Finding nothing wrong, Mrs. Beck left the property for home. It was a fateful decision. She would never see her home again.  

En route, she encountered then-State Rep. Bob Booker, told him where she was going and why. He followed her. Beck and her husband were very prominent citizens in Knoxville’s Black community. Booker left Mechanicsville separately from Beck and became concerned when she did not return home in a reasonable amount of time. 

Unfortunately, Beck had an accident. At a stop sign where Western and Forrest avenues intersect, she ran her pickup truck into the rear of a car. The police were called. Finding the 75-year-old woman somewhat incoherent with slurred speech and dilated pupils, Lt. William Boyd claimed he detected a “strong smell of alcohol.” He and Officer Frank Shipley arrested her for drunken driving, saying she gave “every indication of being intoxicated.” 

She’d had a stroke, not a drink

But there was a problem with that claim: Beck was widely known as a teetotaler. She was booked into jail at approximately 9:20 p.m., charged with drunken driving. That was Sunday, Aug. 9, 50 years ago today. Around 1:30 a.m., she was found unresponsive in her cell. Apparently, the jailer tried to arouse Beck, who then began vomiting. At that point, she was taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed as having experienced a cerebral hemorrhage. She had suffered a stroke.  

Later, when detectives investigated the burglary of Beck’s home, they found no signs of alcohol on the premises. By the time of her diagnosis, there was little the doctors could do. Beck died three days later. 

There was an immediate uproar in the Black community. How could a pillar of our community be arrested for drunken driving when she was famously known for not consuming alcoholic beverages of any kind? How could she be left unattended in a jail cell, in need of medical attention for hours, until it was too late? Why do police assume the worst of possibilities when it comes to Black people? These were questions that Black citizens demanded to be answered — the same questions underpinning today’s Black Lives Matter movement.  

Answers wanted, changes demanded

In August 1970, I was in my eighth month of being a member of the Knoxville City Council, and I wanted answers. I still want answers. Black officeholders, civil rights organizations, the clergy and lawyers wanted answers. They demanded an investigation. And they demanded changes. 

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After several meetings across the community, four demands were presented to Knoxville City Council. They were: the establishment of a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police officers; that the arresting officers who claimed they smelled a “strong” odor of alcohol on Beck be suspended pending the completion of the investigation into their actions; that the drunken driving charges be dropped and a public apology be made; and that the Knoxville Police Department provide skilled medical attention when a person in custody shows signs of incoherence and an “altered sense of consciousness” at the time of their arrest. 

It took decades for a civilian review board to be established. The officers were never suspended or reprimanded. I am unaware of any apology being issued, although Mayor Leonard Rogers said he was open to the charges being dropped. Currently, there are discussions about the police department having access to both medical and social services providers, as needed.

Fifty years later, we are still wrestling with policing issues. The recently completed “use of force” review is a positive step. The legislatively removed police review board’s power of subpoena needs to be restored. Black Lives Matter. 

Dr. Theotis Robinson Jr. is a freelance writer, former Knoxville City Council member and retired vice president of equity and diversity at the University of Tennessee. He may be reached at thewriteone7@comcast.net.

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