Hamilton County sheriff defends department amid national law enforcement re-accreditation process

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, right, and Chief Deputy Austin Garrett listen as Mayor Jim Coppinger presents his fiscal year 2020 budget on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A day ahead of a Tuesday public call-in session for the department's national law enforcement reaccreditation process, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is defending his office amid multiple allegations of police brutality and misconduct.

Hammond's comments came in response to an affidavit authored by District Attorney General Neal Pinkston in which he accused the sheriff's office of a lack of cooperation with the criminal investigation into former deputy Daniel Wilkey, who faces 44 criminal charges.

"I read time after time after time where the sheriff's department is thrown under the bus when all I've ever asked is to let these cases go through due process, which of course I'm not going to try these cases in the newspaper," he said in an interview with the Times Free Press on Monday. "If my officers - any officers in any department - [are] found guilty of wrongdoing, they should be punished, including termination. I'm not going to fall in this trap of being emotional and just fire somebody because somebody sees something on video. Videos look bad. But videos should never be used to totally judge a man who is doing his duty."

Pinkston has twice released dashboard camera footage in recent memory - in July 2019 and again in June of this year - showing different sheriff's deputies engaged in acts that Pinkston has called "troubling."

Footage released last week showed five Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies repeatedly striking a Black man in Ooltewah. And the 2019 footage, which is what set off the criminal investigation into Wilkey, showed Wilkey "performing what appears to be an anal cavity search" of a man on the side of a Soddy-Daisy road, Pinkston wrote in his affidavit.

Hammond has defended his deputies each time, saying he would "stand by his men in terms of their ability and their training" in 2019 after Wilkey's dashboard camera footage was released. And this year he called Pinkston's decision to release the footage an attempt to "indict my deputies in the court of public opinion prior to facts being presented in a court of law."

Pinkston's office declined to comment Tuesday.

On Monday, Hammond said, "What needs to happen is it needs to go through the review process, it needs to go through the discipline process, it needs to go through the court process to find out, 'What was the training?' 'Was the training followed?' 'Was it acceptable training?'"

Hammond has touted his department as being a "first rate sheriff's office" thanks to its certification through the state and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., or CALEA. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is one of five accredited sheriff's offices in Tennessee. There are 19 accredited police departments, including Chattanooga and Cleveland.

The Virginia-based organization measures law enforcement agencies using more than 400 standards to examine agency guidelines, which can help create better accountability.

The sheriff's office is up for recertification, a process that takes places every three years and involves a public comment session. But due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, a public session was not held this time.

Instead, the public was invited to call the assessment team between 1 and 4 p.m. on Tuesday, according to a post on the sheriff's office website. The notice was not sent to local media or posted to social media.

When the Chattanooga Police Department underwent its reaccreditation process late last year, it issued a news release and made social media posts announcing the public information session.

"You will not find an agency in the United States that has a better compliance record when it comes to how we operate in the, in the best standards this nation has on being a law enforcement officer," Hammond told county commissioners during a June 19 security and corrections committee meeting.

"We have been in compliance with every one of these," he said. "Does that mean you will always be able to not have one of those [policies] violated? No, it does not, because when you're dealing with human nature, when you're dealing with hiring individuals, when you're dealing with police officers who are out there their whole shift kind of as their own boss, you will get some bad apples. You will get some mistakes.

"But I can assure you that the one thing that I as sheriff - like most sheriffs, they're going to comply with the most ethical, legal and moral standards that they take the oath of office to do."

In recent years, the sheriff's office has been embroiled in several cases of alleged brutality and misconduct, including Wilkey's case - for which the county faces 10 lawsuits - and multiple others just this year.

In January, the sheriff's office disclosed that its only server used to store dashboard camera videos suffered a "catastrophic data loss" that caused thousands of videos to disappear during software failure.

Pinkston's office had been weighing more criminal charges against Wilkey in January when it was made aware of the server failure - which took place on Jan. 13, according to internal emails obtained by the Times Free Press - after the DA asked for dashboard camera footage from other deputies who responded to the same traffic stops as Wilkey, Pinkston wrote in his affidavit filed in support of a motion for sanctions against the county by civil plaintiffs in federal court on Monday.

The data failure is what precipitated a federal judge to order the county in March to file weekly reports to determine which Wilkey videos still existed.

The sheriff's office and county attorneys have repeatedly said the Wilkey videos were preserved because Pinkston requested them before the server failure. But the videos of the other deputies may be lost, even while the county faced multiple lawsuits as early as October and a class action in December, which should have it on notice to preserve any evidence it had in its possession relating to the Wilkey traffic stops.

On Monday, Hammond said he "can't be responsible if he [Pinkston] didn't ask for it if it was in the crash six months later. I could only furnish what wasn't in the crash ... Anybody with any sense would know that once the crash happened, all bets were off."

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.