Cooper: Investigation, not rhetoric, needed

Cooper: Investigation, not rhetoric, needed

July 20th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, right, is pictured with Chief Deputy Austin Garrett.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Civil discourse surrounding issues such as perceptions of police brutality ought to be encouraged and perpetuated. But everywhere there's discourse, there ought to be realism.

Public and group comment by citizens concerned about a recent incident in which two white Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies were placed on administrative leave have not always had that realism.

The citizens were concerned, as they might reasonably be, about what occurred in an alleged illegal roadside body-cavity search of a black motorist in Soddy-Daisy.

Up to now, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), the U.S. Attorney's Office and Gov. Bill Lee's administration to look into the incident, the deputies were put on leave, a lawyer for the man has said he will file a complaint in Chattanooga U.S. District Court, and various community groups and individuals have thrown around terms like rape, lynching, racism, an incident reminiscent of "the slave era" and "open season" on people of color.

Then, at a Thursday citizens meeting, some called for the resignation of Sheriff Jim Hammond, and others said they'd drawn up a four-point plan for change.

All of that has been done without the facts, without context, without the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

When all is learned about the incident, when all the investigations have been done, when all the evidence is in, we hope if the deputies broke the law, violated their training or are judged to have been excessively violent, they'll be properly punished.

During the short timeline of this case, though, it seems more people who know better have made general statements that were intentionally misleading or completely without fact in order to inflame public opinion.

Among them:

» Whatever incidents of excessive force have been alleged before about Hamilton County deputies are related to this case and should be lumped together. No, all incidents stand alone, have different sets of facts and should not be used to paint "police brutality" on the department with a broad brush.

» The officers involved in the incident who were placed on leave are still being paid. What an outrage this is to the entire community. No, by law, the officers in such incidents must be paid, and this is not a recent development.

» Incidents of alleged police brutality occur because there are too few people of color in law enforcement. Yes, there are too few people of color in law enforcement, but it's not because of the agencies' lack of trying to hire them. They either don't want the job, can take higher paying jobs in a thrumming economy or can't qualify for the job.

» If we just formed a citizens group that had to right to administer justice, we would never have incidents like this. No, police oversight boards are regulated by state law, which doesn't allow them to issue subpoenas.

Nevertheless, a four-point plan said to have been put together by an unofficial group including public and private citizens was presented at Thursday's meeting. It asked that the county's policies and procedures on training deputies on such searches as occurred in the incident be examined, that a law enforcement review committee be formed, that a coalition be created with other cities with the goal of changing law enforcement legislation at the state level, and that county and city law enforcement officers receive training that includes cultural inclusivity, racial anxiety and unconscious bias.

Of those, we would hope that Hammond and his command staff would reiterate to their officers the policies and procedures that involve such searches and review any training involving race, culture and bias that we believe officers already receive.

Additionally, we would encourage any citizen groups to attempt to form a coalition that might affect legislation. Such is how laws get changed, though not from the power of numbers and amount of rhetoric but from facts, figures and proof of the need for change.

As to an oversight board, we're with Hammond that another layer of oversight in addition to those already in place — the Civil Service Advisory Board, the Hamilton County Commission and Chancery Court — are unnecessary. Plus, as has been noted, the incident already was referred to the TBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the governor's office.

What is necessary in this case at this time is to let a thorough investigation ensue as the Sheriff's Office reviews its policies and procedures. What is unnecessary is additional inflammatory rhetoric that only further divides the community.

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