Sheriff Hammond’s program catches flak, but tells of localist orientation

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Sheriff Jim Hammond explains the origins and duties of his office in a video.

By David Tulis

As American policing continues its long road away from peace-keeping and toward a sort of paramilitary occupation, it is refreshing to consider a development that hints at a localist — versus a federal or national — perspective on the part of the county’s most powerful man.

Jim Hammond, the sheriff of Southeast Tennessee’s most populous county, has named 128 people as special deputies who are free to wear a handgun and able to exercise arrest powers as officers of the department. So sharp was the sting of newspaper reporting against him that Mr. Hammond published a letter of rebuttal at Chattanoogan.com. At 710 words, he figured his argument was sufficient.

But I would like to offer a defense of his deputy programs from another perspective. It will take a few words — and at the end of them I promise you’ll hear a distinctive drone.

[Please join me for Panera Posse Friday morning at 6:45 in Hixson.]

Nonprofessional deputies?

The Times Free Press June 17, 2012, opened Mr. Hammond to criticism because some of the 128 people awarded the Hamilton County deputy powers have had troubles with the law. Most of the people deputized are members of police departments in municipalities within the county. Their grant of authority lets them operate outside the borders of the towns that hired them.

Thirty-seven deputized residents are not professional officers, but something less — “civilians.” A civilian, by legal definition, is “a person not serving in the military.” This common usage picked up by newspaper reporter Beth Burger reflects the existence of a population divide along military lines. Along one side are residents, all civilians. Police are on the other. In the older ideal of peacekeeping, police and resident were civilians in that neither was in the military. The fading of that concept tells how far along is the American “us versus them” distinction among policing cadres.

Among the civilian ranks of special officers is a man who came under allegations of malfeasance, as reported in the TFP story, endangering the reputation of the program and potentially the citizenry itself. “ *** [I]t’s the civilian cardholders who open up the sheriff’s department for potential abuse with their lack of training and screening, according to a police ethics expert,” the Times Free Press said, having its readers rely on the professions of Maki Haberfeld, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and is a former lieutenant of the Israeli national police.

“It appears as if law enforcement powers are given out to people who are not properly screened and selected, there is no accountability, and hence potential for a tremendous abuse that will impact the image the public has of their law enforcement agencies,” Dr. Haberfeld told the newspaper.

2nd Amendment defense

The sheriff, politically astute and knowing his people, bases his rebuttal on the right to bear arms. “Unfortunately, there are those in our community who strongly oppose our Second Amendment right to bear arms in order to protect our lives,” Mr. Hammond told Chattanoogan.com. “Fortunately for us, Tennessee and Hamilton County have a rich history regarding the right to bear arms. *** Tennessee has established the right for all 95 sheriffs to issue commissions, special deputy status and even the right to organize a posse which uses law abiding citizens to assist the sheriff in the protection of the county. I believe it is not only very just but significant that the state legislature has never felt the need to change this vital responsibility and obligation of each sheriff.”

A lococentric argument

I offer an alternative line of defense. Mr. Hammond’s deputy program tells of confidence in local people, the necessity of relationships in the powerful office of sheriff. The sheriff, true to the trend of modern police tactics and gear, wears military authority in Hamilton County. Mr. Hammond wields this power as against any anarchy, disorder, insurrection, natural disaster, or external political or military threat. He has a roster that makes up an informal posse and a separate force of armed deputies, each group recognized under statute. The corps suggest less a man who is power hungry, but one circumspect, given to local commitment and willing to extend his personal and political interest.

Sheriff Hammond’s arrangements place him in a web of relationships, affinities, shared experiences, kindred outlooks, interfamilial links and warm commitment. Perhaps one nominee or other is a mere favor seeker. But allegiance to Mr. Hammond, and his allegiance to people he has picked, are evidence not of crass self-aggrandizement, but a mutuality that extends to the very reaches of county jurisdiction.

