Three cases of alleged police brutality have roiled Hamilton County over the last three months. But a common thread among all of them - video - has raised questions about access, storage, and the way some pieces of footage slip through the cracks in law enforcement agencies.
Since late November, video has shown:
- East Ridge police officers choking a 27-year-old black man and stunning him in the testicles during an October arrest for misusing 911.
- A Hamilton County Sheriff's Office detective punching and kicking a handcuffed 25-year-old black man during a December arrest for outstanding drug charges.
- And a Chattanooga Police Department officer punching a 37-year-old black man who didn't appear to resist during a March 2018 traffic stop that became public this month.
Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston has already dismissed criminal charges against defendants in two of these cases and a third is still pending. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are probing the sheriff's office arrest and Chattanooga police arrest, respectively, for possible criminal indictments against the officers.
But area leaders this week had an equally greater concern, particularly in the March 2018 incident involving officer Benjamin Piazza and motorist Fredrico Wolfe: Who sees these videos? And how are they reported and then investigated within law enforcement agencies?
The answer, experts said, is a little complicated since body cameras are a relatively new tool that departments nationwide are still learning to use for accountability.
"One of the things that makes this challenging is it can be difficult to distinguish intentional misconduct from incompetence due to time constraints and other normal limitations on supervisors," said Seth Stoughton, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who studies policing and spent five years as an officer with the Tallahassee Police Department in Florida.
"It's difficult because, from the outside," Stoughton said, "the effect is the same: This video existed and no one noticed and took appropriate action which is why, when you have incidents like this, I would hope the agency does try to figure that out."
Did the department have any clues before the video surfaced?
Piazza was suspended without pay for 160 hours in 2017 for lying to supervisors the year before about turning in evidence on time, according to a Times Free Press review of his internal affairs file.
After the March 2018 arrest, he filed a use-of-force report with the department, police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said. In a court affidavit, Piazza also noted a brief struggle with Wolfe, though he didn't document punching him about 10 times.
But videos and use-of-force reports can slip through the cracks within departments, Stoughton said. And unless a charged individual files a complaint or has a defense attorney who subpoenas for police video, they may not see the footage for many months, since prosecutors aren't obligated to exchange evidence in lower courts, according to 12 interviews the Times Free Press did with defense lawyers, former prosecutors and other criminal justice experts.
Use-of-force reports aren't an automatic red flag. Stoughton said some departments make officers file them when there's a possible complaint at stake, not just after a violent encounter.
Before Piazza's video emerged, The Times Free Press requested the number of use-of-force reports filed by the Chattanooga Police Department over the last several years. So far, the city has provided that number for 2018: 369. But details of the incidents themselves are unknown.
Sergeants, who are often immediate supervisors, review those reports and send them up their chain of command if they believe retraining or discipline are necessary. But time constraints or a dishonest officer may prevent sergeants from catching something, Stoughton said. The same is true of body camera video, which a time-crunched sergeant may not watch if it's hours long.
Since announcing a roll out in 2016, the Chattanooga Police Department now has 369 officers equipped with body cameras whereas the sheriff's office is aiming to get about $240,000 in funding this year to outfit roughly 200 patrol deputies, detectives and certain jailers with them.
Footage is automatically uploaded to the department's external storage servers when officers charge their cameras, typically at the end of a shift, Myzal said. From there, lots of people can access the video: sergeants and above, the officer who uploaded it, other officers who ask to see it. Upon request, prosecutors can look at it, too.
In addition to helping officers with reports, accountability and future court testimony, Myzal said body cameras "have been shown to promote more productive and less antagonistic encounters between law enforcement and the public when all parties are aware that a [camera] is present and recording."
Other experts and area defense attorneys say body camera footage has in recent years validated what citizens have long said about excessive force by some law enforcement.
"It's not just body cameras, but cellphone cameras," said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The readily available access to video technology has made clear what people in African American and lower-income communities have been saying not just for years but decades about police brutality."
It's still unknown when exactly Wolfe got the footage.
Myzal said Friday she didn't have access to the date the police department shared the video with prosecutors. And Melydia Clewell, a local spokeswoman for prosecutors, said Friday she could check for that information during business hours Monday.
The Times Free Press could not find any record of who first defended Wolfe; Chattanooga attorney Robin Flores is now representing the 37-year-old.
But local attorneys said Wolfe's first lawyer likely received the footage because Wolfe also faced a now-dismissed DUI charge in General Sessions Court as a result of the encounter with Piazza. That's one of the charges prosecutors do share video on when a case is in General Sessions, where the vast majority of the county's roughly 50,000 yearly cases begin.
"It's more limited [evidence] down there because prosecutors don't have an obligation to share it at that stage," said defense attorney Brandy Spurgin Floyd. "So you're pretty much not getting any [further evidence] unless it's a DUI video."
Clewell said Wolfe's attorney asked prosecutors to watch the video on Jan. 16. But ultimately, when the state said it needed more time to review the footage, the attorney waived a preliminary hearing and had the charges sent to a grand jury.
"It's my understanding Wolfe fired his attorney immediately after court," Clewell said.
Days later, the public saw the video.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.