Chattanooga clergy brought their demand for accountability and transparency from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to the doors of the department on Monday morning.
Standing on the steps of the Hamilton County Justice Building, the Rev. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church, read the latest clergy-led call for Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to make improvements.
More than 40 local clergy and six organizations signed the letter, which was sent to the sheriff on Sunday and requests the department make public its policies around officer training, use of force and the employment of officers involved in misconduct or excessive use of force.
"City clergy, community organizations, county commissioners and our community at large continue to be alarmed by the clear instances of brutal treatment of citizens of Hamilton County by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies," Ladd said. "Since you [Hammond] were elected in 2008, more than 19 violations involving your deputies have been reported and documented."
The letter marks the latest call from local faith leaders. In July 2020, a group of nearly 40 Chattanooga area clergy members published a letter asking Hammond to resign after incidents of alleged deputy misconduct against Black men. This was the second clergy-led call for Hammond's resignation in a year.
Hammond said at the time he recognized "maybe one" name on the list as being someone who tried to work with the sheriff's office on diversifying the department.
"I cannot tell you one pastor who has brought me an African American in the last six months that I could put to work, or called me about doing that," Hammond said at a news conference. "That's what I want to see. They want me to show up and fix the problems by resigning. But I'm saying give me the help I need to see that we have young men and women who can move up the ranks and develop a career."
The Times Free Press has been seeking an updated response from the sheriff's department since Friday. On Monday, spokesperson Matt Lea reiterated, "We are preparing a response at this time. When it is complete, we will make sure to include all our local media."
The department offered a similar response on Friday and Sunday.
Local clergy pointed out Hammond had met with several of them and also commissioned a task force in early 2019 to address diversity in hiring, transparency and law enforcement self-regulation. However, the pastor who helped lead that task force said the group was sidelined by the sheriff's office when they attempted to address misconduct within the department.
The clergy highlighted instances of alleged deputy misconduct, such as in May 2020 when four deputies repeatedly struck a Black man on the side of a road with their batons for more than five minutes. The district attorney said this month his office would not seek charges against the deputies.
The faith leaders also pointed to when the department reported a "catastrophic data loss" last year that deleted the dash camera footage for all 130 patrol deputies between Oct. 25, 2018, and Jan. 23, 2020. The sheriff's office blamed two of its vendors for the missing footage, though one of the vendors has denied the accusation.
"In many instances, you shifted the blame to computer servers, clergy and community organizers for failure in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office," Ladd said. "However, computer servers, clergy, nor community organizers pledged an oath to faithfully execute the office of sheriff to the best of their knowledge and ability, agreeably to law. You have been given great responsibility as the chief law enforcement officer of our county. And in the words, to whom much is given, much is required. From the sacred texts, it is a reminder that great responsibility requires great accountability."
The clergy gave the sheriff's office until March 12 to respond to their demands.
"If there is no response by March the 12th, this community will continue to move forward in holding you accountable to violations against your oath of office and against the citizens of Hamilton County," Ladd said.
The sheriff's office said last week it is working on a formal response to the clergy letter.
The Rev. Timothy Careathers, senior pastor at Westside Missionary Baptist Church, closed the Monday morning news conference in prayer, thanking the "faithful few who do not mind speaking truth to power" who had gathered in support of the effort.
"We stand against cruel, counterproductive Christianity and we stand on the prophetic legacy of our ancestors," Careathers said. "We stand not in the traditionalism of a Christ we have constructed in our own images that would dare write reports and newspaper articles to protect such damnable behavior by a sheriff. But we stand in the tradition of a Christ that got love for all of God's humanity."
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.