CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., Thursday Jan. 27, 2023 – In a stream of warm congratulatory words district attorney Coty Wamp puts in a cool buoy giving warning to graduating police cadets.
By David Tulis / NoogaRadio Network
At graduation ceremonies today for 11 Chattanooga police cadets she says she will have officers’ backs keeping the peace and at the same time respect the rights of the citizenry, that their job is not to make arrests, but seize only those who are a danger to others or themselves while upholding the law.
Among the new officers is Job Basilis. He says he “definitely” will respect the rights of the people. “That is my No. 1 priority, and the No. 1 duty, to make sure that I am serving others. It’s not about me, it’s not about putting myself first. It’s about putting the service and safety of officers and the community of Chattanooga” first.
Officer killings of members of the public set a record in 2022. Cops killed at least 1,176 people, with most slayings occurring during traffic stops, mental health checks, disturbances, nonviolent offenses where no crime is alleged. A third of citizen killings occurred as part of a violent crime encounter, according to Mappingpoliceviolence.us.
“These are routine police encounters that escalate to a killing,” says Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and policy analyst who founded Mapping Police Violence and provides 2022 data to the Guardian. “The reduction in the conversation around police violence does not mean that this issue is going away. What’s clear is that it’s continuing to get worse, and that it’s deeply systemic.”
Hamilton County DA Wamp says officers enter an occupation that is “not always popular these days” in exercise “power and authority” that “can be used for so much good or so much bad.” She says the department intends police power to be exercised for the former.
“Your job is not to arrest people,” she says in a pep talk. “Your job is to protect people. That’s coming from your district attorney. That’s my first piece of advice. To protect people you are going to arrest people. But that is not the goal of the system. You’re going to be in situations where you have a choice. Is this somebody I’m going to put into the back of my police car and take to jail? Is this somebody that I am going to charge with these criminal offenses? Or is this somebody who is not dangerous to society I can give a break to?”
The officer must exercise discernment and discretion, Miss Wamp says. “The system doesn’t need more people arrested. It needs the right people arrested.”
Seeing also that police often deal with hostile members of the public, she says, “try to be kind. *** My job, and ya’lls’ job is really, much as we might not like to admit it, really a customer service jobs a lot of time.” Telling of the friendly attitude required of her when she answered the phone one day when staff members were out sick, she described her job – and that of the cops – as in the “customer service industry.”
Miss Wamp says when bodycam footage comes to trial, her office sees one of either two types of officer. One who is gruffy and short, or one who coolly and intelligently – “Wow, you handled that as good as anybody could’ve handled it.” Kindness matters to juries and judges, she says.
“Your DA has your back. I ran for office to have your back. If you can treat people well, and respect people’s rights, I will always have your back. I will go as far as I can to have your backs. When you treat people well, you are going to respect their rights.”
There are 29 attorneys “at your disposal” for questions whether on a shoplifting call or a murder investigation.
The city is under Tennessee transportation administrative notice in a project to have city police halt traffic stops because they are outside the scope of legal authority in many cases and a form of poaching on authority of other jurisdictions. This reporter put city and county under notice of the limits of Tenn. Code Ann. Title 55 and 65 four years ago, pointing out that traffic stops – an officer’s most dangerous sort of encounter with the public – must be halted as ultra vires, or outside the scope of authority.
Another continuing problem in press reports across Tennessee is the rejection of the constitutional requirement for arrest under warrant, and rejection by the city of T.C.A. 40-7-103 that gives exceptions to the constitutional limit. City and county run a general warrants scheme, forbidden by the state’s supreme law and bring personal liability upon officers for policy decisions of their chiefs.
Facing ‘damaging effects of trust erosion’
Chief Murphy in her speech calls policing “an honorable profession.” City employees in uniform “must live up to the standards of its requirements,” which include treating people “with respect and humanity, regardless of where they live or what they look like.”
Chief Murphy says “a majority of residents support this department. I hear it all the time. The community supports you.” But she says officers will quickly see the “damaging effects of trust erosion” because “of the despicable actions of a few.” Cadets will act “with integrity and full transparency.”
“They’re well trained, ready to make this community better and safer,” Chief Celeste Murphy says. “We’re to serve people, we’re here to protect people. We’re not here to further depress neighborhoods, or people that are in situations where we have alternatives. If we can find ways to divert people from being put into a system that over and over again, y’know, we are not providing resources for them – we’re just overarresting. That’s not what we aim to do. [Coty Wamp has] made her statement on that. And I support her. And we are going to work together.”