published Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Chattanooga courtroom tussle sparks Taser study

General Sessions Judge Christie Mahn Sell pressed her courtroom's panic button on Thursday when a melee broke out between an irate mentally ill defendant and officers.

On Tuesday, she pressed Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and the Hamilton County Commission's Safety and Corrections Committee about her fears that an inmate could grab a gun.

"I heard 'punch,' 'Call back-up!'" Sell said, describing what prompted her to press her panic button on Aug. 18. "All of the officers had guns. The officers were left wrestling with the defendant. ... Julie Jacks came to mind immediately."

Jacks was a Chattanooga Police Department officer who was killed in 2002 with her own service weapon while pursuing an inmate who had been taken for a mental evaluation.

Sell asked Hammond whether Tasers could be used as a method of subduing physical aggression in courtrooms.

"Everyone is on board and everyone does think that it would be good for officers to have Tasers," Sell said.

Hammond said he would canvass other Criminal Court judges and prepare a feasibility study for introducing stun guns, which could cost about $1,200 apiece and require extensive training.

"If we can make it happen, we will make it happen," Hammond said. "[Tasers] do prevent a lot of injuries."

The committee also discussed a letter from Chief Magistrate Larry Ables to Hammond that led to heated discussion about complaint protocol in last week's County Commission meeting.

In the commission meeting, Commissioners Greg Beck and Joe Graham complained -- sometimes loudly -- that Ables should have had a discussion with the sheriff or the committee before coming to the full commission.

Committee Chairman Mitch McClure laid the ground rules Tuesday for the discussion.

"We want to deal with the issues and not the emotions today," the District 3 commissioner said.

Ables described what he saw as a staffing shortage in the booking area of the county jail, with a few corrections officers working many shifts. Ables' letter said he noticed times in which only three to five officers would be on duty when the state suggested nine to 11 officers.

Hammond said he investigated the issue after receiving Ables' letter and began pressuring more officers to work overtime, reducing the burden on the few officers who accepted extra shifts on a regular basis.

Hammond said he surveyed staffing in other sheriff's departments in counties of comparable size.

"We're probably in a little better shape than some of them," he said.

The state has been lenient about staffing requirements, refusing to set a range for the number of required corrections officers at any given time, Hammond said.

"It's a beast I wish I could cure, and I could cure it with a big check," Hammond said, adding that he knew that's not possible in the current bad economy.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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