City council, slow to act in reform, awaits next noisy cop outbreak

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Chief David Roddy and a young man at AT&T Field in Chattanooga. Police public relations are easy when city council seems largely indifferent to state violence served up through the mayor’s office and its policing arm, one long accustomed to rough treatment of African-Americans and the poor. (Photo Chattanooga Police Department)

Demetrus Coonrod of the city council talks with Jacqueline Carmon while Russell Gilbert descends to greet residents after a council meeting (Photo David Tulis)

City Council members may be shy, inwardly directed, insular in caring about their own districts since the arrival of the council form of government.

Their quietness appears to be reflected in Chattanooga residents themselves, who seem unmovable when it comes to remarkable city employee abuse of women and other members of the public.

By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio

And that would be report of a rape of a woman by city police officer, two high-profile cases of women dragged cars, and the pending civil case against the city from Hanson Melvin, victim of a police false arrest and harassment conspiracy as he was “walking while black.”

If Chattanooga residents are not angered by the actions of city workers on the tax payroll — if people are not anxious about killing, lying about the citizenry, falsely imprisoning and maiming members of the public — then the latitude city council members grant themselves is understandable and defensible.

What is ‘leadership’?

Recent comments by members of city council make clear that even members of the black race most oppressed by law enforcement — the key gateway statute being that of transportation in Tenn. Code Ann. § Title 55 — see little way toward reform.

David TulisDemetrus Coonrod, tell my listener about the prospect of police reform. Do we have to have another woman dragged from the car by her extremities or raped in a warehouse parking lot before the call comes back into the air about oversight of the police department and the executive branch?

Demetrus Coonrod — Well I think it shouldn’t even have to come to anybody getting drug out of a car. It shouldn’t be an issue only when someone is getting — when the community feels it is excessive force is being used — it should be an ongoing campaign to say we need an oversight board, a citizen’s oversight board. It needs to be championed every day, not waiting until the next accident or what we feel like excessive force is being used.

Q: Is that something that would come from city council? Is that something that would come from a nonprofit organization? Is it something the mayor is supposed to create? How is a board like that assembled?

Demetrus Coonrod — I think it’s just looking at the model from Nashville. The citizens spoke up about it *** and Nashville placed it on the ballot for citizens to vote on it. So maybe we can adopt that same process. But it doesn’t start with city council. It starts with our citizens’ voicing their concerns about it. And it takes a collective effort of everybody, not just citizens coming to scream at the city council. Let’s work together. Let’s sit down, let’s brainstorm, let’s talk about how the oversight board might look, and how would we like it to work.

Q: There’s not enough public interest in Chattanooga for there to be an oversight board. True or false?

Demetrus Coonrod — I only just heard two or three people talk about it so far. But I haven’t heard a mountain of folk that come saying we want an oversight board. Do citizens even know what an oversight board is? Or what their role, or how do they get involved in making that process happen? So maybe we need to have an education session about it, to inform the citizens about it so they can make an informed decision about if this is something they would like to see the city of Chattanooga going in that direction.

Q Thank you, Demetrus Coonrod.

Institutional deference

Mrs. Coonrod reveals the deference to police that she didn’t have before taking office. Today, the police are part of her work, part of her constituency, part of her service to the public. Police, effectively, are hers. She doesn’t refer to police abuse as a fact, but with an editorial neutrality — “what we feel like excessive force is being used.” Clearly, she has had little input from people about reform, and her deferential language tells of the pivot inevitable in elected office.

No longer as servant of the state does she represent us to it, but it to us.

I ask council member Russell Gilbert when city council “will bring the executive branch under rule of law in Chattanooga, and his reply: “No comment.”

Annette Thompson, mother of prison inmate Unjolee Moore, center, talks with 92.7 FM broadcast journalist Marie Mott, right. Sitting top right at a Concerned Citizens for Justice event is Nicole Nikki Lewis, whose ugly arrest is reported here. (Photo David Tulis)

With Erskine Oglesby, a third member of city council, it goes like this:

David Tulis — I’d like to ask you a question about police reform. Police reform has faded from view among members of the public in the last three weeks. What is your take on reform police and humanizing the executive branch’s policing arm, Mr. Oglesby?

