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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, right, and Chief Deputy Austin Garrett.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond defended his department and leadership Wednesday in the first public response after dozens of local clergy called on his office to be more transparent and accountable.

"Transparency involves admitting when improvements can be made and acknowledging that despite the best efforts of any law enforcement agency, officers will make mistakes and will fall short," Hammond said in a statement. "However, I remain committed to the goals of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, and I stand behind my deputies and officers who sacrifice every day to protect and serve the citizens of this county."

On Sunday, Chattanooga Clergy for Justice sent a letter to Hammond and other local and state officials requesting 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. The group, highlighting 19 incidents of alleged misconduct, said it was alarmed by the actions of some sheriff's deputies under Hammond, who has served as sheriff since 2008.

The faith leaders held a news conference outside the Hamilton County Justice Building on Monday following the release of their letter. Some members of local clergy have twice called for the sheriff's resignation in the past two years after several incidents of alleged misconduct.

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Clergy letter

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The most recent push for transparency was the largest yet, with more than 40 clergy and six organizations signing on. The group had threatened further legal action if the sheriff did not respond by March 12.

Hammond's Wednesday afternoon statement was the first official response to the letter or news conference. The sheriff's office attached 110 pages of policies to the statement, including policies around use of force, internal investigations and deputy code of conduct.

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Sheriff response

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Troy Brand, senior pastor of Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, said he and other community members will examine the policies and present recommendations to the sheriff as needed.

"As the pandemic comes to an end, we look forward to re-engaging the sheriff's department and cooperating with them to improve relations between the community and the department," Brand said.

Brand serves on the department's Minority Relations Community Task Force, created in 2019. He told the Times Free Press that Hammond's office shut out the task force when the group tried to clarify policies around use of force after several incidents involving deputies.

Hammond acknowledged the task force in his statement Wednesday, saying the group was "formatted to be an advisory group." The sheriff did not address concerns about his department being unresponsive to the group or whether the department will re-engage the task force.

Last week, the Times Free Press requested the sheriff's office provide copies of meeting notes and recommendations to the department from the task force. Such records have not been provided, as of Wednesday.

The sheriff said in his statement he has "always welcomed recommendations and feedback from members of the community."

"Throughout my career, I have developed numerous, longstanding relationships with members of our local clergy and value the insight they have offered regarding community relations," Hammond said in the statement. "Through this insight and our own proactive measures, the HCSO has made improvements to our policies and procedures and enhanced our training in certain areas."

The sheriff has pushed back against previous calls from faith leaders, including in July 2020, when he questioned the clergy who signed a letter requesting his resignation.

"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 during a news conference at the time. "That's what I want to see."

On Wednesday, Hammond said his department is planning to make all of its policies available online. At the moment, people have to file an open records request to see a copy of the policies.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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