Westside group targets alleged Chattanooga police abuses

Westside group targets alleged Chattanooga police abuses

July 14th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman in News

Sgt. Craig Joel, second from left, speaks during a meeting with Westside residents at the Renaissance Presbyterian Church to discuss issues residents say they have with police.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Report abuse

Chattanooga Housing Authority officials say residents who feel they have been victims of police abuse should contact the CHA Public Safety Department at 423-752-4467 to file a complaint. Or they may contact the Chattanooga Police Department Internal Affairs Unit at 423-425-7300. Westside area residents may also contact Capt. Jeff Francis at 643-5042 or Lt. Corliss Cooper at 643-5434.

Source: CHA and Fraternal Order of Police

COMPLAINTS

Excessive force complaints investigated by the Chattanooga Police Department citywide:

2010: 17

2011: 16

2012: 21

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

TIMELINE

2002: Chattanooga Housing Authority followed housing officials in Memphis and became the second in the state to hire its own full-time police officers. CHA used an $860,000 HUD grant for drug elimination in public housing.

2005: CHA started installing 13 wireless digital cameras in College Hill to deter crime.

2007: CHA spent $392,000 to upgrade surveillance cameras at high-rises for the elderly.

2011: Sixty East Lake Courts residents and about 80 visitors signed a petition asking that three Chattanooga housing authority police be fired for harassing residents. CHA promised more training for police officers on communication with residents during encounters that are stressful to both the police and residents

2012: The Westside Community Association sends a letter to U.S. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking for an investigation of residents' claims of verbal and physical abuse by police on the College Hill Courts housing site.

Westside residents are forming what they call a "cops watch," a group dedicated not only to looking out for crime but also to watching out for verbal and physical abuse by police.

"Police have no kind of respect for us whatsoever," said College Hill Courts resident Joyce Hardwick. "They treat us like animals. When people see them, they run."

Westside Community Association members began organizing the watch this summer after Hardwick collected more than 100 signatures on a petition asking the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate alleged police abuse in College Hill Courts.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority owns and operates College Hill Courts, the largest public housing site in Chattanooga.

But police officials say they haven't heard an outcry of abuse claims from public housing residents.

The Chattanooga Police Department's Internal Affairs Division, which investigates complaints of police abuse, has received 21 complaints of police using excessive force this year, according to Capt. Susan Blaine. Only one complaint was from a public housing site, she said.

"It is not a problem of excessive force in the projects at all," said Blaine.

The Rev. Leroy Griffith, founding president of the Westside Community Association, said police don't hear as much about it because the residents are afraid to talk.

"The last people abused people will complain to are the police because they are afraid of them," he said. "They are afraid that if they complain they will be evicted. They are afraid they will be abused, and they're afraid they'll be incarcerated."

The residents are still figuring out how the cops watch will work but he knows it's needed.

"If nobody investigates it, nothing will be done to change it," Griffith said.

On Thursday, Sgt. Craig Joel, Fraternal Order of Police vice president, spoke with Westside residents. He said the fact that residents are organizing a cops watch tells him there is a problem.

"You guys wouldn't be upset. We wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation. I wouldn't be in this chair if there wasn't a problem," he said.

He defined excessive force as "anytime when the [law enforcement's response is above and beyond the amount of resistance being presented." He urged residents to speak candidly with officers about their concerns.

Several residents have complained that the exterior security cameras at College Hill Courts are either not working or are not being monitored, and that is abetting the alleged police abuse. Griffith outlined concerns about the cameras in a letter to CHA board Chairman Eddie Holmes. If the cameras are working, they would have recorded incidents of police abuse, residents say.

There are no broken cameras on the College Hill Courts site, said CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright. Depending on environmental elements -- primarily weather -- the digital cameras may not be working at optimal efficiency, she said, and because of that, cameras may not function as designed for short periods.

Local attorney Michael Raulston attended a Westside association meeting last month to advise group members on how to get evidence of inappropriate police behavior that could be used in court.

If residents see police abuse, they should call 911 and report it. They should record what they see with their cellphones if possible. An audio recording of an incident could be helpful if no video is available.

Residents can also write down what they see, making sure to document the time, date and location of the incident. The time, date and location also should be recorded with any audio or video equipment, he said.

Westside Community Association members say they are only organizing a cops watch among the residential sites on the Westside right now, but there has also been discussion of organizing a cops watch at other housing sites in the future.