In July 2020, a group of nearly 40 Chattanooga area clergy members published a letter calling on Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to resign after incidents of alleged deputy misconduct against Black men.
Hammond, facing his second clergy-led call to step down in a year, defended his office and said he recognized "maybe one" name on the list as being someone who has tried to work with the sheriff's office on efforts such as diversifying the force.
"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," Hammond said at the news conference. "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."
Troy Brand, senior pastor of Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, did not include his name on the July letter. He had spent over a year working with the sheriff's office to improve clarity in the department's policies, recruitment in communities of color and transparency after allegations of wrongdoing against the department.
But now the pastor in Orchard Knob is signed on to the latest clergy-led call for Hammond to do better.
On Sunday, more than 40 Chattanooga-area clergy sent another letter to Hammond, along with county and state leaders, calling for greater transparency and accountability from the sheriff's office.
Brand feels the department stonewalled attempts by Hammond's own task force to clarify policies around use of force. The sheriff created the task force, but when the group tried to discuss recent instances of alleged brutality or misconduct it was shut out, he said.
"They decided they didn't want to deal with us anymore," Brand said. "That made our cause meaningless because we were trying to cooperate with the sheriff's department."
The clergy, highlighting 19 instances of alleged misconduct by the sheriff's office, wants Hammond's department to make public its policies around officer training, use of force and the employment of officers involved in misconduct or excessive use of force.
On Friday, the Times Free Press requested an update from the sheriff's office on efforts with clergy or other community partners to improve transparency and accountability. The Times Free Press also requested information related to sheriff's office training. Coty Wamp, general counsel for the department, confirmed the office received the request and wrote in an email, "The Sheriff's Office is preparing a response to that letter" and other questions.
On Sunday, the Times Free Press asked whether the sheriff's office would offer a response to the clergy letter. Wamp said, in an email, the office's previous response "answers the exact question you asked in your latest email." At the time of publication, the sheriff's office had not offered a public response to the letter.
The 442-word clergy letter, signed by 41 faith leaders and six organizations, requests a public response from Hammond by March 12.
"As clergy representing concerned communities across Hamilton County, we expect the requested information to be shared in an official response from your office by the date indicated above," the letter reads. "If we are again met with silence, or with further inaccuracies or misinformation, Chattanooga Clergy for Justice is prepared to take further legal steps to ensure transparency and accountability regarding policing and incarceration in Hamilton County."
The group did not say exactly what it intends to do if Hammond does not respond. Brand and the Rev. William Terry Ladd III, the pastor of First Baptist Church and a clergy member who has previously worked with the sheriff's office, said they are still seeking cooperation to improve the department.
However, if the resistance to transparency and accountability continues, Ladd said, the next steps would be peaceful and legal.
"If we can't get them to do the right thing, then we'll have to go higher," he said.
Allegations of misconduct
The clergy's letter points to multiple instances of misconduct and what they say is a lack of accountability.
Ladd, Brand and four other Black pastors wrote Hammond after a white detective was videotaped punching and kicking Charles Toney Jr., a Black man who was handcuffed, during an arrest on Dec. 3, 2018. The detective, Blake Kilpatrick, was placed on desk duty despite calls from county commissioners for his termination.
Kilpatrick had allegedly struck his ex-girlfriend and broke down his ex-wife's door during a divorce. He had also been accused of striking an inmate in 2012 so hard that the inmate needed six head staples and was sued for his involvement in a fatal shooting in 2017. The FBI is still investigating the 2018 incident involving Toney.
Citing a passage from the Book of Genesis, the six pastors wrote the sheriff, "Because of the color of a man's skin, America and nations prior to her have failed to honor and respect the 'breath of God' and the humanity within all human beings. We, the Chattanooga Coalition of Church Leaders, stand as representatives of God to demand justice for Mr. Toney, and respect for his God-given humanity."
Hammond declined calls from the community for his resignation at the time and told residents to trust the justice system process as the case was being investigated.
"Any reservation on my part would be for health reasons or if I was caught doing something illegal, unethical or immoral," Hammond said in January 2019.
