Revisiting police reform in Chattanooga in the aftermath of Tyre Nichols’ death

Chief to discuss calls for overhauls; activists say there’s a long way to go

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Two police officers sit as protesters stand across Georgia Avenue from them on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. They were protesting the death of George Floyd. Floyd, 46, died after being handcuffed and pinned for several minutes beneath Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin's knee. Protests entered their third night in Chattanooga.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Two police officers sit as protesters stand across Georgia Avenue from them on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. They were protesting the death of George Floyd. Floyd, 46, died after being handcuffed and pinned for several minutes beneath Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin's knee. Protests entered their third night in Chattanooga.

In 2020, protesters marched in Chattanooga's streets for weeks in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Activists joined such protests across the nation, calling for reform in law enforcement, asking agencies in Hamilton County to decrease their budgets, allocate money to community and youth programs, increase training and vetting for police officers and institute de-escalation policies.

In response, Chattanooga police announced the department would start requiring officers to intervene if they see other officers acting inappropriately or breaking the law on the job.

(READ MORE: 7 demands from 7 nights of George Floyd protests in Chattanooga)

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office made the same change later that year, adding a "duty to intervene" to its policies in August 2020, according to office records. The office, which runs the county jail, also began requiring officers to wear body cameras in 2021.

But activists say there's still a long way to go before they'll feel policing in the Chattanooga area is done right. Much of that work, they said, needs to focus on the root causes of crime rather than the reaction to it.

On Monday, Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy is set to hold a town hall meeting to discuss police reform and to reflect on the beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police in January.

"I just want to reassure people that, you know, we're tracking on, that was not good what happened," Murphy said following a news conference Wednesday. "And we will definitely hold people accountable for things like that if they are indeed out of compliance with our policy."

The event, hosted with the Chattanooga chapter of the National Panhellenic Council -- which represents historically Black sororities and fraternities -- is set for 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Greater Community Church of Chattanooga, 1817 E. Third St.

"This incident is not just a Memphis problem," Charlotte McKee, president of the Chattanooga chapter, said in an email Thursday. "It's not a Tennessee problem. It seems to be a national problem. Being proactive in hopes that Chattanooga does not encounter any problems like this shows how serious the police leadership is about the safety of the community and its residents."

Murphy said she doesn't plan to announce any further reform measures at Monday's meeting but rather hold an open forum where people can ask questions or voice concerns.


Though city and county law enforcement agencies implemented their "duty to intervene" policies in 2020, officials from both agencies said they have not had any documented instances of officers having to intervene since then.

In Chattanooga, officer interventions would be tracked internally, the same way the department tracks instances of officers using force on the job, said Assistant Chief Jerri Sutton. Any officer who intervenes is required to report that intervention to the department, according to the policy.

Following activist demands in 2020, the Police Department also highlighted its existing policy of giving warnings before shooting.

The department has increased the amount of de-escalation training officers have to complete and added segments on how to interact with residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities, Sutton said.

Many of those changes came in response to community members who have advocated for reform, said Eric Atkins, co-chairman of the Unity Group of Chattanooga. Atkins commended Chattanooga police for the reforms they made after groups largely made up of young residents "protested with purpose," he said in a phone interview last week.

"The city Police Department did identify things that they needed to modify," Atkins said.

Last year, Murphy reassigned 15 officers from enforcement duties after finding a history of lies or submitting false reports. Shortly after, they were returned to their posts.

Police unions representing the officers met with Murphy and the mayor's office, prompting a monthslong process that resulted in a $60,000 settlement to be split among the remaining 14 officers (after one's retirement) after legal fees. The unions argued the misdeeds were in the past, and officers had already received the requisite discipline.

(READ MORE: Reassigned Chattanooga police officers had policy violations as recently as this year)

Activists said they felt the city caved to the police unions and failed to hold the officers accountable.

"It makes it very difficult for us to be able to have a collaboration between institution and community," said activist Marie Mott, a leader of the 2020 protests who ran unsuccessfully last year for City Council. "If we know that relationship is already strained, how are we ever going to see progress if the police union is in the middle of that?"

Mott said while the relationship between activists and Chattanooga police may be strained, it does exist. The same can't be said of the Sheriff's Office, Mott said. In 2020, Mott and three other activists were charged for blocking a street and burning a custom Sheriff's Office flag, but those charges were dropped in December after the group agreed to pay $80 for the flag.

"There has been absolutely zero conversation with anybody at the county level," Mott said in a phone call Thursday. "Everything that we have done, as far as the interaction, has been completely from the outside as a demand."

The office has made changes since the George Floyd protests, spokesperson Matt Lea said in a Thursday interview, many under the direction of Sheriff Austin Garrett, who was a chief deputy to former Sheriff Jim Hammond before being elected last year when Hammond retired.

Aside from its duty to intervene policy, the office started requiring deputies to wear body cameras in 2020. In-car cameras, cloud storage and new stun guns were also implemented at that time, Lea said.

The office also formed a peer support program in 2020 for deputies involved in traumatic incidents, and Garrett restructured a program aimed at the county's highest-need residents starting in 2021, Lea said.

But some activists say changing policies at local agencies doesn't address larger cultural issues with policing around the nation.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County sheriff says policies don't need to be changed, emphasizes community's role in law enforcement accountability)

"I have no hope of seeing changes at the local level, therefore, I am supporting and pushing for national laws," said the Rev. Ann Jones Pierre, president of the Chattanooga NAACP, in an email last week.

Atkins, with the Unity Group, said reforms are most effective when they combine policies and laws with a culture that encourages officers to put those into practice.

"The problem is still with the culture of police," Atkins said. "What happened with Tyre Nichols can happen to any person of color, or poor person, or anybody that interacts with law enforcement at any time. But it disproportionately affects people of color."


One of the most-repeated demands following Floyd's murder was for the creation of a citizen oversight board for the Chattanooga Police Department.

A petition to get an oversight board put to a public vote in 2021 fell just short of the signatures needed.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga City Council approves creation of police oversight board; member selection process to begin)

The city had already established its Police Advisory Review Committee the year before, which is tasked with reviewing the department's internal investigations and making recommendations on policies, procedures and officer discipline.

The committee was formed after years of local activists pushing for more oversight and transparency at the department, Mott said.

"The response to us pushing back against what was going on ... was to create this advisory committee, which to me was a way to go around the community," Mott said.

The advisory committee doesn't have the power to subpoena information and witnesses, which activists identified as a key aspect of the desired oversight board. It's also made up of people appointed by the Chattanooga City Council, rather than selected by community members, which activists advocated for. To be appointed, committee members have to have at least a decade of service to the people of Chattanooga, according to the founding ordinance.

The committee meets once a month with representatives from the Police Department, Sutton said.

"We need to have the people whose families have been impacted by the police, we need activists who understand these issues and have been working in the community for years," Mott said. "We need to have people who are from these adverse underserved communities to be a part of the board so that they can speak up and keep the community's experience in the room."

Requests for meeting minutes, agendas and quarterly reports from the committee were not immediately fulfilled.

"We do have a problem with crime, people do want crime solved and want safety in their community," Atkins said. "But we can't have that without some sort of oversight."

If you go

What: Town hall meeting on police reform and reflections on the Tyre Nichols case.

When: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Where: Greater Community Church of Chattanooga, 1817 E. Third St.

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.

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