Hamilton County pastors, concerned residents call on district attorney to remove sheriff from power

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Westside Baptist Senior Pastor Tim Careathers reads a prepared statement to the media on the steps of the Hamilton County Chattanooga Courts Building at noon Monday. Area pastors and ministers called for District Attorney Neal Pinkston to remove Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond from office and prosecute two deputies. K.D. Mckenzie, directly behind Careathers, and Kevin Muhammad, right, stand with nearly 30 others.

A group of Hamilton County pastors and concerned residents are calling on District Attorney Neal Pinkston to oust Sheriff Jim Hammond and prosecute two of his deputies seen on camera punching, kneeing and allegedly conducting a body-cavity search on a handcuffed man on the side of a road.

Westside Baptist Church Senior Pastor Tim Careathers stood behind a podium on the steps of the Hamilton County Chattanooga Courts Building, where Pinkston works, to demand the actions after a failed attempt to get the sheriff to resign last month. More than 25 supporters stood around the pastor under the building's protective cover on a rainy Monday afternoon.

"We called for the resignation of Sheriff Jim Hammond and the termination of deputies Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer. We considered our original demand a reasonable one," Careathers said. "Sheriff Hammond gave a type of cynical, dismissive, unconcerned rebuttal to our concerns."

The sheriff reiterated Monday afternoon that he will not resign.

"Sheriff Hammond's position on this issue remains the same: he will not resign," Chief Deputy Austin Garrett wrote in an email. "As this remains an open investigation, both external and internal, he has no further comment at this time."

Now, the group is hoping Pinkston will remove the sheriff from office for his alleged "refusal to control his officers and protect the people."

The all-black group and supporters believe Pinkston can be their champion. He was the first white recipient of the local NAACP's Thurgood Marshall Award in the area of law enforcement for civil rights and community activism, they noted.

"Mr. Pinkston, you have shown bold leadership," Careathers said, noting the district attorney's work to curb gang violence.

The district attorney does have the power to remove the sheriff from office, according to Robin Roberts, executive director of the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service at the Institute for Public Service. Under Article 7, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution - which the group is using to argue its side - county officers are to be removed from office for malfeasance or neglect of duty. However, it's not likely to happen in this instance, Roberts said.

"[The district attorney] can investigate it, but he has to make the call whether or not something has reached that level," he said. "Normally, they're not going to do it unless there's a felony charge against him."

Pinkston's office had not returned a request for comment by mid-afternoon Monday.

The group pointed to a number of instances dating back more than a quarter-century that they believe demonstrate a lack of leadership at the department and unfair treatment toward black residents.

There was the choking death of Larry Powell in 1993 by five law enforcement personnel who were later exonerated by a local grand jury; the in-custody death of Devonte Allison in 2018; what the group terms deplorable conditions and treatment at the county jail under Hammond's authority; the 2018 beating of Charles Toney by detective Blake Kilpatrick while Toney was handcuffed; and the alleged roadside cavity search earlier this year.

Careathers also mentioned 2012 comments by Hammond in which he stated the following about youth involved in gang activity: "We need to run them out of town, put them in jail or send them to the funeral home."

The sheriff stood by the comment and said he received overwhelming support for the words.

Hammond has been sheriff since 2008. Before that, he spent 15 years as chief deputy. He will retire at the end of his term in 2022, he said. Garrett announced he will run as Hammond's replacement.

If ousted, he would be the second consecutive Hamilton County sheriff to leave office before the end of his term. Former Sheriff Billy Long resigned before pleading guilty to federal gun, drug, extortion and money laundering charges.

The group calling for Hammond to be removed from office sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee earlier this month asking for a meeting to find ways to "bring about changes" to address alleged law enforcement brutality. The group has not heard back from Lee, but his press secretary, Laine Arnold, later said that "with review of the independent investigation still ongoing, we feel it would be inappropriate to weigh in at this time."

"It shows to me a disrespect of this group," said Paul E. McDaniel, a former Hamilton County commissioner and pastor emeritus at Second Missionary Baptist Church. "He came here when he was running for election ... asking for support, but when a letter goes to him asking for his support, he is silent."

Contact Mark Pace with questions, comments, concerns or story tips at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.