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Staff File Photo / A Hamilton County Sheriff's Office vehicle is parked at the sheriff's annex on Dayton Boulevard.

The fear must have been palpable.

A Hamilton County woman, scared of being thrown in jail over possession of the butt of a marijuana cigarette, agrees to go to a secluded spot near water suggested by a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputy last February and be baptized in exchange for being given a criminal citation instead of being locked up.

What might happen? What else might she be asked to do? What if she were never heard from again?

That's her story, which was told in an $11 million lawsuit filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court last week. The deputy, and a second one charged who showed up for the baptism, will have their stories.

We have maintained before that law enforcement departments should not be judged by the actions of their individual members. But we do wonder, if we assume the woman's story is true, whether anything the deputies understood from their training or gleaned from their day-to-day patrols and interactions with other deputies would lead them to believe the actions they took that evening were correct.

If that latitude of action, that imposition of fear, that exchange of punishments are acceptable, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office needs to be retrained.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is openly a man of faith, and he has been public about his belief that lives can be changed by a closer walk with a higher power. But we hope imposing one's faith upon an individual who is stopped has never been suggested as a potential quid pro quo for a ticket or arrest.

Put yourself for a moment in the place of the woman, who is followed by a deputy from a convenience store and stopped — allegedly with no provocation — after pulling into a friend's driveway. It is between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., and it is winter. The deputy feels all over her body over her clothes, according to the lawsuit, and then asks her to reach under her shirt and pull out her bra and shake it and her shirt, ostensibly for drugs.

The woman asks if a female officer should be conducting the search and is told "the law" does not require it, though sheriff's office policy seems to indicate the extent of a "protective pat-down for concealed weapons" already may have been exceeded. No other drugs are found.

Nevertheless, the deputy asks if she has been "saved" and believes in Jesus Christ, according to the lawsuit. He says God was "talking to him during the vehicle search," and he "felt the Lord wanted him to baptize [her]."

The deputy suggests she go in the house she was visiting, grab two towels, and says if she would let him baptize her he would issue her a criminal citation instead of taking her to jail and would speak to the judge on her behalf.

She goes in to get the towels, and the woman she is visiting asks if she will be safe. Perhaps not thinking to call the department herself and ask if such a scheme is normal, she says doing what the deputy asked would be preferable to going to jail.

The deputy tells her to drive her own car and follow him, and her lawsuit says she "didn't feel free to simply ignore" the officer and not do as he asked. He leads them to a boat ramp at Soddy Lake, where the second deputy joins them. The first deputy then "stripped nearly naked" and gives her the option to do so, which she does not do.

In nearly waist-deep water, he then places one hand on her back and the other on her breasts and submerges her completely under the water in an alleged act of baptism. "Shivering uncontrollably" and feeling "horribly violated," she is allowed to leave.

If the lawsuit is accurate, the initial actions of the deputy seem suspicious and excessive. But the alleged baptism was wrong on so many levels, it boggles the mind. We can't imagination the intimidation and terror the woman must have felt.

And, in a day where so many secular factors and individuals attempt to chip away at authentic faith, equating what occurred on that night with the beautiful experience of a heartfelt and sought-after baptism does Christianity no favors.

We reiterate that the deputies have not spoken publicly on this matter, and there often are two sides of a story. But the account given by the woman in the lawsuit and the fact the first officer has been involved in other controversial stops at least lend credibility to the case.

Additional cases in recent years cause us, again, to wonder if Hamilton County deputies have been given proper, or enough, training, or if this simply has been an unlikely series of unfortunate events.

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