Sheriff Jim Hammond was described on this paper's front page Friday as "defiant" as he responded during a news conference to complaints that his department has presided over incidents of violence involving some of his deputies, the public and among inmates at Silverdale Detention Center.
Defiant is an understatement. Dismissive and disrespectful would be better descriptions of the way this 78-year-old sheriff — who should have resigned four years ago — acted.
He fear-mongered as he held up photos of tattooed bodies and complained about having to allow job fairs at Silverdale where he is now in charge. He held up pictures of contraband that he said somehow found its way inside the jail.
"As sheriff of this county, my job is to protect the lives of my officers first, the citizens of this community second and the inmates third," Hammond said. "There are those who think that once you're locked up you have to be given the same rights as when you're outside," he said. "That's not true."
No, sheriff. Being arrested and being booked into a jail means someone has lost — at least temporarily — their freedom. It does not mean they've lost their human rights. It does not mean they've lost their right to protection — either by you and your officers or from you and your officers.
What had Hammond — a lifelong law enforcement officer and trainer who thankfully is not seeking re-election this year — up in "defiant" arms was an announcement from Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston that the DA's office would request a U.S. Department of Justice probe into use-of-force incidents by the Sheriff's Office and its operation of Silverdale.
The DA's announcement followed a renewed call for just such a federal probe from a group of local faith leaders. The Chattanooga Clergy for Justice — after months and years of asking for accountability from the Sheriff's Office, Hamilton County commissioners and mayor as well as Tennessee state leaders — in June 2021 filed its own complaint with DOJ.
The clergy's 2021 letter asked for a pattern-of-practice investigation to determine whether the sheriff's office was systematically violating the rights of Hamilton County citizens. Within the letter were 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.
It was quite a list — altogether detailing numerous separate incidents the clergy said showed discrimination. Many of the incidents had been reported in this paper through the years, and that same week this page published an editorial headlined, "Yes, DOJ, please investigate our sheriff's office."
The clergy's June request came after a March 2021 letter asking that the sheriff's department use-of-force policy be changed. The March missive followed a February letter from more than 40 local clergy members individually and six organizations. That letter highlighted 19 incidents of alleged misconduct.
Alleged misconduct like the roadside body-cavity search of a 41-year-old, handcuffed Black man, a woman forced to be deputy-baptised, another Black man — handcuffed and struck with batons by five deputies for at least four minutes as he rolled on the ground and begged them to stop. His crime was walking the wrong way on Old Lee Highway after asking a woman there how to get out of the neighborhood where his car had broken down. You know, walking while Black. The deputies claimed he tried to grab a deputy's gun, but remember — he was already handcuffed and dashcam video was rolling.
Through it all, Hammond was — yes, defiant. He declined clergy calls for his resignation and for outside investigations, pointing instead to the sheriff's office of accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
As we noted at the time, a CALEA accreditation is a plaque on the wall. It does not ensure good management of a department of good officers.
In 2020, after the Old Lee Highway incident, Hammond insisted to Hamilton County commissioners that 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. Was he really saying to us that 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."
No, Sheriff. All of us didn't see that. We still don't. We see a sheriff who once was a good officer and leader who simply stayed too long and somewhere along the way forgot what his job is — to protect all of us and to keep the peace.