Opinion: Can we build trust amid conflict?

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Gloria Lewis, center with glasses, is comforted by friends and family on the steps of City Hall. Lewis is the mother of Roger Heard Jr., who was killed when three Chattanooga Police officers attempted to serve warrants on him at a 3rd Street gas station on Aug. 11, 2023.

Polarization has become the norm in Tennessee, specifically when it comes to gun violence.

The focus statewide last week was the special session on public safety and mental health called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee in the wake of the March 27 mass shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville. The shooter gunned down three children and three adults.

In Chattanooga, a police-involved shooting on Aug. 11 that left a 34-year-old Black man dead became the center of conversation in communities across the county.

Everyone has their perspective.

In a Monday Times Free Press report, Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp gave a direct defense of the police who were involved in the shooting and killing of Roger Heard Jr. She dismissed criticism from some community members about what they saw as aggressive use of force by police officers and concern that Heard might not have recognized the police.

In a Wednesday interview, the DA doubled down on her comments.

"A violent felon who shoots at cops, I'm not worried about his family," Wamp said. "I'll tell you whose family I am worried about, [CPD investigator] Celtain Batterson's, because I don't know if he'll be able to work in law enforcement again. He has kids that no one has talked about. He has a family. He has a mother."

Wamp doesn't mince words. Nor does she have to. Many of her constituents in Hamilton County support her words.

Perhaps this climate of polarization suggests that your constituents are only the people who believe as you do. In reality, that's not the case.

Wamp surely knows she is the DA for the whole county, not just the voters who put her in office in August 2022.

Consider also the court of public opinion, opinions that are formed from personal experiences, observations and cultural influences.

With each polarizing incident, such as the Heard Jr. shooting, some opinions harden and trust between law enforcement and minority communities in particular is harder to obtain.

Wamp's language was disheartening. But to her, being vocal is important.

"The two options that I have are to be vocal about my position in this or to stay silent," she said. "It's not appropriate for me to stay silent after the community demands answers.

"Legally, the law supports Officer Batterson and therefore I do, too."

Wamp is correct. The law is the law. Heard, a convicted felon, shot at officers and they had the right via the Chattanooga Police Department's Use of Force Policy to shoot when force is used against "an officer and/or another person, which imposes an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or loss of life." This comes from a 2020 copy of the CPD's Use of Force Policy.

Building trust in midst of conflict, mistrust

Being vocal and feeling heard is important to others, especially those who feel marginalized.

It's not new news that Chattanooga's Black community has had a tumultuous relationship with local law enforcement for years.

According to data from Concerned Citizens for Justice, from the late seventies to now, there have been 78 police-involved shooting deaths. Those deaths leave an imprint in the community, and while some names of those involved may fade, the pain resonates. And that pain motivates people to demand change, sometimes in loud, harsh language.

"Government officials won't hold police accountable, and so the people of Chattanooga must have an independent oversight board of the CPD with the power to investigate the crimes against our people," the organization said in a statement Wednesday. "The CPD does not make our communities any safer; they continue to terrorize, torment and kill our people with impunity, as Chattanooga police have done for decades."

Let's not be naive: There will be another shooting which will demand our attention and call us to take action. Some may have their X (Twitter) fingers ready, others might not give a hoot. Some will protest; others will stay home and smolder in anger. Those on the left will chirp, same for the right.

We're witnessing the terror of gun violence and its after-effects. The Covenant School shooting galvanized action by parents who never expected to be thrust into the spotlight over such horrific violence. The Aug. 11 shooting at that Speedway gas station, justified as it may be determined to be, was witnessed by at least a dozen people who never thought they would see — up close — a shootout on a Friday night. The trauma that comes from that lasts a long time.

Tensions are running hot in our state. Watch the inaction and diversionary tactics used in last week's special legislative session in Nashville. The GOP dodged significant action on meaningful gun safety reforms, instead choosing to infringe on the public's right to freedom of speech. Tennesseans and millions across the country watched as state troopers took mothers out of legislative committee meetings — all for holding up a sign and clapping.

The Volunteer State is becoming ground zero for polarization. It's clear there are no easy answers to how we move forward.

Regardless of what side you favor on this complicated issue, we will have to provide answers to gun violence ... together.

And we for sure won't find those answers by pointing fingers.