Despite other commitments the department has made toward aiding in the federal drug war, this sign of healthy provincialism serves at least to retard a worldview excited about militarized and remotely controlled policing in Hamilton County.

Sheriff Hammond represents the residents of the county, and is accountable to them through elections under Tennessee constitution article 7. His office precedes the incorporation of any of the state’s cities and counties. Sheriff was recognized in the earliest iterations of Tennessee law, going back to the 1770s. His budgetary woes and his appeal for more cash to operate his department show just how dependent he is on the favor of the people he protects and their other elected representatives. Yet the power of his office has great standing. It comes from common law England, since medieval times, when counties encompassed the domains of counts and barons and the sheriff exercised the ministry of the sword against threats internal and external, as directed by his master.

The overlooked ‘lesser magistrate’ doctrine

People concerned about the direction of the U.S. — its economic decline, the rise of gangs as alternate forms of government, the ascendancy of the police state — should realize something about Mr. Hammond’s office. While at the peak of executive authority, he is envisioned by Christianity in his public safety role as a “lesser magistrate,” among other things. The concept of the lesser magistrate implies a struggle with a “greater magistrate,” one in which the lesser resists a greater in some oppressive breach of law.

Struggle? Breach of law? Second Amendment protections are informed by just this scenario.

The gravest threat to the people in Hamilton County is none other than a consuming, impersonal and corporatistic force whose handlers usually get their way (unless the jury refuses to convict). And that is the government in Washington, the federal enclave on Virginia’s northern border, nominally federal in legal structure but practically unitary and national, blind to local distinction and interest, careless by design of provincial concerns and mores.

Page 1 stories June 14 and June 20, 2012, in the Chattanooga Times Free Press suggest a growing distance between the police apparatus and the state’s free people.

The clumsy and violent power of Uncle Sam is “remote controlled” because the Uncle’s joystick is statute and subsidy, distantly conceived. Of late, the duffer is spending time at the toy plane airfield to keep his joints greased as arthritis sets in. The joystick controls the trajectory, but his hands seem to shake. Uncle has taken to patronizing the remote controlled pilot club’s field, like the one along U.S. Highway 27, and the drone you hear is his remote controlled surveillance aircraft.

The rise of the optic-leaden bird (or mosquito) as a police tool made the front page of the paper Wednesday under the headline, “Drones in U.S. skies raise privacy fears.”

The story I’m telling that conflates Mr. Hammond and U.S. drones has two sides. On one, a county sheriff, given to personal relationships with local people and committed to his county. On the other, a national government that raids pain management clinics in Chattanooga, putting patients under arrest, a state that intends to use winged and hovering aircraft to help launch yet more criminal prosecutions in U.S. District Court.

The militarization of policing long has originated from that jurisdiction “higher” than mere city or county or state government. A higher power and an above-the-treetops altitude for its remote-controlled predators. Our homeland security is being enhanced with the technological bounty of those people’s fruitless foreign wars.

Hamilton County is sure to go along with adopting these bristling armaments itself or yielding to their use within its borders. All that people can do against it is to hope the sheriff’s office is occupied by someone whose loyalty, when facing its most brutal test and temptation, sides with local people and local interest and not the importunities of phone call from Washington, jangling insistently from the phone at his desk.

[This essay was first published Aug. 12, 2012. Please join me weekdays at Hot News Talk AM 1240 from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Chattanooga listening area and online at ustream.tv/channel/copperhead1240. Thank you for your support. — DJT]

This official photo from Hamilton County emergency services shows officers of the special operations tactical medical team caring for an injured comrade during a practice.

Sources: Black’s Law Dictionary, Eighth edition
Chattanooga Times Free Press, timesfreepress.com, “Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond doles out arrest, firearms powers,” Beth Burger, June 17, 2012
Timesfreepress.com, “Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has 71 in his posse,” Beth Burger, May 26, 2012
Chattanoogan.com, “Sheriff Hammond: Defending the Sheriff’s Posse,” June 18, 2012