Hamilton County sheriff responds to nearly 40 Chattanooga clergy demanding he resign over 'system of racism and bias' in office

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Sheriff Jim Hammond answers a question about student resource officers in schools during a Town Hall meeting held Monday, April 16, 2018 at East Hamilton Middle High School in Ooltewah, Tenn. Hammond and the Tennessee Professional Educators Association joined together to host the event.

Days after a group of Chattanooga clergy called on Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to resign, the sheriff said the 38 pastors who signed the letter do not come close to representing the people of Hamilton County.

During a Sunday afternoon news conference, Hammond said he would not resign and that his office is not racist, nor does it target Black people.

The sheriff's comments came in response to the four-page letter released this weekend by local clergy demanding Hammond's resignation.

"We do not expect you to heal our nation's wounds, but you are accountable for your words and decisions as the leader of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office," the letter reads. "And your recent actions have caused us to lose faith and confidence in your capacity to effectively and justly serve as Hamilton County's highest law enforcement officer."

The letter cites three examples of sheriff's office deputies making headlines for instances of alleged misconduct, including when deputies punched and kicked a handcuffed man in 2018, when deputies conducted an alleged illegal body-cavity search on the side of the road in 2019 and the recently revealed footage of deputies beating a Black man in May.

The letter said these cannot be viewed as "isolated incidents" but are part of a "system of racism and bias" in the department.

Hammond said Sunday he would not speak about specific cases because some are still being decided in the court system.

"I can tell you fundamentally what they've issued here is either wrong or has never come to court to make a decision on what happened or what didn't happen," Hammond said. "They're reaching back into the past for some things that have nothing to do with racism."

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Instead, pastors should work with the sheriff's office, Hammond said. He said local leaders, particularly in the Black community, were not working with his office to recruit deputies. He said he recognized only one pastor's name on the list.

"I cannot tell you one pastor who has brought me an African American in the last six months that I could put to work, or called me about doing that. That's what I want to see. They want me to show up and fix the problems by resigning. But I'm saying give me the help I need to see that we have young men and women who can move up the ranks and develop a career," Hammond said.

The letter specifically states the pastors are willing to work to reform the local policing system to be more equitable, but they believe Hammond stands in the way of that.

"Change requires good faith partners, and we believe there are many good faith partners who recognize systemic racism plagues our society and that the current police methodology is inept," the letter reads. "We are eager to come together with all parties to ensure a more just society that honors the dignity of our Black and brown siblings. We are convinced, however, that your actions do not indicate that you are up to the task."

Clergy called for Hammond's resignation in 2019 after the incident of alleged roadside brutality. Other groups of clergy have called on the sheriff's office and the Chattanooga Police Department to reform in an effort to stop racialized policing.

Along with the incidents of alleged misconduct, the letter references a statement Hammond made in 2012 about gangs, in which he said his office would "need to run them out of town, put them in jail or send them to the funeral home."

Hammond said Sunday the statement was taken out of context, and he would not respond to it further.

Both the Chattanooga clergy and Hammond cited the Bible in making their arguments. The sheriff said Sunday he follows biblical principles in treating everyone fairly and that the Bible is the way to stop prejudice inherent in all people.

The clergy said the sheriff's willingness to stand by his officers accused of wrongdoing is similar to the Matthew 2 story of King Herod, who disregarded life and ruled an oppressive empire.

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Echoing statements made last week, Hammond said he was elected by the people of Hamilton County and will remain sheriff until he is voted out. The sheriff claimed most people in the county support him.

Hammond blamed protesters, who for weeks have been marching for police reform and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, for creating unrest in the community.

"Most people want law and order," he said. "They don't want chaos. They don't want anarchy. They don't want bottles thrown. They don't want paint spilled. They don't want statues torn down. They want order. I'm saying that if we're going to have a civilized country, we've got to return to order. And I'm not going to blame it on any race or creed or ethnic group, because they're all involved."

The sheriff's office has faced increasing public scrutiny in the past week after the district attorney general said the office was not cooperating in a criminal investigation of one of the sheriff's deputies.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.