Nazis cost taxpayers $23,000; keeping the peace at Chattanooga rally required scores of officers

Nazis cost taxpayers $23,000; keeping the peace at Chattanooga rally required scores of officers

May 2nd, 2014 by Yolanda Putman and Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Police officers gather down the street from a rally held by the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement group Saturday, on the lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Before the first of a couple of dozen neo-Nazis stepped foot on the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn on Saturday, the crowd of police and sheriff's deputies rivaled the hundreds of protesters on hand.

There were officers on horseback, on bikes, sitting in parked patrol cars in alleys and some dressed in street clothes to blend in with the crowd. They brought in bomb-sniffing dogs, a SWAT team, hostage negotiators and multiple busloads of sheriff's officers.

Across the country, the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement has set off arrests and riots that have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage in some of the towns they visit.

None of that happened in Chattanooga. Yet the peace came at a price -- $23,000.

That's what it cost for hundreds of hours of overtime for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and Chattanooga Police Department.

That's about what it costs for one day of security at Riverbend, where thousands of people converge on the city's riverfront for the nine-day music festival. Before Friends of the Festival started to pay for security in 2013, taxpayers footed a $22,200-a-day bill for about 100 officers from the Chattanooga Police Department. (That figure doesn't include extra manpower from the sheriff's office, about 30 deputies.)

At Saturday's rally, the sheriff's office brought in deputies, corrections officers, school resource officers and investigators. They worked a total of 510 hours in overtime, costing around $14,000.

In the crowds across from the courthouse and along the streets, the Chattanooga Police Department kept hundreds of protesters in line. About 30 officers were in uniform and more than a dozen were in plainclothes -- 55 total. Still others were on call. Officials estimate those officers racked up overtime costs of $9,210.

At least three weeks before the largest neo-Nazi group in the country drove into town, the top safety officials from the county and city devised a plan to allow them to exercise their First Amendment rights yet still maintain control.

Police Lt. Mark Smeltzer said the layout of the rally was part of that strategy. The Nazi group in the center of the lawn, protesters on the sidewalk across the street, officers spread on both sides and more on call in case of emergency.

The attitude of the officers was also key. Within the police department, officers were instructed to encourage protesters to stay calm and not be incited by the jeers or hateful comments from the rally.

While the protesters' chants -- "Go home, Nazis," and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Nazi scum has got to go" -- drowned out the neo-Nazi message, no one was arrested for a disturbance. The single arrest within the crowd wasn't related to violence, but an outstanding warrant.

"Our focus was to keep the crowd calm and to encourage the counter-protesters to keep the peace," Smeltzer said.

That was the tone officers set when a group of black men followed the Nazis into Cherry Street after the rally. Officers tried to hold them back, but one man got close enough to spit on a Nazi garbed in a white T-shirt and jeans as he ran down the stairs. Instead of handcuffing the man, the officer pleaded: "Please, don't make me arrest you."

In the confusion, the Nazis walked through the front of the parking deck, unharmed.

Downtown rallies are usually low risk, with no sheriff security needed.

But there was a consensus that the neo-Nazi rally called for special precautions, said Sheriff Jim Hammond.

"There are expenses with anything like that which, unfortunately, taxpayers have to bear," he said. "But we felt like it went very well. There were no incidents to speak of, everyone got their say-so and their constitutional rights."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke agreed.

"I am so pleased this group has left our city. I am also extremely proud of the Chattanoogans who demonstrated their revulsion of this hateful group peacefully," Berke said. "More than anything, I am excited that our officers and the people of Chattanooga can go back to doing the important work they do every day."

However, Joe Rowe, executive committee member for the NAACP and an official monitor for the event, said there was room for improvement.

Berke should have been more visible to assure residents, especially blacks and immigrants, that the city was safe and well prepared for the Nazis' arrival, he said.

"He didn't tell us he had things under control," said Rowe. "That was a real disappointment."

He noted that the community united to plan alternative events to the rally. On Saturday, the Jazzanooga music festival was held at Bessie Smith Hall and the Unity Group hosted a prayer vigil, and on Friday former presidential candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson spoke at a rally at Olivet Baptist Church.

But because the mayor wasn't visible, Rowe said, some members of the black community will plan to provide their own security if another white supremacy group holds a public demonstration in the city.

"We have concluded at this point that we have to rely on each other to keep our community safe," he said.

Berke's senior adviser, Stacy Richardson, countered that the mayor met with several people preceding the rally to ensure them the police department had a plan in place to keep the city safe.

Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.