Internal complaints allege lying, pranking, excessive force by Chattanooga police officer under investigation for punching man at traffic stop

Internal complaints allege lying, pranking, excessive force by Chattanooga police officer under investigation for punching man at traffic stop

January 23rd, 2019 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

The Chattanooga Police Department clarified that officer Benjamin Piazza was placed on paid administrative leave, not paid suspension, 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 under investigation for punching a man several times during a recent traffic stop has a history of internal complaints alleging rude behavior, lying to supervisors about turning in evidence on time, excessive force and playing a prank on colleagues that made them believe they were getting shot at, a review of his personnel file shows.

The Times Free Press received a copy of Benjamin Piazza's file Tuesday after first publishing body camera footage Friday that showed him punching Fredrico Wolfe, 37, during a March 2018 traffic stop on Lee Highway.

Though Wolfe tossed a bag of drugs out of his window after Piazza pulled him over, the video showed Wolfe otherwise following the officer's orders. Both police Chief David Roddy and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke issued statements in support of an internal investigation, which no one had requested before the video emerged. In the meantime, Piazza remains on paid leave.

Document: Piazza Inquiry Referral

This "inquiry referral" is from August 2016.

The files show every available complaint against Piazza since he joined the department on Jan. 11, 2013, where he worked as a DUI patrol officer and in the Neighborhood Policing Bureau and Street Crimes Response Team.

Before Tuesday's release, city attorneys tried to block a public defender from getting these files, arguing the defender had issued a subpoena for them too close to a then-Dec. 11 trial date in Hamilton County Criminal Court. That trial has since been rescheduled to Wednesday, where the defender's client faces DUI charges that Piazza brought in May 2014.

Document: Piazza Internal Affairs Case

This refers to the unfounded excessive force claim from 2015.

Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal did not respond to requests for comment about the files, although the department does not typically make statements during pending investigations.

Piazza was first accused of excessive force in June 2015 by a 41-year-old man, whom he arrested for criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. Investigators deemed the complaint "unfounded," partly because investigators could never find the man, reach him by phone or get a clear description of what Piazza allegedly did to him. Video and medical records from the Hamilton County Jail backed up Piazza when they didn't reveal any injuries or violence, the files show.

During the course of their probe, though, investigators learned Piazza never turned on his car camera during the incident, which is a violation of department policy, his files show. He was verbally reprimanded as a result.

Document: Piazza Internal Affairs Report

This refers to the unfounded excessive force claim from 2015.

The files show more serious incidents in 2016.

In July, a supervisor said he learned Piazza had a large number of missing case files in the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office. As a result, prosecutors had delayed 40 or so DUI cases, and an assistant district attorney said she would have to dismiss charges in at least one case unless Piazza brought her the necessary evidence, according to a 2016 email in his personnel files.

Piazza's supervisor, a sergeant named Peter Turk who has since resigned amid criminal allegations that he solicited prostitutes, said he ordered Piazza to bring everything to prosecutors on Aug. 31, 2016. When Turk followed up, Piazza told him that he "completed all the DA's office paperwork requests," the files show. But Turk said he later learned Piazza only turned in three forms for around 40 cases.

Document: Piazza OPS

This refers to the unfounded excessive force claim from 2015.

Piazza admitted he'd lied, partly because he didn't want his new supervisors in the Street Crimes Response Team to think he was irresponsible with case file preparation, documents show. Piazza later supplied prosecutors with "all of the available documentation" and was paid administrative leave for 160 hours without pay and demoted to a field training officer post several months later by then-Police Chief Fred Fletcher.

That fall, Turk said, Piazza lied to him again. This time it involved a dangerous prank that caused his colleagues to think they were being shot while dealing with a disturbance in the 2500 block of Amnicola Highway.

On Aug. 20, 2016, Turk wrote, Piazza sped past a group of officers multiple times in an undercover car, cursing at them and honking his horn. At one point, Turk wrote, Piazza called one of the officers, wondering why he couldn't get a reaction. He finally threw a small batch of firecrackers out of his window and drove away.

Document: Piazza Initial Investigative Report

This 016-30 initial investigative report refers to the evidence issue from 2016.

"He put other officers and citizens in danger due to the emergency response that his actions created," Turk wrote. "Inv. Piazza, in the beginning, was not truthful when questioned by me about the incident."

Turk forwarded the complaint to his supervisors, some of whom agreed the incident needed to be investigated. The files indicate supervisors found Piazza had violated their unsatisfactory performance code, but they did not indicate whether he had been punished. 

Piazza's files also include rudeness complaints for a pair of incidents Piazza responded to in 2017. One man said Piazza berated him for letting his son drive on a busy day, incorrectly cited them for a traffic accident and didn't speak to all witnesses involved. The other said Piazza lectured him for honking at another driver who nearly ran him off the road — and who later pointed a revolver at him and his son at a red light. Investigators said both complaints were unfounded.

Looking ahead, information about Piazza's ability to tell the truth, and the allegations against him, could impact some of his pending cases in Hamilton County's General Sessions and Criminal courts. Melydia Clewell, a spokeswoman for District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, said prosecutors will determine on a case-by-case basis how to move forward on any arrests he's made.

Chattanooga attorney Rip Biggs said he's had many cases where Piazza either exaggerated or misstated a number of facts. On Tuesday, he referenced a pending DUI case involving one of his clients.

"He says he can see the car. You can't see it from where he was. He says the car is in drive. It's not. He says [my client] is slumped over the wheel. He isn't. The video shows him sleeping. It's just a bunch of gross exaggerations and he testified to all of it.

"I wouldn't say it was perjurious, but it was definitely very poor testimony."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.


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