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Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Sheriff Jim Hammond of Hamilton County Sheriff's Office speaks at the 2022 Law Enforcement Memorial Ceremony on May 10, 2022.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond requested a $6.5 million budget increase from the County Commission on Wednesday.

Hammond and Ron Bernard, the staff and recruitment director for the sheriff's office, went before the commission to request the increase, saying it would primarily go towards the recruitment and retention of qualified corrections officers.

"What we're here to talk about is our squeaky wheel," Hammond said. "I cannot stress to you enough on our ability to hire and train officers and correction officers."

The sheriff said his efforts to hire new personnel have been hampered by the pandemic and social movements across the country, as well as the allegations of violent incidents at Silverdale Detention Center.

"It is imperative that I have the kind of money that I need to reach out, and have the kind of officers that I need," Hammond said. "We are losing people quicker than we can bring them in."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga City Councilman Ken Smith appointed interim District 3 Hamilton County commissioner)

According to Bernard, since January 2021, the sheriff's office has hired 91 people but has lost 101 to either retirement or higher paying jobs. Hammond's request would increase the pay for correctional officers from $18.27 an hour to $23.08 an hour.

It all comes down to attracting and retaining qualified employees, Hammond said.

Commissioner Warren Mackey inquired about the alleged gang fights reported from Silverdale as well as the allegations of correction officers intentionally putting inmates in harm's way.

"Gang fights do occur, but we try to keep them separate," Hammond said, meaning that the officers try to keep members of the same gang separate from other alleged gang members. Hammond also said that all complaints pertaining to officers go to internal affairs for further investigation.

Hammond requested a total budget of $67 million for his office. That request comes amid several allegations of abuse from former inmates at Silverdale as well as a trio of lawsuits detailing inmate-on-inmate violence inside the jail.

Commissioner Katherlyn Geter asked about the training that is being given to correction officers and deputies — saying that a salary increase is only addressing part of the problem.

"For me it's about sustainability," Geter said. "If we can get them through the door, but we can't keep them, why can't we keep them?

Hammond responded by saying that younger people do not want to go into law enforcement, and recruits and their families need reassurance of on-the-job safety.

Geter asked what was the most common reason of those who have left the sheriff's office.

"Most of them say that they have a better opportunity, and some say it's just not for them," Hammond said. "I've had parents who have said to me, 'Don't try to get my child in that department.'"

Commissioner Chip Baker asked if removing school resource officers would help alleviate the staffing issue.

"I can use them for the road, but I cannot use them for the jail," Hammond said.

Commissioner David Sharpe noted the sheriff's office has $8.95 million in unused funds that can be directed towards salaries.

"I'm for using what we have before we go asking for more," Sharpe said. "I think that would be the responsible approach, personally."

Sharpe said that while he agrees the county needs to compensate deputies adequately, he is looking for another approach, besides a tax increase, to do so.

Mackey asked Hammond about the lack of diversity in the office and if improvement in that area is a goal.

"We'll recruit, no matter what the color," Hammond said. "If we don't get this base salary package up, we're losing them to another police agency."

While there are several positions that need to be filled in his office, Hammond stressed that corrections officer is the most important.

Hammond has said on several occasions that it's been difficult to not only recruit, but also retain officers on a tight budget. At an April 28 news conference, Hammond said it has been difficult to take over Silverdale from its previous private operator, CoreCivic, after 35 years, with inadequate staffing.

The commission will answer Hammond's request May 24 when it unveils its entire budget.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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