Fired Chattanooga police officer had earlier complaints of excessive force

Fired Chattanooga police officer had earlier complaints of excessive force

November 13th, 2012 by Beth Burger in News

Officer Sean Emmer Chattanooga Police Department

Personnel records show one of the Chattanooga police officers fired after a man he arrested suffered severe injuries to his legs already had been flagged by a couple complaints of excessive force.

Officer Sean Emmer is one of two officers who was fired last week after a disciplinary hearing. Having worked for the department since 2008, Emmer had prior complaints -- none of which was upheld by internal investigations at the police department.

Officers are automatically flagged in the department's system if they get two or more administrative complaints, two or more citizen complaints or have five or more use-of-force incidents. Supervisors review the complaints to determine if there is an issue.

Emmer has been flagged several times, said Capt. Susan Blaine, who oversees internal affairs.

In a June case, Emmer reportedly punched a drunken man, Richard McPeek, twice while arresting him for disorderly conduct.

"It is difficult to understand why it was necessary to hit Mr. McPeek twice in the face when the only charges on Mr. McPeek are public intoxication," writes Blaine. "I also find it questionable as to why Officer Emmer felt he had to immediately punch Mr. McPeek twice in the face when there were three other officers right there with him. It seems four officers should have been able to arrest one extremely intoxicated individual."

Investigators ultimately decided there wasn't enough evidence to rule either way in the complaint, according to the report, but Emmer's arrest report and use of force report showed inconsistencies.

"I am concerned about the number of use of force reports but only monitoring it at this time," one supervisor writes in an evaluation dated April 2011.

Emmer could not be reached for comment Monday.

He worked in the downtown area during the midnight shift, where he routinely answered calls at bars where people sometimes resisted arrest. Officers who work in areas that average higher numbers of arrests and response calls often have more incidents on their records, said police Chief Bobby Dodd.

In July, Emmer responded to the Salvation Army on McCallie Avenue after a federal inmate, Adam Tatum, was kicking the door of an office at the facility. Federal inmates are sometimes housed at Salvation Army.

Tatum was armed with a knife, and Officers Emmer and Adam Cooley were among the officers who responded. An arrest report states the officers were "in fear for their lives after Mr. Tatum was not feeling any pain."

By the time Tatum was taken into custody, he had suffered severe injuries to his legs, including a compound fracture, said his defense attorney, Robin Flores.

Cooley, who is described as a model officer in reviews, was also let go last week after administrators reviewed the video of the arrest.

"This decision I made wasn't to demonize the officers," said Dodd. "I don't know them personally. I'm told they're good people by all accounts. It's not about them personally. It's about what they did that day in that one incident. Sometimes there are things so bad you can't continue to be a police officer."

Tatum was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, five counts of assault and possession of marijuana. He is serving a consecutive 11-month 29-day sentence for the assault charges in Silverdale Detention Facility, said Flores, who said he plans to appeal the case.

"When [the department] does take proactive action, it's when the evidence is overwhelming," said Flores, who said the department does not routinely take enough action against officers.

Since November 2010, there have been 45 incidents of excessive force investigated by the Chattanooga Police Department. Of those, three cases remain open, including Tatum's. Two complaints were found to be sustained, but a vast majority of officers are exonerated, which means the department found their actions were justified.

"The facts of the case are the facts of the case," Dodd said in response to Flores' accusation. "I'm not going to make up details to defend them or make up details to punish them."

After the incident at the Salvation Army, Blaine called a meeting in late August with the department's use-of-force expert and district supervisors to evaluate the pattern of complaints and review the video.

After Dodd observed the video, Emmer and Cooley were put on light duty and taken off patrol. Cooley had one prior complaint which was unfounded.

Cooley was credited with helping to close 807 Fire and Ice, a nightclub on Market Street that had numerous complaints of assaults last year. In his review of Cooley, a supervisor said he "is an outstanding officer who has a bright future at our department."

Cooley declined to comment Monday.

Dodd said neither officer had a bad record with the department but added that it was a unanimous decision to let the officers go.

"I can't release them back to the public and explain it," he said. "In my mind, it can't be justified."

The department has not released the video that captured Tatum's arrest or any reports because a third officer is being investigated and the FBI is reviewing the case for any potential criminal charges. When the investigation is wrapped up, the information will be made available, Dodd said.

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