Hammond defends probe into East Ridge police execution of plumber

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Sheriff Jim Hammond, the most powerful man in Hamilton County, Tenn, says his deputies are trained to de-escalate tense encounters that otherwise might end in a police execution of a citizen. (Photo David Tulis)

Sheriff Jim Hammond, the most powerful man in Hamilton County, Tenn, says his deputies are trained to de-escalate tense encounters that otherwise might end in a police shoot-down of a citizen. (Photo David Tulis)

Sheriff Jim Hammond defends his investigation into the slaying of Todd Browning, East Ridge plumber armed with a metal rod whom a police officer gunned down at point blank range with a rifle as he stood in front of him, his arms and hands at his sides.

The slaying viewable on YouTube occurred Aug. 19 on Prigmore Street, the victim a man with wife and child whom he mentions just before being slain.

By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM

Mr. Hammond’s staff investigated and gave it a pass under the Tennessee police use of force exemption at TCA 39-11-620. Hamilton County district attorney Neal Pinkston agreed that the execution met the requirement the officer act in defense of himself and the lives of others

In an interview at his downtown office I describe Lt. Daniel Stephenson’s action as a “police execution” and “a statutory non-judicial capital punishment” of a citizen, language to which Sheriff Hammond makes no objection.

Mental problems

Mr. Hammond says officer Stephenson was “well within his rights” that day.

His interviewer ascribes to Mr. Browning a level of innocence well short of deserving a death penalty. Mr. Browning was “suicidal,” I argue, having “mental problems of some kind, a personal, emotional, character crisis and he could not tone it down and he could not realize he was facing death at the hand of the officer, and the officer went ahead and obliged him.”

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Sheriff Hammond disputes this characterization. “I can’t agree with you on that because we’re doing some Monday morning quarterbacking. I don’t know why he did what he did. There was a history of some violence on his part. I don’t recall whether there was a history of mental health. *** The TBI thoroughly vetted that case. My department did the investigation because we don’t encourage any police department to do their own internal investigation.”

I insist that “the life of every citizen of our county is worth something, and here we have a man who is not convicted of any capital offense — is dead. Is there not some way in training that the officer can say, this is getting out of hand, and this man’s life is in jeopardy from me, and I’m going to do something where we can just talk him out of it, just talk him down, take some time; it does not have to end that way.”

Sheriff Hammond: “The answer is no. This officer was faced with an instant decision where this man was making a threatening move toward him and could very easily have taken his life. He made a move based on training that is accepted in this state and across our nation for using deadly force. As someone told me, ‘Why didn’t he just turn around and run?’ Well, the officer can’t do that, especially when it would leave that man to perhaps go back in and do bodily harm to his family. The officer had to, in one way or another, bring that incident to close. He was waiting for backup. Time ran out when in the particular case the man lost his life — when the man attempted to escalate it by attacking the officer.”

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I press the question. “The question of my listener is, ‘How valuable do sheriff’s departments, how valuable do police departments view the life of people who are not convicted of any capital offense?’ Their lives should be preserved. Can you make a statement in the direction of your care personally for the life of my listener, for example?”

Sheriff Hammond: “Well, that would suppose that the officer is responsible for the decisions that the person makes and he is also responsible for what a jury may find, or a court of law may find. That’s not what an officer’s there for. An officer is to try to maintain the peace, to as much as possible de-escalate any action that might lead to a fatal encounter, and once he runs out of options, he is to take whatever he has to do to, first of all, to protect his own life and then the life of innocent parties. This particular [time] the officer was not only protecting his own life, protecting the possibility of innocent parties being killed by this man who chose to escalate rather than de-escalate.”

I challenge Mr. Hammond’s twice-made suggestion that Mr. Browning, who cried out that he had wife and children as if they were his greatest treasures, would go back into his house and kill them and that the officer acted to protect that family from its head.

“You’re trying to second-guess what the man was thinking,” Sheriff Hammond says. “I don’t have that luxury.”

‘Reduce amount of violence’ by training

“Of course the initial training for any police officer, particularly in the area you’re asking about, as the training for any police officer — we do recognize that the law gives officers the amount of training of when he can and when he cannot [kill]. We are very satisfied [in] the level of training that now exists.”

