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Some area residents are calling for a new sheriff after an allegedly illegal roadside body-cavity search that placed two Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies on administrative leave.
The idea was discussed as a room full of residents gathered at Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church Thursday evening to discuss a plan of action. The meeting followed last week's release of dashcam footage that showed two white Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies, Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer, kicking, punching and stripping the pants off of James Myron Mitchell, a 41-year-old black man. The video shows them performing a body-cavity search on Mitchell on the side of the road in Soddy-Daisy as both he and the driver of the vehicle, Latisha Menifee, are handcuffed.
Sam Terry, who moderated Thursday's meeting, asked any current or retired law enforcement officials to stand up. He told them, "there's the few that make you look bad. It's the leadership that's supposed to have control and dictate the atmosphere. That's why we're here tonight."
"Our priority is to ensure that the law enforcement in this county and city keep those they are sworn to serve and protect in a right, fair and just manner that protects everyone's dignity and humanity," Ricardo Morris, president of Chattanooga Neighborhoods Arts Partnership, said to begin the meeting.
Over the past four days, community leaders, pastors, city council members and county commissioners have met and developed a four-point plan for change, Morris said.
Those points include:
» Thoroughly examining the county's policies and procedures used to train deputies on cavity searches, warrants, arrests and excessive force.
» Work with the county to develop and implement a law enforcement review committee.
» Form a coalition with other cities in Tennessee with the goal of developing a strategy to change law enforcement legislation at the state level
» Demand that county and city law enforcement officers receive training that implements cultural inclusivity, racial anxiety and unconscious bias
Several residents had questions about whether an oversight board would have any investigative power and some were skeptical such a board would even become a reality without it being on the ballot in the 2022 elections.
"We know what these elected officials already think about certain issues," one man said. "So where is the plan for 2022? ... I think that's something to think about, because y'all can draft a policy, and I'm not a commissioner, but I can tell you it's not gonna pass."
Even if such a board were created, questions remain about whether it would have subpoena power. Police oversight board powers are regulated by state law, which takes boards' subpoena powers away but leaves it open for city government to issue subpoenas. However, the sheriff's office is a county agency, not city.
The city of Chattanooga recently established a similar board, and some residents pointed out that the chief of police ultimately has final say in any disciplinary actions against officers.
"That is not an oversight board," activist Marie Mott said. "It only has recommendation power."
Other residents had questions about the status of the deputies in question. Those deputies have been placed on administrative paid leave while they are under internal investigation. They are required by law to be paid, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has said.
Additionally, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston has asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Gov. Bill Lee to look into the alleged brutality.
Still, others in the crowd called for the resignation or firing of Hammond and his deputies and expressed frustration with not having been "invited to the table" to discuss the plan for change.
"The four-point plan is a wonderful plan, but it doesn't deal with the immediate issue," said Kevin Muhammad, a leader of the Nation of Islam. "We're dealing with white supremacy."
Muhammad said those who came up with the plan were being "too nice" and that they needed to "put some heat on [Hammond]."
"Our people are dying and being beat and sodomized on the street, and y'all are playing all nice," he said.
Hammond, however, said he stands by his deputies and that he will not resign. (He recently announced he won't run for reelection in 2022.)
Several in the crowd noted that residents had a chance to vote in a new sheriff last year.
"I sat in front of the rec center on Brainerd Road and I saw car after car after car drive by, but none of the people in their car looked like me. And none of the people in their car was my age," one man said. "So that shows me that only the seniors and older black people are voting."
The man urged young people to register to vote.
"Far too often, events such as this stir up emotions for the moment and they're forgotten," Morris said. "We will not forget. We will not let those responsible forget. It will take all of us working together to change to bring about the change we deserve."
As for the oversight board, Hammond said he's "not gonna do it."
"That has to be my decision," he said. "We have plenty of checks and balances to deal with these situations. I don't need to add another layer. In fact, I meet the black class recruits, I meet with Dr. [Elenora] Woods [local NAACP president] when she wants to, I meet with [Councilwoman Demetrus] Coonrod."