Weeks later, Hammond formed the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Minority Relations Community Task Force.
According to a letter signed by Hammond and dated March 27, 2019, the priorities of the group were to improve "community perception of law enforcement, community engagement from law enforcement, transparency following any alleged law enforcement wrongdoing, law enforcement self-regulation."
According to Brand, the group met with sheriff's office leaders to better understand the department. The task force also discussed ideas for community engagement and recruitment.
Then, in July 2019, dashcam video released by District Attorney General Neal Pinkston showed sheriff's office deputies Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer handcuffing James Mitchell for drug possession during a traffic stop in Soddy-Daisy. The deputies punched and kicked the 41-year-old before taking off his pants and probing around his genitals and buttocks for further contraband or weapons. The deputies were placed on administrative leave. Some clergy called on Hammond to resign.
During a news conference two days after the incident, Hammond said he would "stand by his men in terms of their ability and their training."
Later that month, Brand wrote Hammond on behalf of the task force.
"This time, unlike before, we understand the investigative process. We appreciate the swift action taken against the officers; however, we are troubled by your premature public validation of their actions," Brand wrote, before suggesting the sheriff's office hold a community meeting and meet with local churches and nonprofits to bridge divides.
The relationship between the task force and the sheriff's office deteriorated from there. Hammond's department was not responsive to recommendations and focused only on hiring candidates of color, not the other priorities of the task force, Brand said.
Low pay and mistrust between the sheriff's office and communities of color make it difficult to find recruits, Brand said. A lack of transparency and discipline for misconduct feeds that distrust, he said.
The following months brought increased attention to the department. Deputy Wilkey faced a separate lawsuit in October that alleged he forcibly baptized a woman during a traffic stop in February 2019.
Then, in November 2019, another lawsuit accused Wilkey of groping a 14-year-old girl and other female minors and ordered a boy to strip off his clothes while another deputy, Tyler McRae, watched during an April 2019 traffic stop. Wilkey resigned from the department. Civil and criminal cases against him remain open.
In February 2020, the sheriff's office reported a "catastrophic data loss" that deleted the dash camera footage for all 130 patrol deputies between Oct. 25, 2018, and Jan. 23, 2020. The district attorney said the loss potentially could jeopardize criminal and civil cases. The sheriff's office blamed two of its vendors for the missing footage, though one of the vendors has denied the accusation.
On March 3, 2020, Brand again wrote Hammond on behalf of the task force asking for a face-to-face meeting with the sheriff to discuss hiring practices, update him on the work of the task force and discuss issues around transparency and discipline within the department. That letter went unanswered, Brand said.
Sheriff's deputy Jordan Long shot and killed Tyler Hays during a traffic stop on May 18, 2020. Long was placed on administrative leave with pay before being back on duty five days later. Long shot at another man in June. The deputy was placed on leave and put back on duty around two weeks later. The deputy was then involved in another shooting incident, his third in three months, none of which prompted charges from the district attorney. Long had previously been accused of assault during his time as a Collegedale police officer.
Then, on May 23, 2020, sheriff's deputies stopped Reginald Arrington Jr. on suspicion of violating "the pedestrian on roadway law" as he walked on Old Lee Highway in Ooltewah. During the arrest, the sheriff's office said, Arrington began showing "erratic behavior," including attempting to grab a deputy's gun while handcuffed.
During the arrest, four white deputies beat Arrington, who is Black, with batons for more than five minutes and called him a "piece of s--." Four of the deputies involved had separately been involved in previous cases of alleged brutality, including at least two beatings and a deadly shooting.
The incident sparked condemnation from members of the Hamilton County Commission and led to the dozens of local faith leaders calling for Hammond's resignation, which the sheriff declined. District Attorney General Neal Pinkston announced this month his office would not seek charges against the deputies.
Ladd said he believes some of the incidents in the past two years could have been prevented if the sheriff's office allowed the task force to improve hiring procedures, training and the department's use of force policy.
