Sohn: Our 'conversation' about race and the body cavity search needs sunshine

Sohn: Our 'conversation' about race and the body cavity search needs sunshine

July 23rd, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Hamilton County really knows how to add insult to injury.

Two white Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies remain on paid administrative leave after dashcam video footage showed them punching, kicking and stripping the pants off of a handcuffed 41-year-old black man before they brutally performed a body-cavity search on him at the side of a road in Soddy-Daisy. Deputies claimed the search yielded 1.6 grams of crack cocaine in a plastic bag.

When the video was made public, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said during a news conference in mid-July that he was "somewhat disturbed at what I saw," and he had asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Gov. Bill Lee to look into the alleged brutality.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office policy, implemented in 2014, says deputies can "strip search" a suspect by asking an arrested person to remove or arrange their clothes to "permit a visual inspection of the genitals, buttocks, anus, female breasts, or undergarments." But a body cavity search takes it one step further and involves probing these body parts. Not only can deputies not conduct a body cavity search unless they have a search warrant or specific written consent, but a licensed physician or nurse is supposed to do the body cavity exam in a "controlled and private environment," according to the policy, which is based on state law.

Yet at that same news conference, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said he would "stand by his men in terms of their ability and their training."

It was virtually the same thing Hammond said after cellphone video footage was made public following the 2018 arrest of rapper Charles Toney Jr., a 25-year-old black man who was punched and kicked while handcuffed by another of Hammond's white deputies. And on Monday, Hammond doubled down, saying what he saw on the video didn't constitute a body cavity search "in my estimation."

Chattanooga area black clergy members doubled down, too, demanding the firings of the deputies and Hammond's resignation.

They aren't the only ones. Last week, "community leaders, pastors, city council members and county commissioners" gathered over four days at the Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church, and in addition to talking about a new sheriff, developed a "four-point plan for change." That plan seeks a community oversight board to handle alleged law enforcement misconduct and brutality. Also, the Unity Group of Chattanooga released a resolution Saturday calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the sheriff's office and to decide whether its deputies have systemically engaged in discriminatory activities and racial profiling practices. All of this follows a similar petition and call for Hammond to step down over the December incident. Hammond already has announced he will not seek re-election in 2022.

But county commissioners and city council members are involved now, too. In both a good way and in a bad way.

At least three commissioners — Katherlyn Geter, Warren Mackey and David Sharp — and Chattanooga council members Demetrus Coonrod and Russell Gilbert were part of the Orchard Knob meetings which developed that "four-point plan for change," according to group leader Ricardo Morris.

On one hand, that's great. We want to see our elected officials take a full and complete interest in local issues.

On the other hand, when two or more members of a governing body discuss matters that ultimately the body as a whole will have to vote on, the discussion needs to occur at a properly advertised public meeting, according to state law — and common sense. Those meetings were not advertised. In fact, WTVC News Channel 9 reportedly was told no cameras were allowed at Thursday's meeting — when the plan for change emerged, a plan that also calls for forming a coalition with other cities in Tennessee to change law enforcement legislation at the state level and for anti-bias training.

Really, people? Forget violating the Sunshine Law for a minute and just answer this: How many times have we heard (and we wholeheartedly agree) some variation of "we have to have a conversation" about race? Easy answer: Every single time we have an incident like this.

But apparently that conversation is private? We have a conversation, but only for some people? Only for invited people? Somewhere where the rest of "we" can't hear and benefit from that conversation?

Some county commissioners — including Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley — told the Times Free Press she was "extremely surprised" when she learned that the Thursday night meeting had occurred without an invite to the whole commission or other notice.

And to really add insult, the commissioners and council members who did have the courage and community interest to attend the meetings didn't have the continuing fortitude to own that involvement.

Sharpe said he was unaware of any potential Sunshine Law violations. He said he was there for "research" and he "can't remember" if any specific actions or the commission's potential involvement had been discussed. Geter did not respond to multiple phone calls on Friday, and Coonrod declined to comment.

That is unacceptable for elected officials. But what's really unacceptable is that we keep having this conversation without ever really having this conversation. Publicly. Fully. All of us.

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