It was inevitable. After months — no, years — of asking for accountability from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Hamilton County's commissioners and mayor, and Tennessee state leaders, Chattanooga Clergy for Justice, a group of faith leaders pushing for police reform, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking an investigation of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
The letter asks for a pattern-of-practice investigation of the sheriff's office to determine whether it is systematically violating the rights of Hamilton County citizens. Within the letter are complaints alleging a pattern of deputy misconduct, a history of hiring deputies with previous misconduct, the targeting of vulnerable populations by sheriff's deputies and an unwillingness by the sheriff's office to reform its practices or cooperate with criminal investigations related to the department.
That's quite a list, and as we mentioned, it has been in the works for quite some time — long enough for the clergy group to compile a list of at least 19 separate incidents they say show discrimination, including one that prompted the Unity Group of Chattanooga to release a resolution calling for the federal investigation into the sheriff's office after allegations that deputies racially profiled a 41-year-old Black man and then made an alleged illegal roadside body cavity search on him. Dashcam footage released in July 2019 show two deputies kicking, punching and stripping the pants off the man while he and the driver of the vehicle were handcuffed. One of those officers resigned and now is the subject of several lawsuits and criminal charges.
The clergy's newest request, sent Thursday to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke, is signed by Chattanooga Clergy for Justice; Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence; Chattanooga Democratic Socialists of America; Tennessee Poor People's Campaign and Tennessee United.
"Until the DOJ mandates and oversees the effective implementation of major structural changes within the department, the most vulnerable in the Hamilton County community — people of color, low-income people and people with disabilities — will not be safe from those sworn to protect and serve us," the complaint reads.
This comes after a March letter from the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice asking that the sheriff's department use-of-force policy be changed.
And that letter came after a February letter from more than 40 local clergy and six organizations highlighting the 19 incidents of alleged misconduct.
Through it all, the sheriff has declined clergy calls for his resignation, declined requests for outside investigations of his department and pointed instead to the sheriff's office accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
Sorry. CALEA accreditation is a plaque on the wall. It does not ensure good management of a department of good officers.
Leaders of the clergy group said in the letter to the Justice Department that they tried in March and April to meet with the sheriff's office for a mediated discussion with a DOJ representative, but the sheriff's office responded that there was "no need for a meeting."
Similarly, the sheriff shrugged off yet another clergy letter — and questions finally from some Hamilton County commissioners — in July of 2020 after the county district attorney's release of a May 2020 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, handcuffed him 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. You know, walking while Black. They claimed he tried to grab a deputy's gun. Remember, he was handcuffed, and there was dashcam video rolling.
Hammond insists his office is not racist and does not target Black people. Instead he tried to turn 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 that 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 who in 2013 told a Times Free Press editorial board that public interest in crime, safety and insecurity-driven gun sales 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.
But we sure do see a need for you, too, to invite DOJ's examination of the facts, or as the clergy have repeatedly asked, that you resign. We add our call to the request for a federal investigation of your department's policy and actions. If nothing is wrong, the investigation surely will vindicate you and your office.