Community members are circulating a petition calling for Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond's resignation over his handling of a violent Dec. 3 arrest that federal authorities are investigating.
The sheriff rejected that suggestion Wednesday.
"Absolutely not, not over something like this," Hammond said. "The only time I would resign is if I was doing something illegal, unethical or immoral. My answer is, I'm letting the process work the way it's supposed to in this country. Any reservation on my part would be for health reasons or if I was caught doing something illegal, unethical or immoral."
Hammond's remark comes a day after Chattanooga NAACP President Elenora Woods invited him onto the stage at the county's annual Jubilee Day Celebration and applauded his handling of the Charles Toney Jr. arrest. Woods praised Hammond for promoting one of his few black deputies, Van Hinton, saying he moved quickly on her request to promote and recruit more people of color. She also noted Hammond answers her calls and that they've known one another for 20 years.
"Like I told others [who say] 'Why don't you ask him to step down?' Well, why would I ask [Hammond] to step down?" Woods asked during the event, which is often celebrated as the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. "He's got to fix it. He's the sheriff. Whatever happens in the Sheriff's Department, it rests on his shoulders. We send him away and it may be worse."
But some community members say relations with area law enforcement couldn't get much worse, and they believe Woods' comments normalize police brutality, lead to little change and disregard community members who've endured trauma.
"[In 2018], we had Diana Watt dragged out of her in car in District 8. We had Avery Gray's daughter, a 14-year-old child, dragged out of her mother's car. We've had people die in police and sheriff custody. We'd had these continual events, like Chris Penn [who was choked and stunned in the testicles by East Ridge police]. It's absurd to have this idea that somehow we've improved police relations," said Marie Mott, an activist and radio host on NoogaRadio 92.7 FM.
On Dec. 3, a bystander filmed part of an arrest in which detective Blake Kilpatrick manhandled Toney to the ground while handcuffed, then punched and kicked him. After the video went viral, Hammond placed Kilpatrick on desk duty and District Attorney Neal Pinkston asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. Hammond has since suspended Kilpatrick with pay, though community members, including the NAACP, believe he should be fired.
The Times Free Press previously reported Kilpatrick allegedly struck his ex-girlfriend in 2006, broke down his ex-wife's door in 2011 amid a divorce, was accused of striking an inmate in 2012 so hard that the inmate needed six head staples, and was sued for his involvement in the fatal 2017 shooting of Christopher Dalton Sexton.
"I believe the sheriff is as culpable for the assault on my client as Detective Blake Kilpatrick is," said national civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, who is representing Toney. "And any statement by community members in support of the sheriff despite his many failures - he is not deserving of praise, but additional scrutiny - is shameful."
A copy of the petition calling for Hammond's resignation was not immediately available, but Merritt said "many community members" have already signed off on it. Merritt helped spread the petition among grassroots supporters. Merritt did not say Wednesday how many people have signed off on the petition, but the Times Free Press spoke with three Toney advocates who support it.
Woods said the Chattanooga NAACP is not involved in that petition and is committed to working with Hammond and other law enforcement as long as they continue to listen. Woods maintained she wants Kilpatrick fired and said she is planning a protest for Jan. 23 and investigation through the NAACP's national headquarters. But the organization is being cautious, she added, because Kilpatrick has well-established legal rights as a government employee.
In the meantime, the DOJ is expected to give an update in the next 30 days on its investigation.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.