I ask about training his officers get in de-escalation amid tense encounters such as that which killed Mr.e Browning.

“I was actually on the cutting edge of CIT training, the crisis intervention training, that has been in this county for several years. I went to Atlanta when the grant was first written. I saw to it that all of my men received this training and that we now successfully we have probably trained 300 officers, which has shown to reduce the amount of violence that occurs when there is a police [confrontation], and it has been shown to reduce the death and injury to police and the death and injury to [civilians].

“The officer is taught how to verbally de-escalate a situation. Sometimes it’s in the manner in which he approaches the individual. Sometimes it’s in the voice level. Sometimes it’s in the weapons. We combine this with the normal other things we use, such as the type of weapon you will use, there’s a lot that goes into it; it’s proven to work.

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“We’re continuing to use it. We are putting on two to three classes a year with local law enforcement to train them in de-escalation. And I also give it to my jailers. It not only reduces the amount of injury to officers but it also, as I said, reduces the amount of injuries to the inmate, or it might be a citizen out here who is mentally disturbed or is just mean.”

Jail overcrowding

Hamilton County’s jail is overcrowded, and many of the people there have mental problems. Many of them are innocent of any common law crimes, but are involved in victimless infractions, fine/cost nonpayment and paperwork slippages offending the peace and dignity of the state.

Twenty-five percent of inmates have “mental health needs,” Mr. Hammond says. He is seeking grants to build a facility to care them.

“I am the first one to tell you every life is important to me, even the life of the worst criminal is important to me in terms of due process, to protect every life so that they have due process. Once due process is over, I think whatever the law needs to do to protect citizens first is important.” This statement seems almost like an outburst, as if to cover a shortcoming in earlier answers about police executions of civilians absent a capital trial.

But Mr. Hammond gets back to the jail overcrowding.

“The mentally ill do not belong in a jail. They belong in a treatment center until such time as they are taken before a court, either in need, or not need, of whatever services.”

Problem of human harvest

I ask what can be done to arrest fewer people to keep them out of what I call “the judicial-industrial complex,” the size of its human harvest seeming to be at the heart of the problem.

State government needs to “appropriate the proper money,” Sheriff Hammond says. But he seems to reflect again on the East Ridge slaying.

People with mental health problems deserve help, he says. “One of the reasons we feel so strongly in the crisis intervention because we recognize that a lot of people with mental health problems aren’t themselves, and we’re going to do our best to de-escalate whatever the problem is as law enforcement. But the way to help that is to provide proper treatment.”

I insist on my question regarding the state’s grinding legal machinery that inducts a member of the public who has committed a “paper infraction” but no common law crime such as rape or robbery to fill its dockets and jail cells.

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“Again, that’s the whole reason for [crisis intervention training], to try to intervene, to de-escalate,” he says. “That’s crisis intervention. That simply says, you’re called to the scene and you could make an arrest, but it’s not the type of thing you’d necessarily have to charge them with if you can get it settled down. Maybe they’re off their medication. Maybe it’s a minor infraction where they’re standing out disturbing the peace. We don’t need to put that kind of person to jail. We need to de-escalate whatever the existing problem is and have someone show up from mental health facilities that can get them on their medication or get them to a proper treatment center so they are not in the system. I’m all for that.”

Police legal authority to operate?

Sheriff Hammond also says that the Chattanooga police department is authorized to enforce statutes even though its officers are agents of a municipal corporation that exercises civil authority only. He says that because the officers of the Chattanooga police department are certified by the POST-accredited academy, run by city government, they are authorized to enforce state statutes beyond traffic.

The general assembly allows cities to adopt traffic rules and enforce them as crimes.

Municipal corporations such as City of Chattanooga routinely enforce other offenses that are not traffic-related. Sheriff Hammond says that the police power exercised by cities is lawful and that it is in the statute that a POST certification of an officer or the training facility legitimizes the use of deadly force and enforcement of statute, even though city government has  authority is civil.

— David Tulis hosts a talk show 9-11 a.m weekdays at Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM. covering local economy and free markets in Chattanooga and beyond.

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