Two white Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies were placed on paid administrative leave ahead of the release Friday of dashcam footage that showed them punching, kicking and stripping the pants off of a handcuffed black man who they body-cavity searched on the side of a road.
During a news conference Friday, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said he asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Gov. Bill Lee to look into the alleged brutality as he stood alongside Sheriff Jim Hammond, who said he would "stand by his men in terms of their ability and their training."
Pinkston, who viewed the footage the night before, said he was "somewhat disturbed at what I saw." He was not alone in that feeling: One member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP asked Hammond during Friday's news conference if he felt there was racism in his majority-white department, expressing concern that little had changed since the last publicized case in which a sheriff's office detective was accused of police brutality. And after Pinkston's office released the dashcam footage, Chattanooga City Councilman Russell Gilbert described the footage as reminiscent of "the slave era" and said the deputies need to be fired and prosecuted.
"Last year, we stood at this same position and you guys pretty well said the same thing that you did now," NAACP member Dwight Smith said to Hammond, referring to the December 2018 arrest of Charles Toney Jr., a 25-year-old black man who was punched and kicked by Hammond's white deputy, Blake Kilpatrick, while handcuffed. "I can record it and it sounds exactly the same as last year. You say you have good officers. If you do, why do these officers engage in this kind of behavior?"
Hammond replied his department takes every complaint seriously, adding that one of the deputies involved in this incident graduated from a majority-black school and had a stellar record of interactions in the black community. Hammond and his spokesman Matt Lea would not name the deputies or say how long they'd worked for the department. But court records and criminal affidavits from the stop in question identify them as Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer.
According to a criminal affidavit he filed, Wilkey pulled a gold Buick over in Soddy-Daisy around 9:27 p.m. Wednesday because the window tint was too dark and he smelled the odor of marijuana on an otherwise empty country road. Wilkey wrote the passenger, 41-year-old James Myron Mitchell, told him he had smoked a joint and kept reaching in his waistband against orders. He was taken out of the vehicle and searched. The driver, Latisha Menifee, is related to Chattanooga Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod and does not appear to have been charged in the incident.
Mitchell's alleged resistance resulted in the officers taking him down to the ground, kneeing Mitchell's upper thigh and a subsequent search that revealed 1.6 grams of crack cocaine. Wilkey and Brewer arrested Mitchell, charging him with felony drug possession, tampering with evidence and resisting arrest. Court records show a magistrate at the Hamilton County Jail later released Mitchell on his "own recognizance" instead of giving him a bond amount, which is more unusual for felony drug cases and for someone with a criminal past. Records show Mitchell has arrests going back to 1996 for driving under the influence, drug possession, criminal trespass and vandalism charges.
The released dashcam footage, however, does not line up with parts of how Wilkey describes the incident in the criminal affidavit. The video also shows a potential policy violation. After deputies took him out of the vehicle for a search, they shoved Mitchell's head onto the hood of the patrol vehicle and bent his arms behind his back. It's difficult to make it out, but a deputy can be heard telling Mitchell to stop doing something before kneeing him in the crotch. Mitchell is handcuffed the whole time.
The deputies then knock Mitchell onto the ground. One of them punches Mitchell repeatedly. Together, the deputies then remove Mitchell's pants, shake them out and press him back up against one of their patrol vehicles. From there, one of the deputies reaches his ungloved hand down into Mitchell's underwear and feels around his groin area.
About a minute later, one of the deputies pulls Mitchell's underwear down, and this time, with gloves on, reaches his hand into Mitchell's buttocks area, pulls out a plastic bag and places it on the hood. About two minutes go by while the deputies continue to search in Mitchell's buttocks area. What exactly is happening is not known because it is out of view.
After that, a deputy puts Mitchell into a patrol vehicle with his pants still pulled down.
Deputies can "strip search" a suspect, according to a copy of the sheriff's policy implemented in 2014. That's where deputies can ask an arrested person to remove or arrange their clothes to "permit a visual inspection of the genitals, buttocks, anus, female breasts, or undergarments." But a body cavity search takes it one step further and involves probing these body parts. Not only can deputies not conduct them unless they have a search warrant or specific written consent, but a licensed physician or nurse is supposed to do the body cavity examination in a "controlled and private environment," according to the policy, which is based on state law.
Jim Exum, a Chattanooga attorney who represents unionized law enforcement officers and appeared at the press conference, declined to comment Friday. Vince Champion, the southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, also said he could not comment on the footage because he hadn't watched it, but he questioned why it was released before the investigation was completed.
"Whether it does look good or bad, without context or anything, people are going to inform their own opinion," he said Friday. "They're going and trying this in the media before they know all the facts."
Federal court records show Daniel Wilkey is named in two civil actions in the Eastern District of Tennessee.
One filed in 2015 alleges Wilkey fatally shot Steven Lee "Buddy" Howell while employed as a deputy with the Rhea County Sheriff's Office. According to the federal complaint, Rhea County authorities detained Howell, who was allegedly intoxicated and belligerent at a hospital in September 2014. Concerned Howell was reaching for a deputy's gun, authorities said a deputy, later identified as Wilkey in the lawsuit, shot Howell in the head at point-blank range. The Howells' attorney said the incident could have been avoided if Wilkey and another deputy properly restrained Howell, and court records show the case was settled after mediation in 2017.
Wilkey left the Rhea County Sheriff's Office on Aug. 17, 2017, according to an employee in Rhea County's payroll department.
The other lawsuit, filed July 9 by Hixson citizen William Eugene Klaven, alleges Wilkey stopped him for having dark window tint as he was driving on U.S. Highway 27 on April 17. Klaven could not be reached for comment but wrote in the lawsuit that Wilkey ordered him to place his hands on the hood of a hot vehicle and asked to search his car. Klaven said he denied the search request but was detained until K-9 dogs from the Soddy-Daisy Police Department could make it to the scene.
Klaven said Wilkey and the other officers tried to manufacture a positive result but found nothing. Klaven does not indicate whether he was arrested but wrote that he later went to court and learned he was never cited. He says he took video of the encounter.
From here, Mitchell's charges are likely to be dismissed while the deputies are investigated. Chattanooga attorney Robin Flores, a life member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP, said he is representing Mitchell, who is scheduled to appear July 25 in Hamilton County General Sessions Court. Flores said Friday he spoke with a representative in Pinkston's office who said Pinkston is dismissing the case.
Though that hasn't happened yet, prosecutors are "moving to dismiss [Mitchell's charges] this Monday," said Bruce Garner, Pinkston's spokesman.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @hughesrosana.