A lawsuit filed Monday alleges that Chattanooga Police Department officials previously cleared an officer of wrongdoing in a 2018 traffic stop that is now being criminally investigated.
Chattanooga attorney Robin Flores filed the lawsuit in Hamilton County Circuit Court on behalf of Fredrico Wolfe, the motorist who was punched and cursed multiple times by officer Benjamin Piazza during an early morning traffic stop on Lee Highway in March 2018.
That interaction became public when the Times Free Press obtained footage of the incident in January, and shortly thereafter District Attorney General Neal Pinkston asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate officer Piazza for possible assault and official misconduct. The probe remains ongoing, officials said Wednesday.
In their suit, Flores and Wolfe alleged that police department officials tried to cover up the 2018 incident, that one employee possibly lost a job over it, and that police Chief David Roddy gave the perception in a public statement in January that "neither he nor anyone in the command structure of CPD were aware the videos existed."
Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said the department could not comment on a lawsuit because Piazza's investigation is ongoing. City Attorney Phil Noblett, whose office will defend the police department, Piazza and the other two officers named in the suit, said he had been served a copy this week but had not yet read the claims.
In his criminal affidavit, Piazza wrote he pulled Wolfe over for speeding, saw him toss two bags of drugs out of his passenger window and claimed Wolfe struggled during his arrest. The body camera footage further showed Piazza approaching the vehicle with his gun drawn and ordering Wolfe out of the vehicle as Wolfe appeared to be opening his car door. Wolfe then immediately put his hands on the hood of his vehicle and seemed to comply with Piazza's commands as Piazza tried to handcuff him.
But during the encounter, Wolfe fell to the ground, and Piazza punched him about 10 times. Flores claims in the lawsuit that Piazza knocked Wolfe to the ground, while three officers who were also at the scene stood by and watched. They did not report the incident to their supervisors, Flores wrote.
"Piazza, in his attempt to cover-up his criminal and unconstitutional conduct, later wrote false claims in an affidavit of complaint, which he swore under oath, in order to bring [now-dismissed] charges against the plaintiff," Flores wrote. "Piazza furthered his cover-up by drafting a false use of report."
As criminal justice experts previously told the Times Free Press, use-of-force reports can involve a wide range of behavior, from assaults up to citizen complaints that their handcuffs were too tight. Though a department's chain of command must review them, time constraints can prevent busy supervisors from always doing that.
But "upon information and belief," Flores wrote, Piazza's immediate supervisor, Michael Newton, reviewed the body camera footage and Piazza's use-of-force report sometime after the incident. Newton, a sergeant, announced his resignation from the police department for personal reasons on Nov. 30, 2018, records show. That was two weeks after Wolfe's defense attorneys requested the body camera footage from prosecutors, who in turn requested it from the police department.
Flores said Newton's immediate supervisor, a lieutenant named Shawn Hickey, also reviewed Piazza's body camera footage. But Hickey, he wrote, "approved Piazza's use-of-force report without actually reading the use-of-force report."
Next, Noblett or another city attorney will file a response to the claims. They may request the case be moved to Chattanooga's U.S. District Court, since Flores claimed the city violated federal civil rights statutes. Flores is asking for $3 million in damages and said Wolfe is suing for counts of unreasonable seizure by excessive force, malicious prosecution, failure to protect and render aid, common law battery, common law assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false arrest.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.