Leaders of the local ethnic Indian community expressed concern that reports about Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long’s arrest Saturday have unflatteringly stereotyped a large and diverse group.
“(The case) has nothing to do with the greater Indian community,” said Harshad Shah, owner of Hamilton Plastics in Chattanooga. “The entire Indian business community should not be connected with this activity.”
Mr. Shah referred to actions that prompted the FBI on Saturday to arrest the sheriff on federal bribery, money laundering and gun charges.
“It does not look good to target any ethnic group,” said Mr. Shah, who immigrated from India in 1974 and is a U.S. citizen. “Name the stores, name the business owners — but don’t smear a whole community.”
Law enforcement officials expressed similar views about how allegations of criminal activity by the sheriff affect public perception toward all officers.
“There is a cloud over the office,” Hamilton County Deputy Chief and acting Sheriff Allen Branum said. “This devastates a lot of people.”
Court documents show Mr. Long’s arrest was the result of an FBI undercover operations that included events at a Rossville Boulevard convenience store whose owner is Indian.
Federal agents said audio and video recordings show Sheriff Long receiving cash from the Chevron Food Market’s owner.
Peddapuli Rao, 44, who has operated the convenience store at 4510 Rossville Blvd. for six years, said he has done nothing wrong and that he runs a good business in a bad neighborhood. He said he contributed money to the sheriff’s campaign.
“The FBI came and I told them to check everything, that I’ve done nothing wrong,” Mr. Rao said Sunday afternoon. “I’m just trying to run my business. Is it illegal to make contributions to politicians’ campaigns?”
Mr. Rao said he installed bulletproof glass at the store’s checkout area after being critically wounded during a 2003 robbery. Today photographs of Mr. Rao with local officials — former mayor and now U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Mayor Ron Littlefield, Sheriff Long and others — are taped to the panes of thick glass.
“I like to have pictures of big people,” he said, adding that seeing him with locally elected officials might deter would-be robbers. “I have to protect myself.”
Sheila Boyington, a leader in the Indian community who owns Thinking Media and was named the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year for 2007, said some news reports were insensitive to the Indian community.
“The country has moved past black-white but not far enough along to get beyond all ethnic stereotypes,” she said. “It generalized far too broadly our community.”
There are 600 to 700 families of Indian origin living in Hamilton County, making it the area’s largest ethnic group after Hispanics, she said.
“We are part of this community and, like every community member, I am saddened to think one of our elected officials is engaged in activity like this,” Ms. Boyington said. “But any group can have a few bad apples.”