FEAR FACTOR: When race fuels fear, all lose

FEAR FACTOR: When race fuels fear, all lose

March 1st, 2013 in Opinion Times

What does it say about Chattanooga and Hamilton County that the sheriff here believes people have a heightened fear of crime because of Barack Obama's ethnicity?

In Sheriff Jim Hammond's words: "Part of it is [the] first black president. I mean we all see that. We may dance around it, but a lot of people are fearful of 'ah, this is going to ruin our country.' And part of it is because there is a general eroding of the moral, spiritual, legal balance that we have seen in our past generations here. So people are just more nervous, more upset about the unknown. Fear."

Sheriff Hammond, 69, is a long-time law enforcement officer who has trained police all over the world -- Haiti, Jordan, England, Germany and Russia. His charge was to train them in the democratic method of policing.

Perhaps he has heard and seen irrational fear based on ethnic and cultural differences so much and in so many places that he can describe it without even flinching.

But to most of us, the idea that people would fear crime more because we have a black president is incomprehensible. And simply repulsive.

So what are we to think when we learn of a black man savagely beaten by two white Chattanooga city police officers last June at the Salvation Army Halfway House?

On a surveillance video, the man, 37-year-old Adam Tatum, is taken down by Officer Sean Emmer just after the officer tells Tatum to put his hands behind his head. Almost immediately, Emmer places Tatum in a choke hold, spins him around and throws him to the ground.

Officers later said Tatum continued to resist arrest, but through much of the video, Tatum is on the ground trying to dodge blows. Officers scream at him to roll over on his belly, but rather than let him, they flail batons over and over unto his legs and torso.

The beating continues, off and on, for about seven agonizing minutes while more and more officers arrive to look on and occasionally join it to try to roll Tatum for handcuffing. By the time Tatum is handcuffed and taken outside, no fewer than a dozen officers are on the scene. He has been struck dozens and dozens of times.

Tatum suffered six fractures to his right leg and two fractures to his left leg, including a compound break -- basically all because he didn't roll over on his belly.

How many of us could roll over with eight breaks in our legs?

Police found a knife on Tatum, but only after the beating had begun.

Emmer and the second officer, Adam Cooley, were fired after a Chattanooga attorney wrote Police Chief Bobby Dodd telling him to preserve the surveillance video at the Salvation Army.

Dodd started an internal affairs investigation, terminated the officers and met with the district attorney. They decided the matter would be presented to the grand jury.

The grand jury declined to indict the officers.

What does that say?

Does it say the police officers had an irrational fear of Tatum because he's black?

Does it say the grand jury went easy on police because Tatum was black and they favor police?

Does it say the public should have an irrational fear of crime?

Frankly, anyone viewing this video should have a fear of irrational fear. And maybe a fear of overzealous police officers.

Watching the end of the video -- while Tatum sits handcuffed on the grass with two broken legs and an officer kicks him over onto his back just one more time for good measure as 10 or 12 other officers mill around -- one has to wonder about Chattanooga City Council candidates' constant call for "more police boots on the ground."

Not more of this kind. Not more officers with an irrational fear of a black man -- or a white, red, yellow or brown man -- with broken legs who can't roll over on his belly.

Irrational fear is irrational.

Perhaps, Chattanooga, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.