The Chattanooga Police Department clarified that officer Benjamin Piazza was placed on paid administrative leave, not paid suspension, after body camera footage emerged last month of a March 2018 traffic stop. The Times Free Press has referred to it as paid suspension in previous stories. The difference is, suspensions are not paid and can come after an internal investigation is finished, the department said. With administrative leave, the department can modify an officer's employment status to desk duty, which allows an officer to work with little to no contact with the public. In Piazza's case, he has been taking citizen reports over the phone on minor issues like vandalism since Jan. 25, the department said.
WARNING: These videos contain graphic images and explicit language.
A Chattanooga police officer has been placed on paid administrative leave with pay and is under internal investigation after body camera footage emerged Friday of him punching a 37-year-old man during a recent arrest.
Chief David Roddy confirmed officer Benjamin Piazza is being investigated for a 2018 traffic stop but declined to comment further, citing the criminal charges that a citizen, Fredrico Wolfe, now faces as a result of the interaction.
"The Chattanooga Police Department is aware of a video circulating on social media relating to a traffic stop that occurred on March 3, 2018," Roddy said in a statement. "More importantly, we share in the concern it has caused in our community. Let me assure everyone that your police department and its internal affairs unit are reviewing all related materials, videos, and evidence and a formal internal investigation has started."
Roddy's announcement came a few hours after the Times Free Press first published the video Friday, with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke agreeing in a separate statement that "a full investigation into potential misconduct is warranted."
Earlier in the day, a police spokeswoman said no internal complaint had been filed against the officer.
Around 3:30 a.m. on March 18, 2018, officer Piazza said, he stopped Wolfe for speeding near the 6900 block of Lee Highway and then ordered him out of the vehicle after he saw the 37-year-old toss two baggies out of the passenger-side window. Though he complied at first, Wolfe pulled away and began to "actively resist" officers when they tried to handcuff him, Piazza wrote in a criminal arrest affidavit.
After a "brief struggle," Piazza wrote, they placed Wolfe in the back of a cruiser, transported him to the Hamilton County Jail and charged him with tampering with evidence, drugs for resale, possession of a controlled substance, driving under the influence, speeding and resisting arrest.
But the Times Free Press obtained police body camera footage that Wolfe's recently retained lawyer, Robin Flores, said shows unnecessary escalation from Piazza. Defendants typically receive evidence from prosecutors, who in turn receive it from police. That likely happened with Wolfe, but the Times Free Press could not find any previously listed attorneys for him. Nearly a year later, and after three delayed court dates, a judge sent his charges Wednesday to a grand jury.
"We're looking forward to a rigorous defense on these charges, including the resisting," Flores said. "I don't know why it took [almost 10 months to send the case to the grand jury], but my suspcion is, the longer it gets delayed out, the less amount of time somebody has to file a civil action."
In the body camera footage, Piazza approached the vehicle with his gun drawn and ordered Wolfe to "get the f —— out of the car and put your hands up" around the same time Wolfe opened his door.
Wolfe stepped out with his hands raised and placed them on top of the car, his back to Piazza. Though he turned his head and started to ask a question, Wolfe never appeared to physically resist.
As Piazza began to handcuff Wolfe, he repeated his order to "put your f —— hands on the car or I'll beat the s —— out of you."
Wolfe then fell to the ground, and Piazza punched him about 10 times. As Wolfe cried and struggled on the ground, Piazza put his knee on top of Wolfe's side. A few minutes later, the officers picked Wolfe up, placed him in the back of a cruiser and searched his car. Piazza found the baggies and wrote they contained 3 grams of marijuana and 1 gram of cocaine.
The scuffle broke Wolfe's glasses and knocked off one of his shoes. In the footage, he also complained of bruised knees and a numb thumb.
Law enforcement sources said approaching a car with a gun is mostly for safety and that officers are more justified in doing it when a suspect ups the stakes by tampering with evidence or engaging in some other felony behavior.
"That would definitely be the case," Flores said, "but the video still speaks for itself. Wolfe followed all of [Piazza's] commands. It would've been different if Wolfe threw a gun out. I would get that. Police training is, if you got one gun, you should assume there's more. But again, the guy was complying with every command."
After the incident, Piazza denied that Wolfe followed his commands and asked whether he was under the influence of anything.
"Nothing," Wolfe said, though he later admitted to smoking marijuana earlier that night.
"I'm trying to give you an excuse for acting silly," Piazza said.
"I didn't act silly," Wolfe said. "Sir, I threw the stuff out of the car. But I did whatever you told me to do."
"Did it look like he did whatever we told him to do?" Piazza asked another officer.
Later in the conversation, Piazza said he would've only ticketed Wolfe and not searched the car had Wolfe not thrown his drugs out of the window. Wolfe agreed he did that but suggested on the ride to jail that Piazza overreacted by punching him multiple times.
"Everybody ain't crazy, bro," Wolfe said in the footage. "I didn't deserve that."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.