The police budget passes F$70 million a year and is most of the dark blue part of this chart under the “public safety” heading. City council controls this budget. (Graphic from city website)

Erskine Oglesby — Humanizing?  What do you mean humanizing? I mean, they’re police. They’re human, they just happen to be police. So, where are you going with this?

Q: Well, are police under proper authority and proper control, I ask you as a representative of the people. Are they representing the people, do they respect the people sufficiently?

Erskine Oglesby — Yeah, I think they do. As in any case, you have one or two that doesn’t conform to standards. But overall, I mean, I think our men and women in blue do an excellent job.

Q: What about the unmoving case of the woman raped by the officer while on duty three years ago? What has happened to that story?

Erskine Oglesby — I have no idea. You’ll probably have to check with Chief [David] Roddy on that because I don’t know where they are with the investigation.

Q Thank you, sir.

Gift of command

But being a representative in a public body implies a gift of command, direction, and foresight. The officeholder has gifts and advantages that common residents don’t have and is a useful defender of those public interests, able to see ahead and think ahead of where voters, taxpayers and residents actually are.

In other words, a representative on the city council typifies the members of his constituency and his voters. But he is also better than they, more knowledgeable of how systems work, better able to move large structures, better fit to understand large programs and complicated relationships among competing state or city bureaus in the favor of the voter and to the city as a whole.

Why the delay in police reform

So the question is what will it take for city council to become indignant and to demand oversight of the police department? What will set off their doings in the direction of curbing police activity? Or cutting back on spending for policing, or “public safety,” to remind ourselves of the day’s euphemism?

City council controls the purse strings and could cut the police F$73 million budget in half. Police is 61 percent of the city “safety” budget (the other part is fire), and the “safety” budget is 44 percent of total city outlays in the budget.

That prospect of legislative muscle cutting police activity would more easily come into view if a future mayor decides to obey state and federal transportation law rather than to abuse it, as Mayor Andy Berke does and as have all his predecessors.

Cops ignore Miranda rule as routine arrest of couple peels back veneer of respect for citizen

Transportation enforcement reform is the biggest substantial reform proposal on the table. It is on the table because of claims made by administrative notice against current police practice on roadway curbs, which in large measure are outside the scope of state and federal transportation law.

It’s not yet knownwhat the city attorney’s office will be recommending about transportation administrative notice, though notice puts each individual officer personally on the hook for improper traffic stop activity.

City council members are reluctant to propose obedience to the law and to pressure Mayor Berke, a member of the bar who understands exactly how the law is structured, to reign in ultra vires or, outside the scope of law) activity.

Police reform invites easier social conditions in city

If the city halts enforcing the transportation law against people not involved in transportation, great savings could be found. Common abuses such as that in the Diana Watt arrest, would be curtailed. Racial harmony would advanced in paring back the social management of the descendants of slaves that is American municipal policing.

And care for the poor would become a laudable keystone of public policy in the city because the poor would no longer be harassed for traveling about in old cars with dead taglights and missing indicator signals and imprecise motoring habits that injure no one.

By using the budget to exact obedience to the law by the cops, the city council would be getting the mayor’s attention, and also the attention of his lead employee in the police department, Mr. Roddy.

It is not likely that there is a desire by city council for proper enforcing the statue as it demands. So this prospect is not in the immediate future.

The best prospect for the city council getting the attention of the people is for the department to kill another young black person in a transportation enforcement context.

At this point, Mrs. Coonrod, Messrs. Oglesby and Gilbert, Anthony Byrd and maybe even other council members such as Darrin Ledford will become indignant and call for review.

But such a outcry may be short-lived. It will arise from passion and anger, not from a long-term claim against the status quo. It will arise from a short-term necessity, in which everyone is looking, or upon which everyone is looking, and will not be durable.

A better basis for a form is a long-term determination with a long-term view for saving lives first, but also ending the continuing humiliation that policing brings upon the poor and African-Americans.

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