Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond says he doesn't think alleged excessive force incident warrants U.S. Department of Justice investigation

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond says he doesn't think alleged excessive force incident warrants U.S. Department of Justice investigation

July 22nd, 2019 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks about costs of school resource officers in schools in June 2019 during a roundtable discussion at the Children's Hospital Kennedy Outpatient Center.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

This story was updated Monday, July 22, 2019, at 11:15 p.m. with more information.

After a request for a Department of Justice Civil Rights Division investigation into his office, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said the office already is overseen by several agencies, including the Justice department.

Over the weekend, the Unity Group of Chattanooga released a resolution calling for the federal investigation into the sheriff's office, claiming deputies racially profiled a black man and that led to an alleged illegal roadside body cavity search.

Dashcam footage was released earlier this month that showed two white Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies, Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer, kicking, punching and stripping the pants off James Myron Mitchell, a 41-year-old black man. The video shows them performing an alleged 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.

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.

In the resolution, Unity Group leaders asked for the Department of Justice to begin an investigation to find whether the agency has systematically engaged in discriminatory activities.

On Monday, Hammond said he "doesn't feel the incident warrants that type of investigation."

He cited several policies and procedures his office already keeps as a condition of being accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

"If you're certified by them, they come in and do a white-glove inspection," Hammond said. "Every year, at least twice, they can come and ask to look at personnel files, look at a policy, look at a practice."

Some of those practices already address many of the additional requests made by the Unity Group, he said. Those requests included a ban on any racially discriminatory practices; a publicly available system documenting racial profiling and use of force; training for deputies to learn how to de-escalate interactions, maintain space and distance when reasonable; and more.

From de-escalation techniques to cultural awareness training and ongoing data collection, Hammond said his office and his officers do receive the training and keep those practices.

"If we were not using the latest and the best approved by this nation, we would lose that accreditation," he said.

And if they lose that accreditation, the sheriff's office could lose federal grant money and other legal protections, he said.

"There's a balance between how a police officer treats a citizen, and how a citizen needs to treat the police," Hammond said.

In addition to the requests for better policy, leaders of the Unity Group asked for the immediate firing of the deputies involved in the incident.

But that's not something Hammond can do, not without following the proper process, he has said.

Public employees facing termination possess legal protections that employees in the private sector don't. While nothing prevents governments from quickly firing public employees, those employees can sue them for monetary relief. In Hamilton County, former employees have done just that, and received settlements, in two high-profile cases in recent years.

If a government entity wants to fire one of its employees, it first needs to give them an opportunity to explain their side of the story. It needs to tell the employee in a letter what they're accused of doing wrong and arrange a hearing for them.

That is why the deputies have been placed on administrative paid leave while the internal investigation plays out. They have to be paid, because unpaid leave can be seen as punishment before being found guilty. And if the allegations are sustained, administrators won't be able to impose a real punishment (unpaid suspension).

The Unity Group isn't the only group calling for the deputies' firing. Others have also asked for Hammond's resignation, something he has said he doesn't plan to do. Though the 75-year-old did recently announce that he won't run for reelection in 2022, citing wishes to spend more time with his family.

Last week, a room full of residents gathered at Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church to discuss a plan of action, including the creation of an oversight board, and many called for Hammond to step down and for the deputies to be fired.

On Monday, in front of the sheriff's office, a group of black clergy members made the same call-to-action.

At the end of their statement, Unity Group leaders said they "recognize the special and vitally important role law enforcement officials have in protecting, serving, and maintaining the public welfare."

"We greatly thank and appreciate them," the statement read. "It is for this reason that we would hope that our law enforcement departments ... are respectful and responsive through displaying the utmost professionalism and integrity to all citizens ... in the hopes that this will help to eliminate unfortunate instances ... from being an ongoing and common occurrence."

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


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