A statement by Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond could set a policy tone that could expose the county to legal liability in future civil rights claims, local attorneys say.
"I think that was an ill-advised statement that might end up haunting them," said local attorney Robin Flores.
Speaking about gangs to the Brainerd Kiwanis Club, Hammond said, "We need to run them out of town, put them in jail or send them to the funeral home."
Attorney Hank Hill said lawyers likely will use Hammond's statement in court to show the mindset of sheriff's officers from the top down.
"I think it's relevant," he said.
Hammond has since repeated - and defended - the statement as being tough on crime. He has not commented specifically on whether there would be any fallout in court cases.
"Defense attorneys get paid to look after clients. I get paid to look after the citizens of Hamilton County," he said.
Some people applaud Hammond's observation about gangs, while others have a problem with the sheriff calling for anyone to die. Some say they hope he just chose the wrong words.
County Commissioner Greg Beck, whose district encompasses much of Chattanooga's urban core, said he hopes Hammond's words were just "bad timing and a bad choice of words."
"No preacher, no politician, no person should ever advocate a solution of death," Beck said.
Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said last week that Hammond's statement could cause more friction when city officers respond to gang crimes. City police deal with most of the gang problems in Hamilton County.
Beck, a former deputy sheriff, said most people don't draw a distinction between deputies and police officers.
"Anybody with a uniform and a gun is the same to them," he said.
Commissioner Chester Bankston said he thinks the sheriff had the right tone, even if his exact wording was off. And he said residents in his district in the northeast part of the county agree.
"Everybody's OK with it in my district," he said. "The only thing I think he should have done is say, 'They're going to wind up in the funeral home' rather than 'Send them to the funeral home.'"
Something needs to be done about rising gang violence, Bankston said, but he doesn't see it as a county issue.
"I personally think it's the city's problem, and I'm going to stay out of it," he said.
Commission Chairman Larry Henry also thinks Hammond chose the wrong words. Though residents haven't called him to complain, he said, he's discussed the sheriff's statement with people in the community.
"I've been in some different businesses and talked to some different people," he said. "They seem to be in agreement that the wording isn't exactly right."
Henry said he interpreted the sheriff's statement to mean, "If they continue in the gang environment, they're going to be killed. I don't think he was saying the officers would kill them."
Commissioner Mitch McClure, chairman of the commission's Security and Corrections Committee, has been involved in the violence task force steering committee since early last year.
He advocates a holistic approach to fighting gang problems, starting with recreation centers, churches and schools. He also wants changes to the state's sentencing laws to make them tougher on gang members.
"It's not something that happened overnight, and it's not something we'll fix overnight," he said.
Hammond said he supports preventive measures and hopes to begin placing school resource officers and off-duty uniformed officers in elementary schools next school year to mentor children. The sheriff's office provides deputies for the schools' resource officer program.
Commissioner Joe Graham said he hasn't received calls about the sheriff's stance. However, he has criticized plea deals and criminal punishments from prosecutors and judges.
"The [county] commission is going to begin reviewing those decisions in serious and repeat offender cases and identify those who irresponsibly reduce bonds and ridiculously return dangerous and repeat offenders back on the street," he wrote in a statement.