Concerns raised over beating video (with videos)

Concerns raised over beating video (with videos)

March 3rd, 2013 by Yolanda Putman, Joan Garrett McClane and Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Washington Alternative student Tycuan Vaughn speaks with a Chattanooga police officer outside a gas station on Fourth Avenue.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Chattanooga police officer Tetzel Tillery, right, talks with Kadarius Johnson, left, and Tycuan Vaughn outside a gas station on Fourth Avenue.

Chattanooga police officer Tetzel Tillery, right, talks with...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

In the last few weeks schools have been talking about racial progress. Teachers told stories of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver.

The Emancipation Proclamation turned 150 years old, and the second inauguration of a black president was beamed into living rooms.

During Black History Month in February, students talked about sit-ins, beat-downs, fire hoses and Birmingham bombs. Every day at Howard High School, a student told a story over the loudspeaker of how many blacks throughout history had aimed high, regardless of race, Principal Paul Smith said.

But another message began echoing through the Chattanooga community last week that many fear will supplant positive messages to the city's black youth.

A video of two white Chattanooga police officers beating a black inmate armed with a knife at the Salvation Army surfaced during a lawsuit and sparked concern. About the same time, the Hamilton County sheriff's statement that many residents are fearful because of a black president shocked many people.

Some say these instances define Chattanooga's race relations. Others say they don't.

James Mapp, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said the recent actions could stir unrest and divisiveness between races rather than healing.

When police are seen beating a man even after his weapon has been taken away, when the highest-ranking safety official in the county says his constituents are afraid of black leadership, anger can easily take root.

"We thought we were over this, but we are not," Mapp said.

On Friday, Olivet Baptist Church pastor Kevin Adams praised Police Chief Bobby Dodd's handling of the case and said he hopes community members will bow their heads in prayer and spiritually defuse any strife.

"It really caused me to pray as pastor and call out people to pray. The atmosphere here is not good right now," he said. "That should be our response -- not to let it escalate to more tension and racism but to pray."

The 10-minute video footage of 37-year-old Adam Tatum's beating -- resulting in eight breaks in his legs -- haunts Adams.

"You look at the videotape, and you look at it with disbelief and tears," he said. "That's a human being."

State Rep. JoAnne Favors calls the sudden dissonance "heartbreaking" after seeing so much racism dissipate since she was a Howard student in the late 1950s.

"We are having to go back and focus on things that should have been resolved," she said.

Favors said she learned from her daughter about the video of Chattanooga police officers beating Tatum. At the Tennessee statehouse, other lawmakers shook their head when they heard about the sheriff's comments, she said.

Still, she thinks the video and the sheriff's statement don't paint an accurate picture of the region. There might be a few senseless people who don't want a black president, but the sentiment doesn't apply to many, she said.

"I have never heard this before," she said. "I didn't feel my safety was impacted when George Bush was in office because he was white. ... I wonder. Is anyone afraid of me because I am a black representative?"

White leaders, as well, were upset at the video.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said he was "disturbed" after seeing it.

"Who wouldn't be?"

He also said the city was "doing everything we can to see that that case is prosecuted."

Perceptions about race -- from whites and blacks -- often have their most open expression in Chattanooga's mostly black public housing communities.

Yet friction, even confrontation, is inevitable in neighborhoods known for their higher crime rate, gang activity or other trouble.

There, residents say they are frisked more, questioned more.

"Back in the day, police said they want to protect the people. Now people fear the police," said DeAngelo King, 41. "I stay out of the way. You can go to jail for anything."

Felix Vess, the Chattanooga Housing Authority chief of public safety, said that anytime images like that video are released, the overall image of police suffers.

Officers deal with confrontations every day without using brute force, he said while manning the East Lake Courts police precinct.

"We just have to continue to work with our residents to say, 'This is one incident. This is not the norm,'" said Vess.

The East Lake area has been the subject of a police saturation in recent weeks, with up to 50 officers at a time patrolling the area. That's well above the six or seven normally assigned to the neighborhood.

At times, relations between police and residents in the Westside and East Lake public housing complexes have soured to the point that dozens of residents filed complaints alleging abusive language and harassment. A suggestion was made to create a civilian review board for the police department.

Transquil Jenkins, 20, said he thinks police are apathetic about a population they see as troublemakers.

"I don't trust nobody unless it's family out here," he said, while leaning against a rail on his front porch in East Lake Courts.

Police hear gunfire but they have no urgency to stop violence. Race doesn't matter. Police, black and white, seem apathetic, said Jenkins.

"They see the crime and stand there and look at it. I think they're waiting to see if we're all going to kill ourselves because that's what's happening," said Jolandus Duncan.

Yet many residents appreciate police efforts to make neighborhoods safer and to discourage everything from drugs and violence to loitering and other nuisance problems.

Of the recent police saturation in East Lake, neighborhood association president Linda Richards said she hadn't heard any complaints from residents and thinks police can help bring change to the area.

"That's the Number 1 complaint, is there's not enough officers," she said.

It's unclear how much reaction to the video might affect the work of police officers.

"I don't know what the fallout is going to be from the video," said Dodd. "I hope it's that they trust us and know that we've done the right thing."

Officers Sean Emmer and Adam Cooley were fired. Both are appealing to get their jobs back, but Dodd said he doesn't trust them ever to interact with the public again.

It's possible Emmer and Cooley will face federal charges.

"I think the video is going to show an isolated incident where you have two officers who happen to be white officers and a suspect who is an African American. I mean, it's an isolated incident," Dodd said.

"We've taken every step possible to remedy the problem. It was unreasonable. It was excessive. It was a violation of our policy and we self-initiated the investigation. ... I think we've done all we can do."

Adams, who has spoken with Dodd, said the video damages efforts to build a better relationship with police officers. However, he supports how Dodd handled the incident.

"That's a big man. For him to come out and take the position that ... he considers it wrong, illegal. I applaud how the police department is handling it. It's questionable how some of these judicial things are going," Adams said.

A Hamilton County grand jury that viewed the video declined to indict Emmer and Cooley.

Following media reports about the video, one scene in East Lake Courts indicated business as usual between police and residents.

On Thursday, Chattanooga police officers Tetzel Tillery and Ernest Craw stopped a small group of youths walking near East 23rd Street on suspicion of truancy.

"You all need to be in school," said Craw. "There is too much going on out here. What are you doing, son?"

Tillery said he knows many in the community by name, so he doesn't expect problems because of the police beating shown on tape.

Fourteen-year-old Tycuan Vaughn objected to Tillery's perception of good relations between the community and police."You're cool," Tycuan said to Tillery. "But some of them stop you for no reason."