CPD wanted to fire Chattanooga police officer who drove city vehicle drunk, but he threatened to sue

Lt. Craig Joel

On an early February evening, records show, an influential Chattanooga police officer drove his city vehicle drunk, stumbled through a parking lot and got back behind the wheel before slumping over.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies responding to a 911 call on Feb. 2 in the Amigo's Restaurant off Highway 58 did not see Lt. Craig Joel in his car, test his blood alcohol content or arrest him for public intoxication. Instead, deputies held Joel in a cruiser and waited for his supervisors to show up. Later, one county deputy said her boss told her to leave Joel's name out of an incident report. A month later, the officer admitted he was "absolutely intoxicated" that day.

The Times Free Press obtained records showing the Chattanooga Police Department wanted to fire Joel after an internal affairs investigation. But Joel threatened to sue, arguing in an email that the incident was caused by a job-related post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, and officials delayed taking action and Joel eventually resigned.

Joel, a 21-year veteran who served as head of the police union and the city's police and fire pension board, was suspended with pay for two weeks after the incident and placed on modified duty. Over the next few months, internal affairs built a case and notified Joel on June 1 he faced a disciplinary hearing for unbecoming conduct, driving under the influence, improper procedure and lying to investigators about what happened.

That hearing never happened.

Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said it was scheduled for July, then rescheduled for Nov 8. But Joel resigned Nov. 7.

In a June 4 email, Joel told Starla Benjamin, the city's wellness and occupational health manager, that the February incident stemmed from job-related PTSD diagnosed by "a city-designated expert." Joel asked for an "indefinite delay" of his hearing and said he needed to finish verifying information for a medical disability pension. If fired, Joel wrote, he would have "absolutely no choice" but to sue.

"Please consider this a short-term (6-8 weeks) investment for a long term gain in avoiding ADA based litigation and associated press coverage of a PTSD diagnosed officer being fired," Joel wrote. "It costs nothing to pause the current hearing and I am out the door and out of your hair forever either way."

Benjamin did not return a request for comment Friday.

Joel's attorney, Lance Pope, the former second-in-command at the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office, said a city-recommended doctor based Joel's diagnosis on "multiple traumatic exposures" during his career. The pension board is reviewing Joel's application and has a hearing scheduled, said Pope, who declined further comment.

That hearing will likely happen next year and be closed to the public because confidential medical information will be discussed, a pension board representative said Friday.

On Feb. 2, surveillance footage released through a records request shows Joel pulling into the restaurant parking lot in his city vehicle, stumbling around and getting back behind the wheel. Records show someone called 911 around 6:50 p.m., concerned that a slumped-over man might try to drive.

In a March 12 interview with Chattanooga investigators, Joel admitted he was "absolutely intoxicated" after drinking with friends on a nearby boat. But Joel said he recalled walking from the boat to his car to get a Gatorade bottle. He said that's when he ran into county deputies.

By the time Deputy Charlene Choate arrived, two people had already helped Joel out of the vehicle. Choate said she didn't recognize Joel and handcuffed him. But her partner called their supervisor and word reached Chattanooga police. Deputies also found Joel's police badge and a handgun in Joel's car.

Three supervisors drove to the parking lot: Lt. Joe Primo, now assistant chief of investigations;Zach McCullough; and McCullough's predecessor, now-retired Edwin McPherson. In later internal affairs interviews, everyone said Chattanooga officials did not influence the deputies' decision not to arrest Joel.

Choate told Chattanooga Internal Affairs investigator Kevin Trussell she chose not to charge Joel with public intoxication.

"I was trying not to arrest him. Even people not in law enforcement, I try to work with them [on public intoxication]," she said. "And the fact I never saw him behind a wheel I just don't think a public intoxication charge would've helped him in his situation."

Trussell noted in his own interview that Chattanooga officers never called Internal Affairs from the scene. Records show Joel had a non-disciplinary meeting the Monday after the Friday incident with McCullough, McPherson and Tucker.

"My intention was to notify you all if the arrest was going to be effective," McPherson said in his interview with Trussell. "Now, all the information I got, I relayed back to my chain of command, which was [Deputy Chief Eric] Tucker."

McPherson said Tucker never told him to call Internal Affairs. In other interviews, Trussell questioned why an incident report didn't include Joel's name or other key details.

Choate said her superior in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Rick Jones, told her to leave it out.

"I was told not to put any name in there just because it was law enforcement," Choate said.

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