Chattanooga City Council sees need for stronger accountability in considering creation of police oversight committee

Chattanooga City Council sees need for stronger accountability in considering creation of police oversight committee

February 19th, 2019 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Citing a need for stronger police accountability, Chattanooga City Council members are weighing options to create an oversight committee.

The council's discussion comes after recent allegations of police misconduct and as Tennessee Republican lawmakers push a bill to strip police oversight boards statewide of their subpoena power and add more regulations to their operation.

Council members said on Tuesday that, while the legislation will affect a police oversight committee's power and certain operations, they don't want to wait for lawmakers before they decide on the structure and membership of the committee.

"There are several ways to meet this need without worrying about the Tennessee Legislature," Councilwoman Carol Berz said.

The Chattanooga Police Department already has a review committee — made of up three community members, three police department employees and an assistant chief — that reviews the results of internal investigations into alleged wrongdoing by officers and submits an opinion to the chief of police. Ultimately, though, the final disciplinary decision lies with the chief.

Late last month, Chief David Roddy asked the council for help in developing a better administrative review committee.

Councilman Chip Henderson, who has been spearheading the discussions between Roddy and the council, asked his fellow council members to read up on several models for police oversight committees from cities across the country.

"I think that we can go ahead and start with something," Councilman Russell Gilbert said. "We can read through [the models], and by next Tuesday we should have some kind of vision on what we want to see. And then from that point, listen to what they're saying about [the proposed legislation] and start creating something for our city instead of putting it off for a month or two."

Part of that discussion will involve how committee members will be elected or appointed. One model suggests having a member from each city district. Another suggests ensuring a member from each demographic is on the committee.

One thing Roddy noted is there isn't a nationally recognized "best practice" model for police oversight committees.

"[Committees] are as individual as the communities and the departments and the governments they work with," he said.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said she thinks it "sounds great" to revamp the police department's current review committee, but she's "more for having it independently put on the [2020] ballot and allow our citizens to dictate what's going to happen."

If Chattanoogans voted in support, the oversight board would become part of the city charter, making it harder for future administrations to dismantle it.

Gilbert echoed Coonrod's thoughts, but said he is "not going to wait until 2020 to put something on the ballot when we can actually do something now and put something on the ballot in the future."

Other council members agreed with Gilbert's sentiment.

"People feel like even we as a council don't hear the cries of the community," Councilman Anthony Byrd said. "When it comes to a lot of our constituents, they're going to want to see justice. They will want to see some change."

"In our community, we have a divide," he said. "They're saying that we're not doing our job So I want to make sure that, however long it takes to get that board, we need to put the narrative [out there] that we are on the job, that we are doing what's needed."

Ultimately, though, the structure should be discussed first, council Chairman Ken Smith said. He doesn't think individual council members should have the power to appoint one member.

"It's way too easy to politicize such a critical aspect of such an important committee, and we don't need people on the committee to answer to a council person," he said. "Maybe the entire council approves every person, so there's not a matter of a new council person getting in that seat and appointing their own person."

Smith also wants to see members from different professional backgrounds, such as a social worker, psychiatrist, maybe even a former judge.

"People that have perspectives of this from various positions in life," he said.

But more than anything, Smith said, his biggest concern is with policy.

"We can have policies reviewed, we can have policies audited, and policy's great. But if it's not being followed, it really doesn't matter if the policy's great," he said.

He pointed to the case that brought about the discussions of an oversight committee, in which Chattanooga police officer Benjamin Piazza was seen punching and cursing an apparently compliant man during a traffic stop.

"Whether there was a report filed for use of force, and whether that actually detailed the actions that were taken, and whether that video was actually reviewed by supervisors, and whether it was deemed [appropriate behavior]. That's extremely concerning," Smith said to Roddy. "I think we need to be making sure, as a whole, not just your top command staff — this goes all the way down to every commander — [is] following the intent of the policy to the T."

Roddy acknowledged the concern and said that, while he couldn't answer those questions right away due to open criminal and administrative investigations, they "are absolutely part of what is being investigated. It ripples out from just the incident itself."

In the end, "Next Tuesday will be critical to kind of determine how we're going to move forward," Henderson told his fellow council members. "I think it would be wise for you to read through all those and and see what ones you like, [and] from each one of those start putting together [a drafted ordinance]."

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


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