Local watchdog group finds red flags concerning Chattanooga police chief finalists

The backgrounds of Chattanooga's three finalists for police chief demonstrate the need for a civilian oversight group to hold law enforcement accountable, a local watchdog group said Tuesday.

Todd Chamberlain, a Los Angeles Police Department captain with 33 years of experience, told a black officer who wanted to report his colleagues for racist behavior he would not file a complaint, according to a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Chattanooga officer Edwin McPherson, though ultimately not disciplined, was investigated for perjury in 2012 after he allegedly lied on the witness stand about evidence in a murder case that involved his niece.

And David Roddy, Chattanooga's acting police chief, has advocated for more police surveillance and militarization through the purchase of assault weapons and body armor, according to Concerned Citizens for Justice. In his current role, Roddy has helped lead several data and technology-driven police programs.

photo Todd Chamberlain

Roddy and McPherson declined to comment Tuesday. An LAPD spokeswoman said Chamberlain is on vacation and couldn't be reached.

Concerned Citizens, a social justice group, said each finalist's background highlights the need for an effective civilian oversight board with "subpoena, investigatory and disciplinary power" to hold law enforcement accountable.

The group unearthed a discrimination lawsuit filed by a black LAPD officer who said he experienced humiliating pranks and harassment while Chamberlain was his superior. The lawsuit resulted in a $1.2 million jury verdict in 2011 for the officer, Earl Wright.

Chamberlain failed to discipline an officer for placing a piece of fried chicken and a slice of watermelon on a cake supposed to honor Wright's 20th anniversary with the LAPD, the lawsuit states. The same officer also sent Wright a text message with a photo of a yellow duckling with its arms raised above its head, standing in front of five black ducklings with the caption "sup n - - ," the lawsuit claims.

Wright said he complained to Chamberlain about the officer's actions, the lawsuit says, but Chamberlain told him he would not open a formal complaint.

Months later, Chamberlain allegedly spoke during an officers' meeting and said some would be working overtime for the Christmas holidays. Wright said Chamberlain told them he did not want officers "hiding out at 7-Eleven drinking watermelon slurpees," which Wright took to be a racial comment.

Though Chamberlain could not be reached for comment, news accounts show Los Angeles city attorneys tried to portray Wright as a willing participant in the jokes.

Concerned Citizens also pointed out McPherson was charged with untruthfulness in an internal police investigation for intervening in a 2010 case in which detectives believed his niece was a suspect.

photo Edwin McPherson

During a 2010 homicide investigation, McPherson ordered an investigator not to collect a cellphone as evidence, according to a copy of the internal affairs report obtained by the Times Free Press. Defense attorneys said the phone could have showed McPherson's niece was involved in setting up the robbery when they filed for dismissal in March 2012 on behalf of the four defendants.

Unjoole Moore and Harold Butler Jr. are now serving life sentences after being convicted at trial; John Simpson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 25-year deal; and the fourth defendant, Steven Ballou, had his charges dismissed but was convicted in 2013 for attempted burglary and robbery charges.

McPherson testified in April 2012 that he had no recollection of giving that cellphone order, but his internal affairs report concluded there was "creditable [sic] evidence" to the contrary.

The report recommended one count of untruthfulness against McPherson, and Deputy Chief Tommy Kennedy emailed then-police Chief Bobby Dodd on Aug. 6, 2012, saying he agreed with assistant chief Kirk Eidson to sustain the allegation.

Then the department's five chiefs changed course and overturned that finding during a disciplinary hearing later that fall. McPherson was never prosecuted for perjury. Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, then an assistant prosecutor on the case, declined to comment Tuesday, as did Dodd.

Concerned Citizens' request comes in the middle of a national dialogue about the effectiveness of criminal justice systems, the need for community policing, and whether law enforcement departments nationwide are open to civilians investigating complaints against officers.

Though people may be quick to imagine scenarios such as a fatal officer-involved shooting that never gets prosecuted, civilian oversight boards often deal with smaller complaints, said Liana Perez, director of operations at the National Association of Police Oversight of Law Enforcement.

"The rudeness, the attitudes, the lack of follow-up, the customer service type of complaints create the mistrust between the officers and the community," Perez said. "And that's where the oversight board can set in, because you can look at systemic issues and patterns and trends and hopefully it allows you to make recommendations to law enforcement."

photo David Roddy

The Chattanooga Police Department declined to comment on the development of such an oversight group, but a spokesperson did point to two internal programs that encourage communication between officers and civilians.

Community members can learn about the department and help officers with recruiting twice a year during the Citizens Police Academy. The next one starts in September and is free.

Before former police Chief Fred Fletcher stepped down earlier this month, a committee that included officers and civilian leaders from neighborhood associations and companies such as BlueCross BlueShield would meet every other week to review new policies and procedures, spokesman Rob Simmons said.

"They redid our promotions process so it's not a 'good ole boy' process anymore," said Simmons, who once served on the committee for a year and a half. "And Fletcher is the one who created that."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at 423-757-6731 or egienapp@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at 423-757-6347 or zpeterson@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.