ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / The Rev. Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church, speaks at Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church on Sept. 25, 2021 during a community meeting about the clergy-led complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice. The clergy are hoping for a federal investigation of the policing practices of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

A group of Chattanooga clergy seeking a federal investigation of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and the department's policies held a town hall Saturday night to continue to apply pressure on local law enforcement to reform.

Chattanooga Clergy for Justice held the event at Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church and took community questions about the potential federal intervention.

In June, the group of clergy filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice asking for a pattern-or-practice investigation, which could highlight systemic issues within the sheriff's office.

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.

According to the Justice 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.

"This is our process," said the Rev. Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church. "And, prayerfully, they will accept it so we can start changing some of those policies within the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office."

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has previously denied the need for federal investigations into his department and said the department has cooperated with local, state and federal investigations. In June, after the DOJ complaint was filed, a spokesperson for the department said the clergy were making "unsubstantiated and inflammatory allegations."

Since the spring, the Chattanooga clergy worked with members of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to engage community members on policing reforms. However, the clergy said the sheriff's office was unwilling to work with them or the Justice Department.

In February, members of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Minority Relations Community Task Force, which included local faith leaders, went public with concerns around a lack of transparency from the department and an unwillingness to work with them on changing department policies.

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

On Saturday, the Rev. Troy Brand, senior pastor of Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist, said it was ridiculous for the department to allow camera crews to follow deputies around for nine weeks so the department can be featured on the TV show "COPS" when there are needs in the community going unaddressed.

"They have time to entertain America with arresting people but they don't have time enough to talk to the community and adjust their policies," Brand said.

The clergy showed videos from high-profile incidents involving sheriff's deputies, including when a white detective was videotaped punching and kicking Charles Toney Jr., a Black man who was handcuffed, during an arrest on Dec. 3, 2018. The detective, Blake Kilpatrick, was placed on desk duty despite calls from county commissioners for his termination. The FBI is still investigating the 2018 incident.

The Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas, co-pastor of Renaissance Presbyterian Church, said the example of Kilpatrick's actions shows there is a need to rewrite the department's policies.

"The current policies and procedures around use of force for Hamilton County sheriff's officers are so vague that beating cuffed citizens who are not threats is legal," she said. "And that has to stop."

In March, the clergy issued some recommendations regarding the sheriff's department policies. However, the sheriff has said the department's policies are up to date and in line with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

The clergy plan to hold more community meetings, including ones with members of the U.S. Department of Justice present.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT