The Chattanooga Police Department clarified Thursday that officer Benjamin Piazza was placed on paid administrative leave, not suspended, 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.
A Chattanooga police officer put on paid leave last month for punching and cursing a motorist has since been placed on desk duty and is presenting criminal cases to grand jurors that resulted in people being indicted.
Officer Benjamin Piazza is taking non-emergency phone calls from citizens and went to court this week to present cases to a grand jury, Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal confirmed Wednesday. It's unclear how many cases Piazza presented, or when, because grand jury proceedings are secret. But court records show five people were indicted Wednesday for drug possession and DUI-related arrests that Piazza made either in 2017 or 2018.
Myzal did not give a specific reason for Piazza's change in duty, which comes as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation continues to probe his conduct for possible assault and official misconduct during a March 2018 traffic stop involving motorist Fredrico Wolfe. Piazza also faces an internal affairs probe in which Chattanooga investigators likely are looking at his body camera footage and a use-of-force report he filed after the incident.
"Modified [desk] duty allows the officer to work while providing the department with a productive employee during the time they are under administrative investigation and getting paid," Myzal said in an email, adding the department can change someone's paid leave to desk duty.
Officers also can present cases to a grand jury when they're on desk duty or paid leave, Myzal said.
It's not uncommon for officers on desk duty to review their cases with prosecutors, or return to court to ensure they don't fall by the wayside. The police department has to investigate every complaint, anonymous or otherwise, and many are unfounded or don't result in serious punishment, allowing officers to return to duty.
But Piazza has misstated or exaggerated the facts in many cases, defense attorneys previously told the Times Free Press. His personnel files show he was demoted and suspended for 160 hours without pay in 2017 for lying to his supervisor and others about turning in evidence for about 40 DUI prosecutions. Piazza's former supervisor also accused him of lying about an August 2016 incident when he threw firecrackers at his colleagues while they were on an active call, the files show.
Melydia Clewell, a spokeswoman for District Attorney General Neal Pinkston and his attorneys, said she could not comment on Piazza presenting cases. She said officers under investigation are typically on administrative leave and "therefore are unavailable to present cases." She added there are no rules covering which officers can or cannot present cases to the grand jury.
"That said, we only prosecute cases in which we believe the weight of the evidence would support a conviction," she said. "We're reviewing [Piazza's] cases on a case-by-case basis, [and there's] no set rule on how to handle."
Piazza said he pulled Wolfe over for speeding around 3:30 a.m. on March 10, 2018, saw the 37-year-old toss something out of his passenger-side window and approached the car with his weapon drawn. Though body camera footage showed Wolfe seemingly complying with Piazza's orders, the officer punched him about 10 times when Wolfe fell to the ground during the arrest.
Piazza charged Wolfe with DUI, drug possession and drugs for resale, resisting arrest, tampering with evidence and speeding. Pinkston dismissed all of those charges instead of seeking an indictment, and some defense attorneys say state lawyers aren't prosecuting Piazza's cases unless there's an independent witness or another arresting officer.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.