There is no doubt about it: The Hamilton County Sheriff's office — and particularly Sheriff Jim Hammond himself — is under the gun. The gun of public anger and dissatisfaction over the treatment of Black and white people and over the performance of the department in general.
Across the country, calls for police reform have prompted some sheriffs, police chiefs, mayors and other elected officials to make amends in the wake of police brutality and Black deaths in custody — particularly after the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who suffocated under an officer's knee, and Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in back while running away from Atlanta officers.
Chattanooga's police chief pointedly told his officers, "If you wear a badge and you don't have an issue with this ... turn it in."
Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Austin Garrett, who is running to succeed the 75-year-old Hammond in 2022 (and has Hammond's endorsement), made a similar statement.
Yet horrible situations at the hands of Hamilton County sheriff's officers continue come to light. We saw one recently with the county district attorney's release of a May video showing at least five officers unnecessarily slamming their batons onto a handcuffed Black man on the ground as he begged them to stop. The officers arrested the man and beat him for at least four minutes on Old Lee Highway for the crime of walking the wrong way on a suburban street after asking a woman there how to get out of the neighborhood.
The culture of any law enforcement department begins at the top, and now 38 local pastors have signed a letter asking Hammond to resign over the "system of racism" in his department. The letter cites the May incident, as well as a similar 2018 beating of another handcuffed Black man who also was subjected to an alleged illegal body-cavity search on the side of the road in 2019.
The letter states these incidents cannot be viewed as "isolated" but are part of a "system of racism and bias" in the department.
But Hammond is resisting the call, saying he will not resign. He asserts his office is not racist and does not target Black people. Instead, he turned the controversy back on the Black community.
"I cannot tell you one pastor who has brought me an African American in the last six months that I could put to work, or called me about doing that. That's what I want to see. They want me to show up and fix the problems by resigning. But I'm saying give me the help I need to see that we have young men and women who can move up the ranks and develop a career," Hammond said.
Process this for a minute. Is he really saying his department can't stop beating Black people because Black pastors don't bring him Black candidates for employment?
This is the same sheriff, by the way, who in 2013 told Times Free Press editors that public interest in crime, safety and security had become more intense because the nation had its first Black president.
"We may dance around it but a lot of people are fearful of 'Ah, this is gonna ruin our country,'" Hammond said. "Fear and uncertainty. Part of it is [the] first Black president. I mean, we all see that."
Actually, no, Sheriff. All of us didn't see that.
This also is the same sheriff who, in 2012 caught both flak and praise while talking to the Brainerd Kiwanis Club about gangs when he said that his office would "need to run them out of town, put them in jail or send them to the funeral home."
And it's the same sheriff who, according to Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, has not cooperated with his office in a criminal investigation of Daniel Wilkey, one of the deputies involved in the brutal body cavity search and beating described in the clergy letter.
Hammond has blamed technology vendors for the claimed loss of dash-cam footage involving Wilkey, the now former deputy who faces 10 lawsuits and 44 criminal charges — including six counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape and nine counts of official oppression. You may also remember him as the officer who allegedly groped a woman and forced her to choose between jail or baptism in a frigid lake.
A Pinkston affidavit details the difficulties he's had in obtaining additional evidence from the sheriff's office when he was considering filing more charges in the Wilkey case, and it says the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had to get involved to recover the videos. Hammond has disputed even that. Pinkston says the affidavit speaks for itself.
Hamilton County commissioners, too, are on the spot now for the sheriff's department, and three of the nine commissioners already clearly lack patience with Hammond's continued comments that he will "stand by [his] men in terms of their ability and their training."
Hammond has touted his department as being a "first rate sheriff's office" with certification through the state and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. He says "what needs to happen is it needs to go through the review process, it needs to go through the discipline process, it needs to go through the court process to find out, 'What was the training?' 'Was the training followed?' 'Was it acceptable training?'"
So why stand against that review? Apparently the sheriff isn't interested in making amends and won't back down. Based on what the public and the district attorney have seen on these videos, that's a problem.
If this is training, then it's not just the deputies who endanger our community, but their leadership, as well.