Hamilton County deputies face no charges for baton strikes on Black man in Ooltewah

Arrington v. Hamilton County

Five Hamilton County sheriff's deputies shown on video repeatedly striking a Black man in Ooltewah on May 23 will not face criminal charges, the county's chief prosecutor announced Thursday.

District Attorney General Neal Pinkston released a report by a national law enforcement expert who believed the deputies's use of force was justified.

The deputies - Sgt. Mickey Rountree, Cpl. Brian Killingsworth and deputies Nick Dewey, Todd Cook and Lori Choate - have been under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney's Office since late June after Pinkston released dash camera footage showing them repeatedly hitting 32-year-old Reginald Arrington Jr. with batons.

The deputies - four of whom have separately been involved in prior cases of alleged brutality - claimed Arrington had been reaching for Killingsworth's gun.

The arrest happened two days before George Floyd, another handcuffed Black man, died as a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes - sparking a worldwide protest movement.

In Arrington's case, deputies were called to the area by a neighbor who told deputies that a Black man in a blue jumpsuit was acting suspiciously, walking up to women and "asking them questions and asked her how to get out of the neighborhood," according to court records.

The deputies reported they saw Arrington walking south on Old Lee Highway "in violation of the pedestrian on roadway law," which is what precipitated the arrest. All charges against Arrington have since been dropped.

Once the TBI completed its investigation, Pinkston contracted law enforcement use-of-force expert Emanuel Kapelsohn to independently review the entire case file.

Kapelsohn testified on behalf of the defense in the 2017 trial against St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Philando Castile, another Black man, during a traffic stop in July 2016. Yanez was ultimately acquitted, and one of the jurors later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune she believed Kapelsohn's testimony had an impact on the entire jury.

In Arrington's case, the DA's office noted in a Thursday news release that several factors led to the decision not to prosecute.

"Most importantly, despite repeated efforts by the TBI, Mr. Arrington would never cooperate with the investigation or submit to an interview," the news release states. "All interview requests were made through his civil lawyers. Mr. Arrington also declined to cooperate or speak with the DA's office, despite numerous requests that were made through his civil lawyers."

Arrington has sued the county, seeking $75 million. His attorney Troy Bowlin II declined to comment Thursday.

In his report to Pinkston, Kapelsohn states that he watched all available body and dash camera footage and audio recordings, "literally over 100 times" to reach his conclusions.

In the Castile case, the prosecution argued Kapelsohn had a reputation for being "pro-cop" and for using creative strategies in their defense, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Kapelsohn denied the claim, saying his reputation is for "being honest," and in his report to Pinkston, Kapelsohn notes that he has testified as an expert both for and against law enforcement officers.

As in Castile's case, Arrington's case boiled down to the question of whether Arrington was reaching for a gun - in this case, a Hamilton County sheriff's deputy's gun.

"I note, significantly, that the video shows Arrington and the deputies struggling in a position where Arrington's hands could very well have been grabbing Killingsworth's gun, as Killingsworth's gun is in a holster on Killingsworth's right side, which is toward Arrington at that point in the struggle," Kapelsohn wrote.

He added that Killingsworth told TBI agents that Arrington did grab his holstered pistol and "yanked up on it two to four times," "had a strong grasp on his handgun, and was yanking up on it so hard that it lifted Killingsworth's duty belt up several inches."

Dash camera footage does not show Arrington's hands. From the moment a deputy is heard saying, "don't grab my gun" to when Arrington's hands are in view, three seconds have transpired.

All things considered, Kapelsohn wrote, he thinks that, while Arrington's hands are not visible in the footage, it is "unlikely that Killingsworth and other deputies would all have said things, either during or immediately following the incident, indicating that Arrington attempted to grab Killingsworth's gun from the holster if that had not, in fact, occurred."

Kapelsohn also noted that the more than 20 baton strikes - by his own count - were all "reasonable," "in an appropriate manner," and that "any less-than-perfect use of the batons was unintentional, as can often occur during a dynamic struggle such as this."

Ultimately, he wrote that "Arrington brought this situation on himself, and it appears it would never have happened if he had simply allowed himself to be escorted to and placed into the police car without resisting."

Kapelsohn's report also notes some additional details, such as a sheriff's deputy can allegedly be heard saying, "You're not gonna lie to the Sheriff's Office and walk away from it." Also, a technique used to try to put Arrington down on the hood of a police car is discouraged in some training methodologies because it can result in injury to the arrestee's shoulder.

Also, Kapelsohn noted that Arrington allegedly has a criminal history that includes a notation for law enforcement to approach with caution, but Kapelsohn doesn't state from where that history originates and acknowledges that he doesn't know whether Hamilton County deputies were aware of that history.

Arrington, who lives in Ohio, does not have a criminal history in Hamilton County, court records show.

While Pinkston declined to prosecute, both he and Kapelsohn, as well as the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, noted that they "strongly concluded" that deputies need better training and that the May 23 incident could have been prevented had they received instruction on how to best escort detained subjects.

"If these deputies had received the best training on how to handle handcuffed detainees, that would have prevented some, if not all of this incident," the DA's news release states.

In a statement, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Austin Garrett said the sheriff's office will review the findings and "proactively address any issues."

Garrett said the sheriff's office training division and leadership had already identified areas of improvement in its use-of-force applications.

"This resulted in HCSO taking proactive measures that improved on our application of force or response when dealing with handcuffed suspects who display either active or passive resistance while in our custody," Garrett said.

That training has already been included in the department's 2021 mandatory in-service training, he said.

"We encourage the public to comply when dealing with law enforcement officers, this alone reduces the likelihood of confrontations," Garrett said. "However, we always welcome recommendations as it relates to our training. Every day HCSO deputies go out with the mission of protecting and serving our community, and we are focused on providing our deputies with the best training possible to protect our employees and better serve our community."

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.