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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond

A group of Chattanooga clergy pushing the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to change its policies around use of force says it will ask the Department of Justice to investigate whether the law enforcement organization has a pattern of misconduct.

According to Chattanooga Clergy for Justice, the sheriff's office has ignored or denied efforts to meet with the clergy group, the DOJ or the sheriff's Minority Relations Task Force, which Sheriff Jim Hammond created in 2019.

The resistance shows the sheriff's office "has chosen to ignore the cries of its community," according to a letter released Monday, and prompted the faith leaders to seek federal intervention. The Rev. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church, said the group will file its complaint before the end of the week.

"We can no longer sit by while the HCSO continues to use excessive force to brutalize the people of Hamilton County and do nothing to protect the civil rights of her citizens," the letter, released Monday, reads. "We call on Attorney General Merrick Garland to do what no one has been able to do, hold Sheriff Hammond and his officers accountable!"

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Hammond, in a statement to the Times Free Press, said the Justice Department does not need to investigate the sheriff's office since his department is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

The office's use-of-force policies meet nationwide standards, said J. Matt Lea, manager of the sheriff's office public relations division, in an email. Maintaining CALEA accreditation, which the department first received in 2013, involves a constant review of policies to ensure rights are protected, he said, though the clergy can raise other specific concerns for the sheriff's office to address.

"As a CALEA accredited agency, we cannot arbitrarily change our policies when a group in our community disagrees with them," Lea said. "Sheriff Hammond sought accreditation so that our policies cannot change based on the subjective desire of individuals. We suggest Chattanooga Clergy for Justice contact CALEA if they want these policies to be reviewed."

The sheriff made the same argument about accreditation and against oversight in 2019 when clergy and community members asked for a DOJ investigation after 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.

Ladd said credentialing agencies such as CALEA do not conduct the kind of rigorous investigation that looks for patterns of misconduct that the justice department would do.

The sheriff uses his department's accreditation to avoid addressing community concerns and other ideas to improve the department, Ladd said. For example, the sheriff's policies still allow chokeholds in some cases, even as Congress looks to ban them nationally by withholding federal funds from departments that allow them, Ladd said.

The DOJ's Civil Rights Division oversees "pattern-or-practice" investigations, which involve interviews with law enforcement and community members, as well as a review of policies and incidents to look for patterns in stops, searches, arrests or use-of-force incidents that show discriminatory policing or a violation of constitutional rights.

If systemic problems are found, typically there is a negotiated agreement to make changes, otherwise the department may file a lawsuit to force reform, according to the department's website.

Last month, Garland restored the department's focus on investigating local law enforcement agencies for discriminatory policing, ending the policy created under then-President Donald Trump that made it harder for the department to use consent decrees and court monitors to force change.

In the past month, the DOJ announced investigations into the Louisville Metro Police after the killing of Breonna Taylor and the Minneapolis Police Department after the murder of George Floyd. Similar investigations were conducted in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, after high-profile incidents of alleged police misconduct.

The DOJ declined to comment about a possible investigation in Hamilton County.

The announcement from Chattanooga Clergy for Justice is the latest in a years-long back and forth between some faith leaders and Hammond after use-of-force incidents or alleged misconduct by sheriff's deputies.

In February, some area clergy, including ones working with the sheriff's office, went public with concerns around a lack of transparency from the department and an unwillingness to work with community members. More than 40 local clergy and six organizations signed a letter highlighting 19 incidents of alleged misconduct, the largest push against the sheriff to date.

The clergy appealed to the DOJ to help bring justice in several high-profile incidents of alleged deputy misconduct, such as the arrest of Mitchell and 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.

Reginald Arrington Jr. was also named. On May 23, 2020, sheriff's deputies stopped Arrington while he was walking on Old Lee Highway in Ooltewah. During the arrest, the sheriff's office said, Arrington began showing "erratic behavior," including attempting to grab a deputy's gun while handcuffed. Four white deputies repeatedly struck Arrington, who is Black, with batons for more than five minutes and called him a "piece of s —-."

The sheriff has declined previous clergy-led calls for his resignation after use-of-force incidents and said those clergy should instead help him recruit candidates to add diversity to his department.

Hammond defended his department in a February letter back to the clergy to which he attached 110 pages of department policies, including policies around use of force, internal investigations and deputy code of conduct. The clergy thanked the sheriff at the time and said they would analyze the policies for areas of improvement.

A month later, in late March, the clergy group wrote Hammond and said the department's policies were too vague around use of force and what is the appropriate level of force. Around this time, the clergy worked with the DOJ to meet with the sheriff's office but the group received little response, Ladd said.

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

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