published Sunday, July 15th, 2012

David Cook: Living in a jail without a gate

At the bottom of Poplar Street, just below the basketball courts where rainwater pools up on the uneven blacktop, residents in College Hill Courts hear the police coming before they see them.

Not because of squad car sirens. Because of brakes.

Coming down the hill, the brakes on squad cars make a distinct sound that residents say is unlike any other vehicle. So they've learned to keep an ear out. They listen, and then they respond. They stop talking. Hustle inside.

Often, they run.

Of all the stories I heard Wednesday night as I sat on the concrete steps outside Joyce Hardwick's apartment, talking with any and everyone who walked up, this story is the one that troubled me the most.

And the folks living in College Hill Courts, the public housing project on the Westside, can tell many troubling stories.

Folks being handcuffed, then slammed to the ground. Police creeping outside bedroom windows, listening. Opening front doors, smelling for pot smoke. Little kids running from — not to — police when trouble starts.

But their heightened, hyperalert reaction to cop car brakes was odd, almost post-traumatic. It's as if they feel like creatures, threatened.

"They cuss at us like we're animals," said Hardwick. "The police do what they want to out here."

"We might as well be wearing orange jumpsuits," said one resident.

Earlier this month, Hardwick — 45 and known around the projects as "Mama Joyce" — walked around College Hill Courts with a petition claiming officers with the Chattanooga Police Department and the Chattanooga Housing Authority act in brutal ways: verbal abuse, physical abuse, intimidation, harassment.

She got more than 100 signatures. She didn't walk far. It didn't take long.

"Less than an hour," said Hardwick.

She's now part of a larger effort that is attempting to train residents to use cellphone cameras, so that when — and if — police brutality happens, it's captured on film, downloaded and made public, a tactic that has been used within democratic movements in authoritarian countries and one that reminded at least one resident of the Rodney King story.

"Law enforcement would welcome the support and intervention by friends and family members in curbing the criminal activity in the neighborhood instead of interfering during the investigation and arrest once the crime has been committed," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd wrote in an email.

Dodd encouraged residents to contact his office or Internal Affairs if they have been mistreated, saying their complaints will be taken seriously. Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Chief Felix Vess did not offer a response.

College Hill Courts can be a dangerous place. Drugs, poverty and gangs are a three-headed monster. From Hardwick's front steps, you can see the bright red letters of the downtown Marriott Hotel not a half-mile away. But for these folks, it's like looking at the moon.

"We live in a jail without a gate," said one resident.

Perhaps some of these officers do, too.

Anger and rage come from fear, and patrolling a neighborhood where you're seen as the enemy could be a frightening thing. So the fear compounds. Officers can end up hating the people they're supposed to protect and serve.

Residents spoke about one officer in particular who used to work their neighborhood. He was kind, respectful, treated them with dignity. Didn't put up with junk, but didn't draw his weapon or handcuffs without good reason, either.

Residents felt respected, and then they acted with respect. They said he was a model, an example of how police officers should act.

Sounds as if he's a key to getting out of jail.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.

Little kids running from — not to — police when trouble starts.

Law enforcement would welcome the support and intervention by friends and family members in curbing the criminal activity in the neighborhood instead of interfering during the investigation and arrest once the crime has been committed," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd wrote in an email.

I appreciate your bringing a voice to the less fortunate and I do not intend to diminish your efforts by my responce so I copied and pasted a few of your words to focus on with a suggestion that you do a follow up piece after a ride along with CPD to get the other side of the story. For I have found that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Little kids running from the POPO? Yes it's true. But does it come from what they see or what they are taught on the street? Do you realize that children are used as lookouts and mules for the drug trade? I witness the other side. When there is a violent act and someone comes to the ER the police are called. Year after year it goes something like this, " It was a light skinned dude in a dark color car, I didn't see who it was , I was sittin on my porch minding my own business, or some version of the same. Never see nothin then yell at the POPO when it's one of your own. They yell why don't you do any thing about this and that but refuse to give up a name. That is why I copied chief Dodd's comment. There is no help from the street. The cops are the enemy and crime runs amok. I hope your future article focuses on the programs and people of the CPD who are practically begging for help from these very people you met on your stroll through the court So we can find the truth somewhere in the middle

July 15, 2012 at 1:06 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Bullsh*t. Why don't these residents get as excited about the crime in their neighborhood and there wouldn't be any reason for the police to be there so often.

July 16, 2012 at 2:17 a.m.
davidcook said...

The ride-along is being planned. Thanks DJHBrainerd for this suggestion and any future ones.

July 16, 2012 at 7:14 a.m.
conservative said...

The inmates at College Hill must be hearing those police car brakes at or near daybreak when they have finally fallen asleep after a night of hollering, shouting, carousing, loud music, and gunfire, for all of this would surely drown out those brakes any other time.

July 16, 2012 at 9:18 a.m.
conservative said...

Well now, isn't this interesting, in a project ridden with crime, "Mama Joyce" Hardwick trains the residents to film the crime fighters instead of those who commit the crimes where she resides.

What is wrong with this filming?

July 17, 2012 at 7:33 p.m.
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