Judge orders Chattanooga police officers Emmer, Cooley reinstated; both were fired in beating of inmate

Judge orders Chattanooga police officers Emmer, Cooley reinstated; both were fired in beating of inmate

September 27th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Document: Emmer and Cooley order

Emmer and Cooley order

POLL: Should the city appeal the decision restoring 2 police officers' jobs?

Officer Adam Cooley, from left, Officer Sean Emmer Chattanooga Police Department

It seemed like a slam-dunk case.

A federal inmate with two broken legs -- including a compound fracture with bone protruding through the skin. One video showing police officers raining down dozens of blows on him. Then two police officers fired over what the chief called their use of excessive force against halfway house inmate Adam Tatum.

But now an administrative law judge has ruled that former Chattanooga police Officers Sean Emmer and Adam Cooley should be reinstated with full back pay and benefits. The city should also pick up the tab for the three-day proceeding, the judge said.

They could be back on the job within weeks, despite Police Chief Bobby Dodd's concerns and Mayor Andy Berke's objections.

"I'm just stunned by the decision," said Dodd, who is meeting with city attorneys this morning. "We'll make a decision on how we're going to move forward from here."

The city has until Oct. 9 to file an appeal to the Secretary of State Administrative Procedures Division. The city also may appeal through Hamilton County Chancery Court.

Attorney Bryan Hoss, who represented Emmer, said the officers are ready to return to work and were just doing their jobs that night.

"I'm happy for these officers. Quite frankly, Mayor [Andy] Berke has been saying for weeks that we need more police officers out on the streets and I've got two right now who are willing to go back out there," Hoss said.

As part of her opinion, Judge Kim Summers wrote, "Certainly, the use of force and the injuries sustained by Mr. Tatum were not ideal but neither were they dictated by the conduct of officers Emmer and Cooley. As such, it would not be an acceptable ending to this situation to ruin the lives and careers of two otherwise unblemished and promising police officers who came across the path of Mr. Tatum only because he chose to violate his parole by taking cocaine, engaging in violent behavior, and disregarding lawful directives from law enforcement. It was Mr. Tatum, not officers Emmer and Cooley, who set in motion this very regrettable chain of events as well as the unfortunate, but avoidable, conclusion."

The incident happened June 14, 2012, as officers responded to a disorder call at the Salvation Army halfway house on McCallie Avenue. At the time, Tatum was completing a sentence for robbery.

Tatum, 37, initially had a knife even though officers did not immediately realize it. The officers used a stun gun and pepper spray before striking Tatum more than 40 times to subdue him.

"While the number of baton strikes may have been extraordinary, so was the level of Mr. Tatum's resistance," Summers wrote.

Video of the incident showed Tatum on the ground passively resisting, law enforcement experts testified at the hearing.

Tatum is unemployed and living off his family because he can't do any manual labor, said his attorney, Robin Flores. He is representing Tatum in a $50 million federal lawsuit against the city. A trial date has been set for 2015.

"It just looks like there's no common sense being applied to this. It really boggles the mind that an administrative law judge could look at that as perfectly acceptable behavior of a police officer or anybody," Flores said.

But Hoss said the officers "were responding to a bad situation."

"This judge heard over 20 hours of testimony and had a trial and found these officers did nothing wrong, but acted pursuant to policy," he said.

The officers were fired in November 2012. A Hamilton grand jury declined to indict them and federal investigators never filed charges against them.

Berke said in an emailed statement Thursday he is "extremely disappointed" with the judge's opinion.

"Any kind of misconduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the Chattanooga Police Department," he said.

Dodd has said he didn't trust the officers to interact with the public after Tatum's beating. If they return to the department, it's unclear where they will be assigned. Before the firing, they worked evenings in the downtown Bravo district.

One of the arguments made during the hearing was that the officers did not maliciously beat Tatum. Summers agreed in her order.

"Neither Officer Emmer nor Officer Cooley arrived at the Salvation Army facility with the intent to beat and injure Mr. Tatum but were only using their training and experience to resolve a very difficult and unexpected situation as quickly as possible. ... There were no allegations against the officers of any deliberate misconduct, only that the officers did not use good judgment and that their actions, under very trying circumstances, were not appropriate. However, even with the benefit of hindsight, no one has been able to offer a better approach for resolving the situation," Summers wrote.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com.