The clergy-led effort to reform Hamilton County Sheriff's Office policies is at an impasse as the faith leaders and the department cannot reach a mediation agreement, an arrangement the sheriff's office says it cannot be a part of because of state law.
The Rev. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church, said Chattanooga Clergy for Justice has attempted to meet with the sheriff's office in recent months to reform the department's use-of-force policy. Ladd said the clergy would only meet with the sheriff's office if the U.S. Department of Justice was facilitating the meeting, which would allow the meeting to remain narrowly focused on certain topics.
To hold such a meeting, the two sides would need to sign a mediation agreement, something the sheriff's office has said it cannot do, Ladd said.
"They don't want to sign the mediation agreement, nor do they want to meet with us," he said. "We aren't going to meet with them without that mediation agreement."
The clergy members have previously been frustrated with the sheriff's office's responses to requests. In June, the group filed a federal complaint asking the DOJ to launch a pattern-or-practice investigation of the sheriff's office to determine whether its employees are systematically violating the rights of Hamilton County citizens.
J. Matt Lea, sheriff's office spokesperson, said the sheriff's office cannot be involved in the mediation agreement because state law puts departmental decisions related to discipline and termination in the hands of the civil service board.
Under state law, the three-member board has the power to create or change regulations for the sheriff's office, as well as hear complaints related to the department.
"Due to civil service guidelines, we do not have the luxury of mediating issues that involve HCSO employees with outside groups," Lea said in an emailed statement. "Simply put, civil service dictates how we discipline or terminate our employees. Currently, we are the only law enforcement agency within Hamilton County governed by civil service."
The civil service laws overseeing sheriff's office employees drew attention in late February when Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond endorsed Matt Hullander for county mayor. The codes bar civil service employees from making political endorsements but Hammond argued as an elected official he is exempt from those rules.
Mediation agreements with the DOJ are voluntary, confidential and non-enforceable documents between two parties in which the DOJ acts as an independent moderator, according to the DOJ's website.
A spokesperson for the DOJ's Community Relations Service said the department does not confirm or comment on active cases.
Ladd said members of the clergy support law enforcement but they must be held accountable. For example, instead of terms like "may" in the department's use of force policy, the clergy members want the policy to say deputies "must" take into account factors such as a person's mental capacity, the influence of drugs or language barriers when deciding whether to use force.
"That's all we want to do, update the policy so we can hold officers accountable when they break the policy," Ladd said.
There is not an update on whether the DOJ has taken up an investigation into the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, as requested by the clergy.
Ladd said he is concerned their case may not have received as much attention as others across the country because there has not been a death related to an interaction with law enforcement, even though there have been troubling interactions that resulted in violence.
"We believe that if there's not proper training in Hamilton County in the sheriff's office and there's not a good use of force policy, we feel that it's around the corner," he said. "It's inevitable."
The clergy have pointed to multiple instances of misconduct and what they say is a lack of accountability.
They wrote Hammond after 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.
In July 2019, dashcam video released by District Attorney General Neal Pinkston showed sheriff's office deputies Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer handcuffing James Mitchell for drug possession during a traffic stop in Soddy-Daisy. The deputies punched and kicked the 41-year-old before taking off his pants and probing around his genitals and buttocks for further contraband or weapons. The deputies were placed on administrative leave. Some clergy called on Hammond to resign.
Then, on May 23, 2020, sheriff's deputies stopped Reginald Arrington Jr. on suspicion of violating "the pedestrian on roadway law" as he walked on Old Lee Highway in Ooltewah.
During the arrest, four white deputies beat Arrington, who is Black, with batons for more than five minutes and called him a "piece of s—-." Four of the deputies involved had separately been involved in previous cases of alleged brutality, including at least two beatings and a deadly shooting.
The incident sparked condemnation from members of the Hamilton County Commission and led to the dozens of local faith leaders calling for Hammond's resignation, which the sheriff declined. Pinkston announced in February 2021 his office would not seek charges against the deputies.