Chattanooga police chief talks reform, accountability and plans to revise use of force policy at town hall

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chief of police Celeste Murphy speaks during a meeting on police reform on Monday, February 6, 2023 at the Greater Community Church of Chattanooga.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chief of police Celeste Murphy speaks during a meeting on police reform on Monday, February 6, 2023 at the Greater Community Church of Chattanooga.

Note: This story was updated on Feb. 7 to correct the jurisdictions included on the Concerned Citizens for Justice list.

When police kill someone, Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy said, all police departments must answer for it.

Murphy spoke to about 80 Chattanooga residents, most of them Black, at a town hall meeting at the Greater Community Church of Chattanooga on Monday evening. When the chief took the podium, most of the audience stood for an ovation.

The Police Department hosted the meeting with the Chattanooga chapter of the National Panhellenic Council, in response to the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in January. Murphy took around 20 questions, submitted by residents on notecards.

(READ MORE: Revisiting police reform in Chattanooga in the aftermath of Tyre Nichols' death)

"The first reaction I had to this was, 'My God, again?'" Murphy said of the moment she heard the news of Nichols' death. "How am I going to prove to this community that I'm doing everything possible that I can to build trust back?"

Murphy said she plans soon to review the department's use of force policy, convening a panel that includes community members, to make any changes they see fit.

"Not because there's anything necessarily wrong with it (the policy)," Murphy said, "we just want to make sure that it's clear."

Chattanooga doesn't have a street crimes unit like the one the Memphis officers belonged to, before it was disbanded following Nichols' death, Murphy said. She said she understands why a large city would have a team like that, but said that oversight is essential.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County groups, officials react to Tyre Nichols incident and footage)

In a prayer before Murphy spoke, the church's pastor, J. Anthony Taylor, asked for understanding of the "latent ills of our city" and prayed for people to come together to make Chattanooga "even greater."

Many people in the audience said they were there simply to listen to the chief and were most interested to hear what Murphy and the department were doing to reduce violent crime and increase transparency.

"By coming here, it's the old story, you get the information from the horse's mouth," said Lance Dorsey, who said he came to gain a better perspective on policing in Chattanooga.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA seeks to prosecutes juveniles as adults in carjacking cases)

Audience questions asked for clarity on department policies around traffic stops, de-escalation and interactions with the community.

One question asked why Murphy chose to comment on Nichols' death but not on multiple reported deaths at Hamilton County's own Silverdale Detention Center.

"That's fair," Murphy said. "All of it's despicable. I don't care whether it's inside the jail, outside the jail."

Murphy joined the Chattanooga Police Department in April 2022, the first woman to lead the force. In her early days in Chattanooga, she talked often about plans to connect more with the community, engage young people and decrease violent crime.

"I think that's a step in the right direction, to hire a woman, and a woman of color," said resident Emily Perrine, before the town hall.

On Monday, Murphy reiterated her plans to interact with residents more, highlighting periodic neighborhood meetings across the city and the department's Citizens Police Academy.

In a statement issued before Memphis police released the footage of Nichols being beaten, Murphy called for brutality to be "eradicated from the culture of policing everywhere."

"Now more than ever, we have to work together to bridge the great divide in our communities and with the police," Murphy's statement said. "And as your police chief, I assure you this remains a primary focus for our department."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga police chief, mayor issue statements before release of Tyre Nichols video)

Nichols' death revived calls for police reform that gained ground in 2020 after George Floyd's murder at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests. At a memorial last week, Nichols' family and others called for national action on reform.

Protests in Chattanooga in 2020 prompted the police department, under previous Chief David Roddy, to roll out a "duty to intervene" policy. That requires officers to intervene when they see another officer doing something illegal or inappropriate on the job and requires that intervention to be reported to the department. There have been no reported uses of that policy since it was implemented, Assistant Chief Jerri Sutton said in an email last week.

Some Chattanooga activists say that the department still hasn't done enough to address inequalities in policing and officer misconduct.

Murphy said Monday she wants to work with groups, including the nine historically Black fraternities and sororities represented by the National Panhellenic Council, to build a recruiting pipeline.

Several activists have pointed to the reinstatement of 14 officers accused of lying, some in complaints made more than a decade prior, to the force after Murphy began an internal investigation last year. Others say the city's Police Advisory and Review Committee, formed in 2019, hasn't been transparent enough in its task of reviewing internal investigations and making recommendations to the department.

In response to a question about how to counter the culture of power and supremacy in policing, Murphy pointed to the department revising its truthfulness policy and eliminating policies about "misrepresentation" following that internal investigation. As the chief, she said, she is responsible for setting the tone of the whole department.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga police report reduced theft, more DUIs in first month of 2023)

"There is no gray area," Murphy said. "You either lie or you don't."

As for police brutality, Murphy said she doesn't have the power to stop it.

"I hope, I wish," Murphy said. "But there's so many approaches to reform, and you got to get it right. I can only address what's in my arms reach, and that's Chattanooga, that's what I care about."

A database kept by Concerned Citizens for Justice, a longtime Chattanooga activist group, says that Chattanooga area law enforcement officers have killed 76 people since 1978. Just one of those deaths resulted in a criminal trial, according to the group, and the officer was acquitted.

Concerned Citizens for Justice is set to hold a rally in protest of police terrorism on Tuesday at 6 p.m., outside the Chattanooga City Council building during the council's weekly meeting.

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.

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