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This story was updated at 6:26 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021, with a response from the sheriff's office.

Chattanooga Clergy for Justice, a group of faith leaders pushing for police reform, filed a complaint Thursday with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking an investigation of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

The letter asks for a pattern-or-practice investigation of the sheriff's office to determine whether it is systematically violating the rights of Hamilton County citizens.

The complaint alleges a pattern of deputy misconduct, a history of hiring deputies with previous misconduct, the targeting of vulnerable populations by sheriff's deputies and an unwillingness by the sheriff's office to reform its practices or cooperate with criminal investigations related to the department.

"Until the DOJ mandates and oversees the effective implementation of major structural changes within the department, the most vulnerable in the Hamilton County community — people of color, low-income people and people with disabilities — will not be safe from those sworn to protect and serve us," the complaint reads.

The letter, sent Thursday to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke, is signed by Chattanooga Clergy for Justice; Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence; Chattanooga Democratic Socialists of America; Tennessee Poor People's Campaign and Tennessee United.

Rachel Frizzell, public information officer for the sheriff's office, said in an email that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has provided answers to area clergy and cooperated with local, state and federal investigations.

"The sheriff's office will not respond to unsubstantiated and inflammatory allegations that continue to be brought by the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice," Frizzell said in an email. "Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies work tirelessly to keep this community safe and efforts to undermine that work are only meant to be divisive and destructive. The sheriff's office is committed to fair and equitable treatment of all citizens in the county that we serve. Discrimination, in any form or fashion, has never been and will never be tolerated. In the last HCSO response to similar allegations from the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice, the Sheriff's Office indicated that we believe we are simply at an impasse. We do not agree with the representations made by the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice nor do we desire to air grievances through press releases."

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Frizzell also said the sheriff's department would not make further statements regarding Chattanooga Clergy for Justice.

Sheriff Jim Hammond declined previous requests for outside investigations of his department, citing the office's accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and how its policies around use of force meet national standards.

Over the past three months, the Chattanooga clergy worked with members of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to mediate discussions between community members and the sheriff's office around changing department policies, such as adding more specific language about when deputies can use force.

However, leaders of the clergy group said the sheriff's office was unwilling to work with them or the DOJ. The letter states that during March and April the clergy tried to meet with the sheriff's office for a mediated discussion with a DOJ representative but the sheriff's office responded that there was "no need for a meeting."

Their concerns mirror those of faith leaders who were working with the sheriff's office around issues of hiring diversity, transparency and self-regulation. In February, members of Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Minority Relations Community Task Force went public with concerns around a lack of transparency from the department and an unwillingness to work with them on changing department policies.

At the time, more than 40 local clergy and six organizations highlighted 19 incidents of alleged misconduct, including the arrest of James Mitchell, who was punched and kicked by deputies during an arrest for drug possession before the deputies probed around his genitals and buttocks for further contraband or weapons in what was alleged to be an illegal cavity search.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga clergy trying to work with Hamilton County sheriff join latest demand for transparency, accountability)

The Mitchell case is cited in the DOJ letter, along with other incidents of alleged misconduct, including the case of Charles Toney Jr., a Black man who was punched and kicked by a white detective while handcuffed during a December 2018 arrest. The FBI is still investigating the incident.

"These incidents are not the result of 'a few bad apples' or isolated incidents, but rather indicate systemic problems within the HCSO (including its policies and procedures around use of force) that put our community at risk from its own public safety department," the complaint says. "A DOJ pattern or practice investigation is critical for stopping HCSO's abuses against the community it is sworn to protect and vindicating the constitutional rights of Hamilton County residents."

The DOJ is not obligated to open an investigation when it receives a complaint. According to the department's manual on the process, an investigation is typically opened if the allegations show a pattern of violating federal laws or the U.S. Constitution, which can include patterns of unlawful searches and seizures, unlawful uses of force or racial discrimination. If systemic problems are found, typically there is a negotiated agreement to make changes, otherwise the department may file a lawsuit to force changes.

"The division's pattern-or-practice investigations examine not only whether there is a pattern or practice of police misconduct, but also why such a pattern or practice exists, in order to identify the right reform steps to eliminate it," the DOJ's manual on pattern-or-practice investigations reads.

The department can conduct a confidential preliminary inquiry into the allegations before deciding whether to launch a full investigation, which would be publicly announced. Similar investigations were conducted in Baltimore, Puerto Rico and Ferguson, Missouri.

"Given Sheriff Hammond's complete lack of interest in resolving the rampant misconduct in the HCSO, we call on the DOJ to do what no one has been able to do: hold Sheriff Hammond and his officers accountable for the systemic constitutional violations they have committed against Hamilton County citizens," the complaint says.

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

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