David Cook: Living in a jail without a gate

David Cook: Living in a jail without a gate

July 15th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

At the bottom of Poplar Street, just below the basketball courts where rainwater pools up on the uneven blacktop, residents in College Hill Courts hear the police coming before they see them.

Not because of squad car sirens. Because of brakes.

Coming down the hill, the brakes on squad cars make a distinct sound that residents say is unlike any other vehicle. So they've learned to keep an ear out. They listen, and then they respond. They stop talking. Hustle inside.

Often, they run.

Of all the stories I heard Wednesday night as I sat on the concrete steps outside Joyce Hardwick's apartment, talking with any and everyone who walked up, this story is the one that troubled me the most.

And the folks living in College Hill Courts, the public housing project on the Westside, can tell many troubling stories.

Folks being handcuffed, then slammed to the ground. Police creeping outside bedroom windows, listening. Opening front doors, smelling for pot smoke. Little kids running from - not to - police when trouble starts.

But their heightened, hyperalert reaction to cop car brakes was odd, almost post-traumatic. It's as if they feel like creatures, threatened.

"They cuss at us like we're animals," said Hardwick. "The police do what they want to out here."

"We might as well be wearing orange jumpsuits," said one resident.

Earlier this month, Hardwick - 45 and known around the projects as "Mama Joyce" - walked around College Hill Courts with a petition claiming officers with the Chattanooga Police Department and the Chattanooga Housing Authority act in brutal ways: verbal abuse, physical abuse, intimidation, harassment.

She got more than 100 signatures. She didn't walk far. It didn't take long.

"Less than an hour," said Hardwick.

She's now part of a larger effort that is attempting to train residents to use cellphone cameras, so that when - and if - police brutality happens, it's captured on film, downloaded and made public, a tactic that has been used within democratic movements in authoritarian countries and one that reminded at least one resident of the Rodney King story.

"Law enforcement would welcome the support and intervention by friends and family members in curbing the criminal activity in the neighborhood instead of interfering during the investigation and arrest once the crime has been committed," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd wrote in an email.

Dodd encouraged residents to contact his office or Internal Affairs if they have been mistreated, saying their complaints will be taken seriously. Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Chief Felix Vess did not offer a response.

College Hill Courts can be a dangerous place. Drugs, poverty and gangs are a three-headed monster. From Hardwick's front steps, you can see the bright red letters of the downtown Marriott Hotel not a half-mile away. But for these folks, it's like looking at the moon.

"We live in a jail without a gate," said one resident.

Perhaps some of these officers do, too.

Anger and rage come from fear, and patrolling a neighborhood where you're seen as the enemy could be a frightening thing. So the fear compounds. Officers can end up hating the people they're supposed to protect and serve.

Residents spoke about one officer in particular who used to work their neighborhood. He was kind, respectful, treated them with dignity. Didn't put up with junk, but didn't draw his weapon or handcuffs without good reason, either.

Residents felt respected, and then they acted with respect. They said he was a model, an example of how police officers should act.

Sounds as if he's a key to getting out of jail.