Concerns rose among Chattanooga citizen groups Friday as the city weighed whether to appeal an administrative law judge's decision ordering the rehiring of two police officers fired over accusations that they used excessive force.
"They don't need to be back on the street," said Ash-Lee Henderson, a Concerned Citizens for Justice member, who has helped collect more than 450 signatures on a petition encouraging an appeal. "People were in shock."
Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd, who said he had received more than 200 emails supporting an appeal, said he shares their concerns and stands by his decision to terminate the officers.
"I think [their actions were] abusive ... and if I had the same decision to make tomorrow, I would terminate them again," he said.
The fired officers, Sean Emmer and Adam Cooley, could be back in uniform in a matter of weeks.
Judge Kim Summers said in her 30-page opinion that the officers acted according to their training to subdue a federal inmate on June 14, 2012.
Adam Tatum was serving a robbery sentence when he caused a disorder at the Salvation Army halfway house on McCallie Avenue over a drug test. Tatum kicked a door, brandished a knife and at some point ingested cocaine, according to reports.
Responding officers struck Tatum more than 40 times with a baton. He also was shocked with a Taser, sprayed with Mace and punched in the face a number of times before he was handcuffed. After he was handcuffed and sitting outside, he was kicked over.
Tatum's injuries included multiple breaks to both legs, including a compound fracture.
More than a dozen officers responded to the call, but police administrators said Emmer's and Cooley's acts were excessive.
"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," Summers wrote.
Dodd said that in most disciplinary cases appealed outside the department, judges normally reduce the punishment. In this case, the officers were absolved of any wrongdoing. They are to be reinstated with full benefits and back pay, Summers ordered.
The local chapter of the NAACP issued a statement saying that the opinion "sets a dangerous precedent that this type of force is part of acceptable training and public interaction procedures." The statement said people's safety and welfare could be jeopardized if they have to interact "with the officers in question."
Dodd said he plans to do everything in his power to ensure Emmer and Cooley don't go back on the street, and if possible, won't return to the department.
"I will not subject the public to having to deal with these officers day to day. Or subject anybody in the public to the actions these officers have taken in the past. Especially if these officers have been punished and this judge told them they did nothing wrong and it was acceptable," Dodd said. "That really concerns me."
"This is on full video and audio," Dodd continued. "You don't have to take anybody's word for it. You can watch it in living color. Even with that kind of proof you have somebody make the decision that this was completely appropriate."
A source close to Adam Tatum, who declined to be named out of fear of retaliation, said the family is having a hard time processing the ruling.
"How do you explain to your kids that a cruel act such as this goes unpunished? This is a great injustice and I am personally heartbroken and devastated," the woman said.
Henderson encourages people to attend Tuesday's City Council meeting to support an appeal. There's often a fear of retaliation from the city or police when people do make a complaint, she said.
"I think what people do feel is they don't feel valued. I think folks are fighting to feel valued and are willing to participate," she said.
The city has until Oct. 9 to submit an appeal to the Administrative Procedures Division. They can also submit an appeal through Hamilton County Chancery Court.
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.