Indignant citizens and a city council member Tuesday urge a change of heart in the city police department, which over the past two weeks has created an uproar over routine law enforcement activities against women of color, dragged out of cars “by their extremities,” as one critic puts it.
By David Tulis / 92.7 FM NoogaRadio
Mayor Andy Berke comes in for special censure for lack of oversight. The police department is under his authority as head of the city’s executive branch, and city council has long been hands-off on its operation.
Council member Demetrus Coonrod, who alone expresses herself among the people’s representatives, says she supported David Roddy as chief “in hopes that certain behaviors would be changed in the police department, but things have gotten more aggressive. We can’t continue to go down this road.”
Mrs. Coonrod says fear of police is so ingrained in her that she instinctively becomes anxious when a cop tails her or is close; “it’s something I’m working on,” she confesses. “We have to work past that” state of generalized dread; “it’s getting a little out of hand.” The city’s enforcers have no connection with the people whose neighborhoods they patrol, she says.
She is “frustrated” by the criminal arrests of the Avery Gray daughter June 25 downtown and Diana Watt in an eight-charge transportation stop Saturday that created an Internet sensation, with 1.5 million views of the Gray girl seizure.
“We have to find a better way to serve these communities, because I know violence is not the way,” Mrs. Coonrod says.
In booming contrast to the nearly inaudible Coonrod soliloquy is the pitch by Marie Mott, a social activist with a sharp sense of justice who demanded police reform for the sake of the peace and dignity of the residents of Chattanooga.
“We have had two young black women,” she roars, “one a minor, one a mother that have been dragged out of their vehicles by their extremities by the Chattanooga police department. *** I cannot imagine me as a daughter, watching my mother who gave me life and birth be dragged out of a vehicle by her extremities.”
The young woman’s voice rises like that of a preacher in the sweat of a Lord’s Day oration. How can officers in the middle of arresting someone not articulate probable cause? she demands.
“I cannot imagine asking the officers who are there on the scene, “What are the charges against me? What is happening? Can you explain and give me context? Can you give me patience? Can you give me decency and respect?” — and be told — nothing. Silence. And just be ignored?”
Miss Mott, 30, a creative designer, reminds council members their authority is delegated and representative.
“You are here off of the backs of the people. Each of you have power extended to you by your community. You do not have a seat: you do not have a voice; you do not have a power that we do not give to you.” Mayor Berke , too, she says, owes his office to the people’s grace.
“I expect in instances when injustices like this come to light, I expect you to speak up. Why? Because you don’t serve [Mayor Berke]; You serve — me. You serve him” (pointing to a member of the audience). “You serve — them. And I expect that when things like this happen for there to be an honesty. There should never be a situation where people are afraid of the people they put into power.”
She says that there are two Chattanoogas riven by social and economic divides, and by “preferential treatment. Enough is enough. I am not asking you for a change. I am demanding it,” she cries.
State loses case over abuse of poor
Giving an alternate angle to the grievance of abusive cop routines, homeless journalist Monty Bell tells how U.S. district Judge Alita Trauger on July 3 ruled unconstitutional the state’s practice of revoking driver license of people too poor to pay court fines and costs. Thousands of people in Chattanooga, and nearly a quarter of a million Tennesseans, have been delivered into what the state recognizes is an effective civil death sentence by its pretended ban on the use of cars.
Mr. Bell says he had warned Mayor Berke and city attorney Wade Hinton when they took office that the practice was unconstitutional and a violation of due process rights.
Mr. Bell, a nattily dressed talk show host who dumpster dives for aluminum cans and cardboard, says he travels by car without a license. It was suspended in 2012, he says, but he has no choice but to use the roads , and is vulnerable to arrest and criminal charges. Mr. Bell is nursing a massive civil lawsuit against many members of city government.
Cops warned acting ‘under own authority’
Officers at the meeting are in for a great deal of frontal fire. But journalist David Tulis warns the corporation that without reform the police agency’s men and women are personally liable for torts and oppression claims because of the city’s reluctance to respect the scope of the state transportation law at Tenn. Code Ann. Title 55.
He says the council should seize on the promises implied in the naming of Chief Roddy as a reform candidate for the job in August. One area of reform is that officers not impose the transportation law on any car user who indicates he (or she) is not involved in transportation (the use of the road in carrying goods or people for hire and for profit).
The reform is as simple as inserting a question into the first stage of a traffic stop for ostensible violations under the commercial statute.
He brings up transportation administrative notice of Feb. 20, which he suggests puts officers individually on the hook for abusive traffic stops against people who are not subject to the statute.
The problem is a conflict between supreme court holdings and the law itself. Police have cover from supreme court policy that rejects the fundamental right of free movement on the people’s highways and roads. But officers are personally liable for torts because they have legally been notified of the distinction between travel and transportation that is baked into the statute and most case law.
But the larger problem, Tulis says, is the testy police culture that uses threat and force instantaneously, seeking to solve sticky legal questions (such as whether a tag is good, and what facts may prove extenuating) in five minutes when it really might take two hours to settle. It’s troubling that administrative claims are enforced by throwing a woman to the tarmac, he indicates.
Police honor, secrecy ebb
Since June 25 police in Chattanooga have been humiliated by widespread public anger at violent encounters. At the city council meeting, a policeman takes to the podium and sketches out how transportation stops occur.
When this reporter approaches him at meeting’s end, the officer peevishly directs him to step away now because he is having a “private conversation” with another officer. Moments later, when the cop heads toward the front of the room, he sweeps past, ignoring my request that he state his name. Dr. Carol Berz, council member, identifies the chief as Eric Tucker.
In a five-minute talk, this reporter points out that the Gray and Watt encounters are routine — not extraordinary. The arrival of Facebook Live and wireless phone video seems to spell an end to the unquestioned authority that police departments maintained since the 1850s by their being too little public exposure of policing’s built-in violence.
Now, racially bias-based profiling cannot be done quietly; ganging-up on an uppity black woman creates a citywide sensation when previously the private clash would have ended with wounded pride, bitter resentment and a sense among African-Americans of being — still, 150 years after slavery — an owned people.
Surplus violence — on way out?
Twenty years of “community policing” have not dulled the pain of Chattanoogans who are subject to absolute executive power, to martial commandeering of cars and nights in jail, to dog-trainer barked orders by military-style mayoral employees to “stop resisting — stop resisting” or “get out of the car” or “put your hands behind your back.”
Since the Ferguson riots, reformers such as Chuck Wexler of Police Executive Research Forum have emphasized de-escalation and the use of cover, space and time to prevent abusive encounters and executions of members of the public who have done nothing worthy of capital punishment.
The presence of power media tools in the hands of common people such as Jayla Oattes, the daughter of the afflicted Diana Watts, spells the end of secret arrests, beatings along isolated curbsides, perjured affidavits protected by the DA Neal Pinkston’s office, and threats of jail bellowed across the tarmac based on officer burps or quirks.
Mrs. Watts taught Miss Oattes to run her phone camera whenever cops are around. The ugliness of even the most humdrum police encounter is available for all to watch and share with family members and lists of strangers.