Chattanooga City Council blasts police department, raises concerns over police brutality

Chattanooga City Council blasts police department, raises concerns over police brutality

Chattanooga City Council calls for action after police beating video

January 22nd, 2019 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

CORRECTION: Wolfe's name has been corrected to Fredrico.

Responding to last week's video of a Chattanooga officer punching and cursing a compliant man during a traffic stop, city council members on Tuesday demanded explanations and action.

"Someone had to see this. Someone must have thought it was justified," Councilman Russell Gilbert said at the council's evening voting session.

He called for an independent investigation by the district attorney's office into the March 2018 incident. Police body-camera and dashcam video showed Officer Benjamin Piazza punching and cursing motorist Fredrico Wolfe.

The audience in the council chambers included members of the NAACP, retired state Rep. Tommie Brown and a couple of dozen local residents.

Local activist Marie Mott called it "crazy and insidious" that the council continues to let the Chattanooga Police Department investigate itself after multiple charges of excessive force up to and including two allegations of rape against one officer.

If the community can't get justice in the council or the courts, Mott said, "we'll rise up and get justice in the streets."

Sherman Matthews, with the Unity Group, said national representatives of the NAACP will be here Wednesday for a march against police brutality. The march is set for 11 a.m., starting from 106 Walnut St.

The Times Free Press published the video Friday. Police Chief David Roddy immediately suspended Piazza with pay and promised an investigation.

Council members spent much of their afternoon strategic planning session talking about the video, about police protecting wrongdoers in their ranks, and whether an existing administrative review committee has power to uncover and punish officers who abuse the public.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said that despite nationwide attention to police violence, particularly against African-Americans, "in 2019 we're still having the same discussions."

She said Piazza "whomped on" Wolfe, and "the language he used showed what he thought about that African-American."

"And by not firing him immediately, we're condoning that behavior," Coonrod said. "When things like this happen, it feels like it's slapping me in the face, and we as a council have got to do something."

City Attorney Phil Noblett explained that the officer has civil service protection and is legally entitled to a hearing.

The incident happened in March 2018 but Wolfe never filed a complaint and the police video only surfaced last week.

And why did it take that long, Councilwoman Carol Berz asked, since two other Chattanooga police officers were present that night?

"There were officers that watched another officer beat somebody and there was no discussion. That bothers me," she said.

No police supervisor who viewed the officers' reports raised the issue, Chairman Ken Smith added.

"I think there's a number of questions everybody wants to have the answers to," Smith said.

Councilman Anthony Byrd asked if the council can demand that an officer be fired or charged.

Noblett said discipline is an internal police matter, but added, "You fund the police department" and can insist it implement programs.

Councilman Chip Henderson said he has already talked to Roddy about having the police chief appear before the council's public safety committee Tuesday.

Henderson said the council needs to know about the CPD's internal investigation process as well as how the administrative review board works.

Councilman Jerry Mitchell said action against excessive police force is long overdue.

"I hope we all approach this so we end up not just talking about something, because I've had enough. If the council needs to force change, we need to not be afraid of that," Mitchell said.

Although most police officers are "outstanding individuals," he said, "We have a history of police bullying in this town — I grew up with it and don't blame anyone who thinks so.

"We need to show real leadership and say we've had enough."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.