Chattanooga police chief addresses allegations of police brutality before city council

Chattanooga police chief addresses allegations of police brutality before city council

January 29th, 2019 by Rosana Hughes in Breaking News

Police Chief David Roddy answers questions from reporters following a City Council work session at the Chattanooga City Council building on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. At the work session, Chief Roddy explained the departments policies for officer discipline and answered questions from councilors after a video depicting an officer punching a suspect was released earlier this month.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

This story was updated at 10:18 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, with more information.

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Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy appeared before the City Council Tuesday to answer questions about the department's policy on use of force and internal investigations after recent allegations of police brutality.

Last week, City Council members demanded explanations and action after the Times Free Press published a video of Chattanooga police officer Benjamin Piazza punching and cursing an apparently compliant man during a traffic stop.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston since has dismissed all of the man's charges, and he asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into Piazza's traffic stop.

"One of the reasons we're in [the City Council conference room] is because it didn't go right," Roddy said of that case. "Fault is recognized, and change is needed."

Roddy said the department has added an internal affairs investigator and is adding another sergeant to the department's professional standards division. The sergeant will be responsible for reviewing and submitting reports on all body-worn and in-car video connected to use-of-force reports, as well as reviewing all video connected to vehicle pursuits, Roddy said.

The chief said he would work with the city on how to develop a better administrative review committee.

The department's review committee — made of up three community members, three police department employees and an assistant chief — reviews the results of internal investigations into alleged wrongdoing by officers and submits an opinion.

Roddy asked the council to help in determining what that committee would look like for Chattanooga.

He asked the council to consider several points, including who should be on the committee, whether term limits should be imposed and how it should be structured.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod voiced interest in having more community control on the committee.

"Or if we have to utilize the police department, to make sure that trust is amongst the community because we don't have that community trust with the police department and to make sure that those videos are being reviewed and to actually have the opportunity to make the right decision or to pass it on the next level," she said.

It still is not clear why the recent use-of-force allegation against officer Piazza was not investigated when it happened in March 2018.

After the arrest, Piazza filed a use-of-force report with the department, police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal previously told the Times Free Press. But, citing the ongoing investigation, Roddy couldn't answer how or why that report didn't get investigated.

The department's internal investigation into Piazza will look into who saw what and why it wasn't passed up the chain of command. As a result, as with any investigation, more people could face disciplinary action, Myzal said.

Roddy told council members any and all allegations of employee misconduct are investigated, even anonymous complaints.

He said legitimate complaints are investigated internally. The Administrative Review Committee submits an opinion on the case. Those findings are then sent to the deputy chief of staff and, finally, to Roddy himself.

"I can't judge until I'm in a position to do so," Roddy said. "It would be similar to one of us going into a courtroom and hearing a judge say before we go in, 'All right. I know he's guilty, but let's go ahead and look at the evidence.'"

"Many people would ask of me to step forward in a very short time frame, [to say] what I think or feel about something. I am not afforded that I cannot be at the level of responsiveness that some people may wish that I could be, because it would jeopardize what we have to do at the end of this."

During the investigation, accused officers may be suspended. "They cannot wear a uniform, drive a city vehicle, work an extra job," Roddy said.

Officers also may be put on "modified duty," taking reports over the phone or doing administrative work. But sometimes the allegation is of "such an egregious nature" that it's better to leave the officers on suspension with pay, Roddy said.

Suspended officers have to be paid because courts have ruled that an officer cannot be disciplined after being suspended without pay, Roddy said. That's because withholding payment is viewed as discipline.

Investigations can take weeks or months, he said.

When a criminal investigation is also underway, the internal investigation is at a standstill until the criminal case is closed.

Criminal investigations are typically carried out by an outside agency. And during that time, Chattanooga police personnel are usually not allowed to even speak to the accused officer, Roddy said.

During an internal investigation, officers are required to provide information or be subject to firing. But because of the 1967 Supreme Court ruling Garrity v. New Jersey, the statements officers provide under internal investigation cannot be used in criminal proceedings. Therefore, the criminal investigation takes priority.

In any case, once the internal investigation is complete, there are four different outcomes: sustained, not sustained, unfounded and exonerated. If an officer resigns while under investigation, the case is labeled as administratively closed.

Roddy said under department policy he has to accept the results of the internal investigation, and discipline is determined based on a formula.

"This takes away, and rightfully so, my discretion as chief of police," he said. "I do not have the ability to sit at the end of the table and when deciding to sustain an allegation, arbitrarily decide what discipline is imposed."

Discipline can range all the way up to termination.

But even after discipline has been issued, an officer can appeal a decision and have a hearing before an administrative law judge. That judge then decides whether the discipline should be upheld or if the officer should be re-employed.

"For us it's very important that when we've decided that person doesn't need to wear a badge it's critical that we have built something that we can defend if we go into an [administrative law judge] hearing," Roddy said.

Since 2014, six cases have gone before an administrative law judge. Only one disciplinary decision was reversed. Another was dismissed based on an agreement to reduce a 30-day suspension to 25 days.

Once a decision is final, in addition to firing an officer, Roddy sometimes asks the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to decertify the officer — an extra step beyond firing that would mean the officer can no longer work as an officer anywhere in Tennessee.

For the past five years, the Chattanooga Police Department has requested the decertification of 16 officers, nine in 2018 and one already this year.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.