Opinion: DA's request for Justice Department investigation into Silverdale comes same days as nepotism case bubbles up

If the operation of the Silverdale Detention Center has broken down so thoroughly that prisoners there are constantly at risk, and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) can no longer be trusted to investigate controversial law enforcement incidents, then a probe by the United States Department of Justice is warranted.

But we can't help but notice Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston only called for such a probe Monday - after he received a letter from the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice seeking an investigation.

The Facebook page for the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice indicates the organization was formed in the summer of 2020 after the video of the treatment of a Black suspect in the hands of HCSO officers was released.

A newspaper archives search indicates the clergy group requested a U.S. Justice Department investigation last May.

"We can no longer sit by while the HCSO continues to use excessive force to brutalize the people of Hamilton County and do nothing to protect the civil rights of her citizens," a letter released at the time by the group said. "We call on [U.S.] Attorney General Merrick Garland to do what no one has been able to do, hold Sheriff Hammond and his officers accountable!"

When the group recently renewed its request for an investigation by the Justice Department, it said it did so after complaints by inmates and complaints from members of the community alleging abuse of their loved ones while being detained at Silverdale.

"We just ask that the Department of Justice take the evidence from the jail and from those statements," the letter said, "and just find out what's going on in the jail."

Three rapes have been reported at Silverdale this year, according to the HCSO. But no request was made for further investigation by Pinkston.

On April 15, three lawsuits were filed by former inmates against the county and against Sheriff Jim Hammond. Still, Pinkston took no action.

In the lawsuits, the plaintiffs alleged they were shot by correctional officers with stun guns and shotguns loaded with bean-bag shells. Two of the plaintiffs alleged they were stabbed, one 17 times.

On Monday, a week and a day before he faces a re-election primary, the district attorney general asked for the Justice Department probe.

"Right now, it appears that Silverdale is one of the most dangerous places to be in our county, and that is unacceptable," Pinkston said in a news release. "Individuals at Silverdale have the right to be protected, and that right should be taken very seriously by every member of our justice system."

He also said he would be withdrawing his request that the HCSO investigate a recent Collegedale traffic stop in which a Black man was shocked repeatedly by a Collegedale officer with a stun gun, and would have the Department of Justice look into the situation.

If Silverdale is "one of the most dangerous places to be in our county," it did not get that way Monday. If the HCSO is unable to satisfactorily investigate controversial local incidents, it did not get that way Monday.

The timing for Pinkston's letter was curious, though, since earlier in the day emails had circulated in county government about the fact the district attorney general had yet to follow the state attorney general's direction that he terminate his wife and brother-in-law from his office's payroll due to violation of the Tennessee State Employees Uniform Nepotism Policy Act.

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, in an early Monday email, had asked Hamilton County administrator of finance Lee Brouner if the two were still on the payroll. Brouner, in an email later that morning, said both were still employed but that he had received "information this morning to terminate [brother-in-law] Kerry Clewell's employment effective May 17, 2022."

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery's letter to Pinkston cited Tennessee law that directed, minus a transfer of employment, the employees needed to be removed within 60 days. If the law interprets 60 days to include seven days per week, as Boyd believes, the time was up Sunday. If the 60 days includes only work days, as Pinkston alleges, the time won't be up until just before Kerry Clewell is terminated.

Pinkston has said he believes Slatery's interpretation of the law is incorrect and that he hoped to convince him of such so that his wife can remain on the payroll.

Whatever happens in that case, it seemed the district attorney general's sudden attention to the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice's pleas Monday might help the public look away from the nepotism controversy.

Don't get us wrong. If Silverdale is "one of the most dangerous places to be in our county," and if the HCSO (where Pinkston's May 3 primary rival works as counsel for the office) is unable to investigate law enforcement incidents, the U.S. Justice Department should be involved. But the timing of things is, at best, interesting.