On Tuesday, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston and challenger Coty Wamp once again took turns trading blows in their second face-to-face encounter in the district attorney's race.
The two Republican candidates running in the May 3 primary election had several back-and-forth exchanges at a debate sponsored by the East Brainerd Kiwanis Club, with Wamp alleging Pinkston has done nothing to support the police, as evidenced by an excessive force hotline Pinkston created so citizens can file complaints of officer misconduct.
"If excessive force gets delivered and the district attorney needs to review it, it will," Wamp said. "But it's not a place for excessive force complaints to begin. And, quite frankly, it's just a sign. It's an indication that this district attorney has never really supported law enforcement. If we're more interested in hearing complaints about law enforcement than we are making sure that their cases are not dismissed without their knowledge, then we've got a problem."
Wamp said she would eliminate the hotline and also touted support she has received from police such as endorsements from the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 673 and the Fraternal Order of Police Rock City Lodge #22.
Pinkston, who implemented the hotline in 2019, defended it and said complaints do not come in often.
"If you are elected DA, there's going to be a day when an excessive force complaint comes to your office, either through a private citizen, another elected official or law enforcement officer, and you can't turn the other way," Pinkston said. "You have to make sure that it's addressed properly and treat everybody equally."
The incumbent provided examples of his support for police, including his efforts to get pay raises for Chattanooga officers.
Going on the offensive, Pinkston, 47, said Wamp, 33, lacks the experience needed to take on the role of DA, citing his own time spent as a prosecutor working on homicide trials before he ran for office.
"She does not have the required litigation experience to prosecute those cases," Pinkston said. "If I were to hire her in my office today, she would be one of the least experienced prosecutors that I have in the entire office, from a litigation standpoint. So you can't be an effective leader and prosecute those cases without the required experience. And what do prosecutors do if they need training or advice? They would have more experience than the DA."
Pinkston again critized Wamp's lack of experience after she said she would work to speed up the grand jury review process by having staff review case files and collect evidence before they make it to the grand jury in the first place.
Pinkston said he already reviews cases before they head to the grand jury. He also said it's law enforcement's job to collect evidence, not the district attorney.
"In a perfect world like a federal court prosecutor, you come in and have every piece of evidence in front of you. That's not the reality in state court," he said. "And if you have experience with the state court system, you would know that oftentimes things take time. Witnesses change, evidence changes and so it's just not a workable, realistic plan. It lacks common sense."
Throughout the campaign, Pinkston has repeated that he is a prosecutor and not a politician, emphasizing that he does his talking in the courtroom and is limited to what he can say about cases publicly.
Wamp took issue with Pinkston's experience, however, pointing to a time when she said he provided incorrect information at the scene of the Woodmore Elementary School bus crash on Nov. 21, 2016.
"The district attorney was at the scene when he stated that six children had passed. Five children had passed," Wamp said. "The sixth child passed on Nov. 23, two days later. Our district attorney should not be at the scene making statements about how many children have passed, especially when the information is inaccurate. We need to be careful with that."
In response, Pinkson accused Wamp of lying.
"Yeah, and that was disputed way back then," he said. "That was already addressed. So that's a false comment."
Also during the debate, Wamp said she would like to replace the DA's office cold case unit with a gang and violent crimes unit staffed with officers that reflect the population of Chattanooga.
"I also believe it should have at least 50% African Americans," Wamp said. "Why? Because this unit is going to be in the inner city community dealing with African Americans."
Wamp also said she would eliminate the positions of chief of staff, communications director and a position created for the office's BULLSEYE program, which aims to streamline the social services process for those at risk of entering a gang. (The program name comes from the words "Be United. Lead. Love. Step in. Early Youth Engagement.)
The reductions would save more than $200,000 annually, Wamp said, which could be used instead for prosecutorial purposes.
The voter registration deadline for the primary election is April 4. Early voting will take place between April 13 and April 28, and the deadline to request an absentee ballot is April 26. The winners from the party primaries will meet in the general election in August.