Hamilton County officials defend use of tear gas, say assaulting police does not honor George Floyd

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Protesters run away from a cloud of tear gas fired by Hamilton County Sheriff's Office employees outside of the old Hamilton County Courthouse on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Sunday was the second day of protests in Chattanooga over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Protesters run away from a cloud of tear gas fired by Hamilton County Sheriff's Office employees outside of the old Hamilton County Courthouse on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Sunday was the second day of protests in Chattanooga over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and Mayor Jim Coppinger on Monday defended the sheriff's office use of tear gas on protesters the night before and condemned assaults on law enforcement.

Hundreds of people were tear-gassed by Hamilton County sheriff's deputies on Sunday night after a small number of participants at a peaceful protest against police brutality vandalized light fixtures at the courthouse on Georgia Ave., against the advice of organizers and peers.

After deputies tackled and apprehended those responsible for the damage and brandished non-lethal beanbag-firing weapons, fights between protesters and law enforcement broke out on the exterior stairs of the courthouse and tear gas was deployed into the crowd. Three people were arrested in that incident.

(READ MORE: National Guard, tear gas deployed as tensions rise on second day of George Floyd protests in Chattanooga)

Hammond said Monday that the tear gas was appropriately used.

"As more law enforcement personnel arrived to assist deputies, another altercation took place when protestors attempted to grab a deputy and pull him into the crowd," Hammond said in a statement. "Deputies immediately deployed CS gas for the protection of the deputy as well as the property to disperse unruly protestors. As this was a fast evolving incident with aggressive behavior, a warning of CS gas deployment was neither warranted or an option."

The demonstrations across Chattanooga - and across the nation - were spurred by the killing of a handcuffed African American man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for almost 10 minutes.

Hammond said in his statement that the protesters engaging in fights were failing to honor Floyd.

"Let me be clear, assaulting any person, including our local law enforcement, vandalizing buildings, destroying private property and burning vehicles is not honoring Mr. Floyd or his death," Hammond wrote. "I implore those who wish to protest to do so in a respectful, peaceful manner. I assure you your sheriff's office will support your right to protest, but not if you endanger members of our community, threaten or assault members of law enforcement or vandalize our buildings or personal property."

photo Staff photo by Sarah Grace Taylor / Vandalism to the A.C. Stewart statue outside of the Hamilton County courthouse which was done by protesters on Saturday.

The statement also addressed considerable damage to a fountain at the courthouse and graffiti on the statue of General A.P. Stewart, which took place Saturday night.

"For the last two nights, the HCSO has partnered with local law enforcement agencies to support and defend our citizens right to peaceably assemble and exercise their First Amendment right. As a nation, free speech and the right to peaceably assemble is one of our most fundamental rights," Hammond wrote. "However, we will not tolerate unruly protestors vandalizing any property. Physical assaults upon my deputies will not stand, and we will respond to these types of threats accordingly."

(READ MORE: Protests in Chattanooga continue for second day, turning attention to police violence against local residents)

Hammond called the death of Floyd tragic and encouraged activists to protest peacefully.

"The death of George Floyd was tragic and those involved in the incident will be held accountable and will have to answer for their actions in a court of law," Hammond wrote. "Those who wish to protest the events that occurred in Minneapolis can do so peacefully and will be supported by your sheriff's office."

County Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press Monday that he never wants to see a crowd get tear gassed, but that it seems the deputies had no other option.

"Obviously, I don't think any officers or any officials want to see that have to happen," he said of the tear gas. "But when it comes to protecting property and other people, sometimes there's no other option but to be able to disperse the crowd."

Coppinger said that he appreciates the value of a protest, but does not want to see behavior that makes the current environment of tornado damage and COVID-19 recovery in the community any more difficult.

"I mean we've experienced some really bad things in our community with the COVID virus, the tornadoes, you know, a number of people out of work, the number of businesses that were closed not being able to reopen for financial reasons," Coppinger said. "I'm certainly more interested in anything we can do to unite our community than I am in the divisiveness that we're experiencing right now. And not only here, but throughout the country."

Coppinger said that there are no plans to implement a curfew or any specific measures to deter unrest, but he was copied on an email to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke from County Commissioner Tim Boyd on Monday in which Boyd pleaded for a curfew.

"I think you need to turn your focus away from the C-19 pandemic and place a higher priority on the unrest taking place on the streets of our city," Boyd wrote in an email to the mayors and several city council and commission members. "Put in place a curfew now before more folks are injured and/or arrested, not to mention the potential for more property damage."

photo Staff photo by Sarah Grace Taylor / Police and chalk body outlines outside of Berke's house after 50 protesters congregated on Sunday.

Berke remained mostly quiet throughout the protests across the city both nights, including when roughly 50 activists came to the mayor's house, drawing body outlines and writing "I can't breathe" - which Floyd cried out as he died - in chalk on the mayor's driveway Sunday.

Berke released a written statement Monday afternoon saying he is committed to listening, but discouraged against "distracting" agendas of some activists.

"This weekend many Chattanoogans came out to speak their minds peacefully. They expressed rightful outrage at the unjust killing of George Floyd and the many more racial disparities we see in our country. For speaking truth to power and calling on our conscience to make substantive policy changes, I say thank you to each of them," Berke wrote.

"We did see a few people this weekend who had other agendas -- to distract, divide, and destroy. That is unfortunate, but we cannot let the actions of a few pull us from the path of progress. There is so much that our city and country can accomplish if we turn the energy of protest into fairer policies and outcomes."

When asked, a spokeswoman for Berke said no curfews or enforcement action are planned at this time.

"Both Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy and Mayor Berke have agreed that, at this moment in time, instituting a curfew would be unnecessary and practically unenforceable," Richel Albright wrote. "The events of the last 48 hours in Chattanooga have not been without incident, but at this time they do not rise nearly to the level of danger or risk to public safety that has been seen in other cities. However, if we have reason to reconsider this position we absolutely will do so but at this time, and on the advice of local law enforcement, the city of Chattanooga will not institute a curfew."

Meanwhile, both courthouses, including the one vandalized over the weekend, closed at 1 p.m. Monday "out of an abundance of caution," according to a spokesman for the HCSO.

(READ MORE: Nine arrests, two cars burned, one statue defaced: Civil rights leaders reflect on night of unrest in Chattanooga)

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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