While Chattanooga leaders are working to make it easier to hire people with criminal backgrounds, the Chattanooga Police Department is years behind on expunging its own records, with 23,000 files outstanding.
"It could create real problems," longtime defense attorney Jerry Summers said. "There's no excuse for that."
Police spokesman Kyle Miller said the police department has been aware of the problem and is working to process the records, but he blamed staff shortages and said the orders accumulated over years with the previous administration. Miller said the police's record-keeping problems shouldn't affect a person's background check because background checks are pulled from records kept by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the clerk's office.
Miller wouldn't confirm the total number of outstanding cases, explaining the department is still trying to alphabetize the records and give them specific priority, but an internal source said there were at least 23,000 records. Miller said the department has made it a priority to keep up with the latest orders to expunge records coming into the office and plans to fill four vacancies in the records department and pull off-duty officers to work on removing names from the records for the older outstanding cases.
Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who has been advocating for the city to give people with criminal records a second chance, said he was shocked to learn police have kept so many records outstanding.
"It needs to be made a priority," Hakeem said. "We're trying to make people self-sufficient and self-sustaining, and this will prevent them from doing it."
In late November, the City Council voted 7-1 to ask the city's human resources department to remove questions about an applicant's criminal record from city government job applications. City Attorney Wade Hinton said the question has been removed from city applications.
Miller also downplayed the significance of the problem, explaining that other law enforcement agencies likely have their own backlogs of expunged orders.
But the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office records department said it is only about four weeks behind on deleting expunged orders from the court — a few hundred cases. Darrell DeBusk, spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department, a larger agency than Chattanooga, said he didn't know of any outstanding expunged cases in the department.
Chattanooga defense attorneys said the situation could have lasting ramifications if police department personnel gave out information on a case without realizing the record was supposed to be expunged.
Miller said the police department is responsible for removing the name and the charge from an incident report once the expungement order is sent to the department. In the past, he said, when a person requested an incident report the staff would look through the entire pile of expunged records to make sure it was OK to release the record.
Tennessee law states that anyone whose case is dismissed is eligible to have his or her record expunged. And since 2012, state law has made it easier for more people to get their records expunged. State residents can pay a $450 fee to have their criminal records deleted for a first-time conviction after five years have passed, depending on the charge, clerk officials said.
Once the judge signs the order, the court deletes the record from its system and then sends the order to the TBI and the arresting agency, which is responsible for deleting its records, said Edna Camp, the county's chief deputy criminal clerk.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at 423-757-6659 or email@example.com.