"We can become the advocate for the policing," he said. "If something happens and somebody is beaten, the task force can say we reviewed the use of force policies. The task force can be very advantageous for the sheriff, if he chose to use it correctly."
'It's too vague'
Ladd and Brand said many of the sheriff's office policies are too vague and up to an individual's discretion. It is difficult to hold deputies accountable with policies that are too subjective, Ladd said.
"What seems to be happening nationally, not just in our sheriff's department, is the policy is the sheriff. That's not going to work," Ladd said. "That may have worked in the early part of the wild west when the sheriff was over maybe 30 people. But in a county as large as Hamilton County, when you don't have policies, when you don't have procedures, when you don't have clear designation on use of force, you're going to continue to get what you get."
Brand said there are issues with policies being too general, pointing specifically to the office's policy around use of force. The policy states deputies can consider size, gender or age disparities, among other factors, when deciding to use force.
"You may have a guy that's six-three, 250 pounds but he may have the mentality of a 7- or 8-year-old because he has mental issues. So can you shoot him just because he looks big?" Brand said. "It's too vague. It needs to be real specific."
The policy also states some actions - such as "vascular restraint or chokeholds" or "gouges to the eyes" - are "to be avoided unless the deputy's life or the life of another person is endangered."
Brand and Ladd want policies that minimize personal judgment and establish specific rules of engagement to be judged on.
"These gentlemen and ladies are allowed to engage our people based on their comfort, their fear," Brand said. "We can't have that. You cannot police out of fear. So the policy has to reflect some kind of clear protocol."
When Pinkston announced no charges for the deputies involved in Arrington's arrest, the district attorney noted, "However, the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy and the use-of-force expert strongly concluded that better training is needed for [Hamilton County] deputies. 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."
Hammond has resisted previous calls to change department policies. During a June 2020 Zoom call hosted by the Chattanooga Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Hammond said his office already had many of the policies in place that protestors were calling for in the weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Issues were caused by implementation, not the policies themselves, he said.
"I do believe that there's already processes that clearly indicate that we follow every one of the things that people say they want to see," Hammond said at the time. "So, there is nothing to change. Now if we can better do one of those policies that's what mentorship is about, that's what a [field training officer] is about."
The clergy letter to Hammond states his department's policies should be "easily accessible public documents" as part of the group's call for greater transparency.
The sheriff's office has more than 500 policies kept in the Accreditation and Standards Division, said J. Matt Lea, manager of the sheriff's office public relations division. Some of the policies have to be updated regularly and others, because of security concerns, are not made public.
Some law enforcement divisions, such as the Baltimore Police Department, make their policies accessible online. Lea said in an email the Hamilton County department hopes to do something similar. At the moment, people need to submit a formal records request to receive a copy of a policy.
Hammond has also resisted attempts to increase oversight of his department, including opposing a request submitted to his office for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in 2019. The sheriff has pointed to his department's accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which has certified the department since 2013.
In 2019, Hammond said he would not seek re-election as sheriff in 2022 and will endorse Chief Deputy Austin Garrett.
Ladd said, even with Hammond leaving in a year, the sheriff's tenure helped create a culture against transparency and accountability that needs to be addressed so it does not continue.
Pastors like himself can help, he said, but community members cannot be sidelined by the sheriff's office when they are trying to work for change.
"We care about our community," Ladd said. "We don't want anyone else brutalized. We don't want anyone else shot as a result of lack of training or lack of transparency. And this can be prevented, but it's going to take all of us. And if you're not willing to be transparent and not willing to join the community in helping the community, then it's obvious to us that you've violated your oath of office."
Brand said repeatedly he will continue to work with the sheriff's office to bring change, as long as it is willing to work as well. Signing onto the most recent letter was an escalation, he said, given that previous letters have caused the sheriff's office to stiffen rather than be open to change.
"I'm hoping this makes a difference," he said. "I'm hoping they decide to at least have a conversation, if they're willing to have a conversation, even if we have to yell at each other for a few to get past the tough stuff. But then start to build bridges."
The clergy who signed the letter are expected to hold a news conference Monday morning.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.